Poet and short story author Lynn Levin, of Southampton, has simple criteria for determining whether or not something is worth writing about.
“If it strikes me as weird enough or quirky enough to follow up on, that’s probably the hook I need,” she said.
Levin, who currently teaches creative writing and literature at Drexel University, was recently recognized for one such “quirky” yet oh-so-relatable plot that centers around the number of surveys society is inundated with on a daily basis. Her story “Tell Us About Your Experience” earned Levin first place in Bucks County Community College’s countywide Short Fiction Contest.
“It is so exciting to me because I’ve been writing short fiction stories since about 2005, and I’ve been publishing them along the way. But I’m particularly excited about this award,” Levin said. “The story that won is actually one of my personal favorites. It’s a humorous story and it’s a social satire story that pokes fun, among other things, at the plethora of surveys that one gets on a receipt, in the email, in the text messages. I wanted to poke fun at that.”
Novelist Megan Angelo, author of the novel Followers, selected Levin’s piece as the winner. Doylestown’s Megan Monforte was awarded second place for “Dear Mrs. Stover,” Doylestown’s Jennifer Giacalone placed third for “Wrestling with Dust,” and Langhorne’s Gabriel Tenaglia earned honorable mention for “The Everything Room.”
Of Levin’s “Tell Us About Your Experience,” Angelo said, “I will never look at a survey window (right before I x out) the same again. This story is a gem, packed with detail, rhythm and comedy. The writer creates a specific, captivating protagonist and beats out a nuanced but persistent rallying cry, all in eight pages. A tribute to that ‘man seen from a distance’ we all know so well – or don’t – and a timely snapshot of how our quest to make everything better sometimes just makes things worse.”
When Levin completed “Tell Us About Your Experience” about three years ago, she sent to a number of magazines for publication.
“It got a very nice rejection from a well-respected magazine. Because it was personal and very complimentary and they encouraged me to send more, I count that as an acceptance,” Levin reflected.
Her confidence in “Tell Us About Your Experience” never waivered, so when Bucks County Community College began accepting submissions for the Short Fiction Contest, she decided to give it a shot. Levin entered the competition several times in years past, but never placed.
“It’s taste, it’s the times. Maybe those other stories I submitted were too much of a downer as opposed to this one that’s kind of funny,” she said. “If you really did all the surveys you’re asked to do, it would eat up your time. Some are simple, but I experienced one in particular that asked, ‘Did you like the typeface on our billing invoice? The color? Layout?’ All design questions. I had to poke fun at that, that was an extraordinarily crazy one.”
According to Levin, she’s enjoying having her feet in both the world of short fiction and poetry, her first love. In 1999, she was named the Bucks County Poet Laureate by the college. To this day, she regularly appears at campus poetry readings and maintains a friendship with the other poet laureates, which she described as “literary nourishment.”
As for short fiction, Levin delved into this in 2005 when she landed a job teaching an introductory creative writing class at the University of Pennsylvania. While Levin had previously taught creative nonfiction and poetry at Drexel, fiction was a new venture.
“I started to read a lot of these craft books and talk to some people I knew who wrote fiction. I got a handle on character development, protagonist/antagonist, character complexity, plot, setting, theme, voice. I wanted to practice what I was preaching, so I started writing stories and I liked it,” she said. “You put a different head on when you’re writing fiction as opposed to poetry, for me. There’s a lot of plot and I like my fiction to go places.”
Inspiration is drawn from a variety of sources, from Levin’s own mind to an article in the newspaper.
“I read a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about this couple who collected all sorts of things, and one of the things they collected were these paper mache heads called French milliner models. They were really weird and spooky looking, but meant to style and display hats on,” she said. “I thought, ‘Suppose somebody had one of these French milliners in their house? How would that be with their kids and grandkids?’ So I wrote a story about it.”
Other short stories of Levin’s include one about two mother-daughter relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic, and another about three men who go hiking in Yosemite National Park to find a beautiful waterfall that may not exist.
Some of Levin’s favorite short story authors include Lorrie Morre, who penned “Paper Losses,” Jim Shepard and Emma Cline.
“I keep reading more short stories and I keep coming across things that captivate me. I try to go that way,” she said. “A lot of those stories involve characters that have serious predicaments that are sometimes handled with humor, and serious predicaments that are quite dire and not handled with humor.”
For now, Levin has no intention of slowing down her writing career anytime soon. In 2020, she released the poetry book The Minor Virtues, available on Amazon and at the Doylestown Bookshop.
And there’s still much more to come.
“I like writing essays, creative nonfiction essays. Probably I will not write plays, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” she said. “I wouldn’t cut out a novel. Those things take years, but it’s an excellent endeavor. That’s something that could happen.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org