Stymie Magazine nominated "A Bird in the Hand" by Tamara Shores for a Pushcart in nonfiction. It was published in our Autumn & Winter issue. She answered some questions for us about the piece and her process. Here's Tamara!

Stymie: Your essay, "A Bird in the Hand," draws readers into the world of competitive powerlifting. This is not a sport that is often explored in literature. Were there any authors, stories, novels or essays you looked to for inspiration (even if they are not about powerlifting)?

Tamara: There's a David Borofka story that appeared in the Idaho Review about ten years ago, “The Soul of The Gorilla,” that I love for its humor and tenderness and especially for its vivid detail. It's about a high school boy who acquires a gorilla costume and discovers it has a, umm, beneficial influence on girls, particularly the cheerleaders at baskeball games. I turned to that story quite a few times while working on this piece to help me think about the business of treading the really difficult line between fairness and silliness.

Stymie: The narrator in "A Bird in the Hand" is becoming a competitive powerlifter at the same moment that she is going through adolescence. What was your experience in writing about those two environments? Was it more like training, or going all-out on a third, long-shot lift?

Tamara: An environment like a gym—and especially a small town gym—is jammed with sensory detail. In some ways it was a luxury to have such a lush environment to write about. At one point I ran this piece through a writing group and they hated the excess of detail, including a really, really lengthy passage about the exact rules and paramaters of the sport. Of course, editing served the piece well, as eventually it moved more and more toward a narrative structure. (That said, after we workshopped this piece, I believe I lifted every guy in the writing group as proof of its authenticity).

And, of course, I spent years working on it. One time I had a story written and accepted for publication in eleven days, but nearly everything else I've written seems to require a substantial development period. Training may have prepared me for writing in this way: competition, like publication, is a rare event; in the two or so years I trained I only ever competed in two meets.

Stymie: We also see the narrator's interest in powerlifting sparked by a "meathead" at the gym. Lust, love and dating is a whole other kind of competition than we get in sports, yet we see beautiful similarities between the two in your essay. But, in what ways do you think one competition might make us ill-equipped to deal with the other?

I suppose one would have to parse the differences between lust, love, and dating. Dating is a lot a like sport—there are a few competitive edges one might employ—i.e. ideal physique, wearing an appropriate uniform, focus, courage, risk taking, etc. Sport probably is good training for dating, which is possibly why we have the trope of hating high school athletes for all their apparent potency. Love, however, is obviously some kind of voodoo, hard to explain, harder to believe in, and wildly dismissive of rules. Lust is probably provisional love.

Stymie: There are a number of surprising images in this essay, like the opening description of the gym and some of the similies that pop up in reference to the way muscles look or move, which I found powerful in visualizing a sport I did not really have a frame of reference for. How intentional were the images you chose? How much were you thinking about how unfamiliar readers might picture the setting and action as you wrote and revised?

I was hoping to capture not just the strangeness and unfamiliarity of this sport, but the setting—the store-front gym, the small town, the rural setting. Even now, when I visit my hometown I sometimes drive past the gym (which is still there) and am flooded with disbelief. I've never had the nerve to go back inside, not even once since the last day of training before the competition in this piece. It really was such a weird and isolated little pocket in the universe, and yet, once inside, was big and meaningful and important.

Limiting tedious description while explaining something unfamiliar was tricky. Those “surprising images” and similes were important, muscular even, for conveying mechanics as well as meaning—emotional and competitive.

And finally, some of the description was chosen to pull the curtain back and expose that this was an absurd sport, especially for a sixteen year old girl, and I knew it, even at the time. A coming of age story is often comedy, but many drafts of this piece veered toward farce and, perhaps, rightly so. At different stages the story was more or less slapstick. I hope it has drifted only a little away from that.

Stymie: We'd all love to know what you're working on, now!

A novel, of course. It's about a young woman who believes she might be pregnant and decides to visit her estranged father in Idaho and they end up going hunting. There's a lot of blood and death, though not much of it is attributable to hunting. Mostly it explores the perils of identity.