Staff Spotlight: Elizabeth Ballou, Prose Editor

What happens when a fiction writer is thrown into a whirlwind of online journalism? We call it magic, at least when said fiction writer is Adroit Prose Editor Elizabeth Ballou. Elizabeth bravely and expertly publishes her opinions on topics like feminism, sexual assault, and mental illness, making us proud here at Adroit. In this week’s Staff Spotlight, Elizabeth Ballou and I talk about women’s issues, sheep, angry internet commenters, video games, and much, much more.

Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: Lately, you’ve been writing a lot for Bustle’s Lifestyle section. How did that come about?

Elizabeth Ballou, Prose Editor: I was originally made aware of Bustle when I wrote an article about my experiences with sexual assault at the University of Virginia. One of the Bustle editors saw it, and she asked to exclusively republish it. I was more than happy to have it reach a wider audience, so I said yes. Several months later, I noticed that they had intern positions open and thought that, if they had already found my writing to be a good fit for them once, they’d be interested in more of it. Long story short: they were.

AS: Your Bustle articles are very frequently published. How do you come up with so many topics to write about?

EB: My lovely editor Julie’s expectation of me is that I’ll write three articles each day I work, for a total of nine a week. At first, this seemed utterly contradictory to everything I had been taught about writing, but news and creative writing are completely different beasts.  To generate lots of articles, I sit down at my computer around 8:30 each morning and trawl the web for promising topics. These can be anything, from lighthearted subject matter like funny videos/cute animals to more serious issues such as gender violence and climate change. I write up catchy blurbs for each topic I find, and Julie then selects three of these pitches for me to write about.

AS: Some of your pieces, including the Virginia sexual assault one, are (very insightful) reports about feminism, rape culture, mental health issues, etc. Do you find it difficult to write about issues that you may have had personal experience with?

“Writing for an audience is a cathartic experience, since I know I’m baring my most personal memories for other people to read about. It’s a way of dealing with them, of figuring out what the narrative was all along. ”

EB: I truly enjoy writing these articles when I can add my own experience to them. The most fulfilling ones are personal essays, in which I draw mostly or completely on my own life. I find it far more freeing than anything else to discuss issues like assault and depression (which are my two most personal pieces). Writing for an audience is a cathartic experience, since I know I’m baring my most personal memories for other people to read about. It’s a way of dealing with them, of figuring out what the narrative was all along. As people, our lives are composed of these little stories. By figuring out what these stories are and how to tell them, we can connect with others in a way that I think is unparalleled.

Although I’ve learned that not everybody thinks this way…

AS: What kind of feedback have you received?

EB: For the most part, it’s been extremely positive. I’ve gotten to highlight movements and issues that I think are really important, such as street harassment and casual sexism. Most people who reach out to me are doing so because they also think, “Yeah, street harassment sucks! Also, “Women Against Feminism” just don’t know what feminism means!” and they’re glad to see someone writing about it. However, sometimes I get attacked for believing in feminism, or just speaking my mind in general. The article I wrote about why “Women Against Feminism” don’t know what they’re talking about got a lot of flak on Twitter. Plenty of people insulted my intelligence. And in response to the article I wrote about dating someone with depression, I got an awful tweet from a friend of a friend that insulted me as a writer and a person. I ended up working that situation out and she took the tweet down, but damn if it isn’t hard to let those things bother you!

I’m supposed to retweet everything I write for Bustle, but last week, I asked my editor if I could shut down my Twitter, and she agreed.

AS: How do you deal with the negativity, especially when most of it is just general ignorance?

EB: Uh…I’ll be honest, mostly complaining to people! My family and friends are extremely supportive of me. They’re always willing to offer a little positive reinforcement.

Also, when people respond to me on a personal level, it means so much more than anyone attacking me. For the article I wrote about depression, I had a lot of people contact me and say, “Your situation is so similar to mine. Thank you for helping me to see that other people are also going through this.” It’s hard to focus on the negativity after that!

AS: Do you find that there’s a big difference between writing fiction and journalism?

EB: There are miles of difference between them—or at least, between my particular kind of fiction and the particular kind of journalism that I’m currently writing. Although Bustle doesn’t publish bad writing by any means, it’s not The New Yorker either. Articles are supposed to be catchy, snappy, and short. You get in, tell your readers the facts, give it a brief personal spin to make it different from other news outlets’ articles on the same subject, and get out. Fiction, on the other hand, is about crafting something beautiful. It’s kind of like whittling sticks vs. cutting down trees for lumber. I might write 500 words a day for a short story and 2,000 for my Bustle articles – and each short story takes me at least a week of steady, solid effort, whereas my articles only take an hour or so by necessity. Most of my articles for Bustle are meant to inform and educate, while short stories are meant to allow someone to imagine herself into another person’s world for a few pages.

AS: What’s your favorite prose piece that Adroit has ever published?

“When people respond to me on a personal level, it means so much more than anyone attacking me.”

EB: I think it’s a tie between “Josephine March Sighs With You,” by Erin Kelly, and “How to Keep Animals from Defecating in Your Closet,” by Mary Sheffield. “Josephine March” is creepy, almost surreal, but enthralling. As the reader, you fall under the spell of the woman with fifteen-foot-long hair (which is named Josephine March, and which becomes the woman’s child, in a way). The short, vivid sentences are perfect for evoking this bizarre character. “Animals” is a phenomenal example of the “command”-style story, because almost every sentence is an imperative (think “Girls,” by Jamaica Kincaid, or Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?”). The story is filled with strong imagery. You can imagine these animals filling up the space around you, making you claustrophobic.

Also, both stories deal with the question of sanity vs. insanity, and how to deal with obsession, which I love.

AS: This summer, you hosted a retreat for Adroit staff—how did that go? Any funny, incriminating stories? 

EB: The retreat was a blast. My family has a farm in New Hampshire, so several of us gathered there to discuss problems that Adroit is facing, the nature of writing, the nature of being young and writing, the nature of being young and stressed out and writing, the nature of the universe, the nature of sheep, etc.

Kate Frain [Poetry Editor] wrote a poem that mentions our sheep. I was pleased. Also, when we visited Lake Winnepesaukee for a swim, Miles [Hewitt, Poetry Reader] seemed unsure as to whether it was the Atlantic Ocean or not. (He denies ever doubting that it was a lake.) Oh, and we watched “Her,” but we decided to stop it 2/3 of the way through to trick ourselves into thinking that it was a happy movie. In our version, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s voice are together forever.

AS: Imagine that you’re publishing a piece that will reach every computer screen in America—what is this piece, and how do people react?

EB: Ooh. It would definitely be a video game. Which I know sounds totally out-there, but hear me out! A good video game has a lot in common with quality fiction: well-written characters, a gripping story, an intriguing setting, etc. I see many video games as interactive fiction more than anything else. The best games immerse you in their world and completely connect you to other things or people. Prime examples of this are games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, where the point is not to shoot the bejesus out of everything you see, but to unravel a story and then compare your experiences to those of other players.

I’m currently developing a short, story-based game with several friends that’s inspired by the swan maiden myth. Not even in my wildest dreams could it reach every computer screen in America, but maybe it will reach a few!

Elizabeth Ballou‘s essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Crack the Spine, Spry, {tap}, The Adroit Journal, Bustle Magazine, and many others. After being shortlisted for the 2012 Adroit Prizes in Fiction, she was invited to join the staff, where she currently serves as Prose Editor. She has been recognized by Rider University, the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and the Best of the Net awards, and has read her work at the 2013 New York City Poetry Festival. She’s a rising third-year student at the University of Virginia, studying creative writing, Spanish, and linguistics, and recently studied in Valencia, Spain. When not writing, she can be found making cheesecake and wishing she were as funny as David Sedaris. Check out some of her original work at Letters of Mist, or visit Everyday Folktales for some surprising and entertaining storytelling from around the world.

Amanda Silberling

Amanda Silberling is a student at the University of Pennsylvania from South Florida. Her poems, essays, and reviews appear in Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Los Angeles Times, and The Rumpus, among others. She currently serves as the Blog Editor for The Adroit Journal and a writer/photographer for Rock On Philly. Find her on Twitter at @asilbwrites.

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