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The Story Behind The Writer

By Desiree Sheck
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Based on the smile that lights up Brett Finlayson’s face whenever he talks about writing,

there is no doubt that he is passionate about what he does. Black Mountain Institute Ph.D. Fellow in Fiction Finlayson, 33, teaches creative writing

at UNLV.  He has been a writer since he was a child.  Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Finlayson grew up in a working class family.

Finlayson’s first job was a cashier at a Grand Union when he was 15 years and nine months.  

“It was a good life lesson,” Finlayson said with a laugh.  “I quickly learned that I didn’t want to be a cashier at Grand Union for very long.”

“The Grand Union was in biking distance of my house, so I think that was a lesson my parents were trying to teach me was to go get a job.”

It was not until Finlayson got his license did he get a different job. “It wasn’t much more glamorous, but at least it wasn’t at the Grand Union.”

It was reading that inspired him to become a writer. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been in love with books.  I loved reading and

the sort of the possibilities of writing fiction.” The subversive nation of writing was an early drawing point for him.

“The way someone could say something in a story that you couldn’t say out loud without really getting in trouble, but somehow in a story it was acceptable.”

Finlayson began his writing career in elementary school.

“I have an old existing book I think from the third grade about two brothers who take down a drug cartel.”

Finlayson said the book is still kicking around his parents’ house somewhere.  It is the only surviving manuscript from his elementary school days.

“I always had an interest in war fiction,” Finlayson said. “I always liked the old new war movies.  I like a lot of the crime fiction.”

Finlayson is also interested in a lot of Latin American writers because there is a lot of genre-crossing.

“The detective novel is exploited a bit more willingly than it is here in America.  It doesn’t quite have the stigma of sort of being genre in the way we think of it here in America.”

Most of his work is crime fiction and working class literature. Finlayson has worked as an iron worker and as a construction worker. Construction workers have a particular tone in their voice, and Finlayson has plugged that type of voice into

his own writing.  

“The people I’ve met on those jobs have become the focus of my work.”

The experiences Finlayson has had and the people he has met have made their way into his stories.

“I don’t write specifically about people in my life, but they definitely start to infuse my characters with their qualities.”

Finlayson said that the one thing about working on construction sites is he got an ear for

dialogue quickly. From early on, Finlayson was interested in the way that people spoke to each other.  

Finlayson said that he believes that his strong point in writing is dialogue.

“I think I am better at dialogue than maybe other aspects.”

Finlayson said it goes back to when he had to work blue-collar jobs.  He said that those kind of jobs can not only be difficult, but sometimes boring.

“To sort of make the time go by, you end up telling stories,” Finlayson said.  “There is sort of this codified language that happens on the construction site.”

When Finlayson got off of work, he would go sit in a bar with the other construction workers and they would tell stories about what happened at work for entertainment.

“That weird way work-place dialogue dominates your life.” Finlayson is currently working on his own literature.

“I would hesitate to call them novels, but the early stages of some longer works.  But

primarily a short stories collection that I’ve been working on for a while.” Finlayson said that short stories are much easier for him to write than longer works.

It is difficult for Finlayson to stay interested in something long enough to write something novel-length.

“One thing I like about short stories is if I lose interest, or get sort of stuck and frustrated,

I can put it aside for a while and work on a new project, and then pull it back out of the drawer in a few months.”

“For a novel I find it difficult to sustain that initial energy that I can sustain over a short period of time when it comes to short stories.”

Finlayson said that the biggest tool against writer’s block is reading.

“When I read, I read like a writer.”

When Finlayson reads he is constantly looking at the craft of the story, the language, and the structure.   

While he is reading he will start asking himself, “What if the character did this differently?  What if the writer said it this way?”  Asking questions sparks ideas in his own work.

“Even though the kernel of that project may extend out on a story I read by another writer, by the time it goes through the draft process, it is usually drastically different.”

Finlayson’s advice to a writer that is just starting out is to read as much as they can.  

“A lot of early writers do themselves a disservice because they don’t read enough.”

Finlayson encourages new writers to not only read more, but to make sure the work they are reading is quality writing.

“There is so much out there and it is so easy to stumble onto writing that isn’t going to help you grow.”

Finlayson made a point of visiting his teachers to collect as many suggestions of good

works that he could.  “From there you sort of fall in love with writers.”

He advises to read favorite author interviews, read contemporary journals, subscribe to The New Yorker magazine to see what the bigger names are putting out there.

“Just read, read, read.”

Finlayson finds genre writing just as valuable as literary writing.

“We live in a time now where the young writers are pushing new genres together in new

and interesting ways.”

What Finlayson loves the most about teaching is when students get excited about their own writing.

“It takes me back to those early stories that I wrote when I was an undergraduate student.  I felt like I had written something that had some meaning to me.  That I wrote something that

was maybe surprising to me, that was unexpected and I love watching writers find that for themselves.  Hopefully, I can help them get there.”

It is challenging because all of the students are at a different place in their writing.

“One student may need confidence, another student may need refinement on a more micro scale.  I try to think what is going to benefit that student the most.”

One of Finlayson’s fear is scaring a student away from writing, but the purpose of workshop is the critical component where the work is discussed.

“But I don’t want that to be counterproductive.  I want writers to leave with a renewed energy to re-approach the work with hopefully some excitement of where they can take it next.”

According to one of his students, Karli Rouse, Finlayson is successful in doing just that. She said that even though sometimes he can come off as abrasive, it is something she really admires because he is so open and genuine.

“I really respect the feedback he gives every one of us.  I leave every workshop excited to take a new approach to my writing.  Low-key, he really inspires me,” Rouse said.

Finlayson said the hardest thing about teaching is it cannot teach interest.

“I try to meet it head-on,” Finlayson said on how to get students to be more engaged.

“It’s that thing where it’s the white elephant in the room.  If nobody wants to talk about the fact that nobody wants to talk, maybe we just talk about why nobody is talking.”

Finlayson said sooner or later, the class can answer that question, and that’s how they can make some progress.

Teaching is something Finlayson sees himself doing for the rest of his life. He said that teaching helps him become a better writer.

“Being constantly surrounded by a writing community, that sort of access to other minds, to me is beneficial as a writer.”

Getting in other people’s work as an editor is really beneficial and helps people build the tools they need when they go back to their own work.

Not only is Finlayson busy with balancing being an assistant professor and working on his own stories, he is also currently pursuing his Ph.D. at UNLV.

“That is my number one focus right now.”

“Until my Ph.D. is done, I don’t think I’ll have another hobby,” Finlayson said with a laugh. “I am officially hobby-less.  What I look forward to most now is being able to sit down and read a book purely for pleasure.  Although I wonder if I am even capable of doing it anymore.”

Finlayson said that once you developed a critical eye, it is hard to turn it off.

“But that is also what makes people good readers.”

He said that by developing those skills that once you sit down to read a master like Alice Munro you see something that would have been invisible until you learned that skill.

If Finlayson could talk to his younger self, he would advise him to, “Don’t waste time, write more.”

“It is easy to think we have all of the time in the world, but then when you look back on that time and it’s suddenly gone, you realize how much of it you have wasted.”

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