Truth in the margins

Oct. 27, 2011, 2:02 a.m.
Truth in the margins
(Courtesy of Daniel Orozco)

A decade after graduating from Stanford, Daniel Orozco ’79 was at a crossroads — sticking with a job he was less than thrilled about or returning back to school to be a writer.

Orozco took a risk and chose the latter, acknowledging to himself that the decision, for better or for worse, would be life-changing.

“It was a last chance thing,” Orozco said. “Eleven years after graduating from Stanford, I was working in an office, and I didn’t like my job or what I was doing. I was a fairly unhappy person. But for some reason, I found solace in creating this story I was writing.”

At age 32, Orozco began working toward a master’s degree at San Francisco State University. He later received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Washington.

Since then, Orozco’s work has been published in multiple short story anthologies and magazines, including “The Best American Short Stories,” “The Pushcart Prize Anthology” and Harper’s Magazine. His pieces were also compiled and published in a collection titled “Orientation and Other Stories” earlier this May. “Orientation,” the eponymous work in which Orozco characterizes an office setting through snapshots of the employees, is his first published story.

Orozco’s foray into writing, however late in his life, is off to a promising start.

On October 25, Orozco along with nine other writers, travelled to New York City to receive the 2011 Whiting Writers’ Awards. The awards, valued at $50,000, are a prestigious distinction for emerging writers.

Orozco started off writing short stories “because they were short” and has primarily remained loyal to the genre.

“At first, I didn’t think I had enough story in me for a novel,” he said. “But I now know short stories are a hard, exacting, precise, demanding and exhilarating narrative form. They hold a moment of life and experience in a brief span, engaging that moment in half an hour to 40 minutes.”

Within his stories, Orozco is committed to highlighting topics traditionally deemed uninteresting or insignificant.

“A lot of the stories for me are about lives on the boundaries and margins—they’re about people who don’t really seem to matter,” he said. “I want them to matter in these stories.”

While Orozco did not intend to present a common thread through his work, he has noticed that many of them concern the theme of loneliness.

“For me, it’s a narrative challenge to write about the simple struggle of being alone,” he said. “I don’t do people in relationships, like families or marriages.”

Orozco also doesn’t write autobiographically, but instead lends his personality to his works by creating characters that engage the world in the ways he would.

“Writing is transformation, not transcription,” he said. “It’s about manufacturing an experience and making it seem real. I have a sense of a character, and I put that character into a situation that I may have never been in. For example, in ‘Only Connect,’ someone gets mugged, so I had to imagine how I would react to someone sticking a gun in my belly.”

Often, Orozco’s creative process stems from personal observations or experiences, and he allows his ideas to simmer in his mind. One such example is the inspiration behind Orozco’s “Officers Weep,” a story about a love affair told through police blotters.

“I was on a train ride from Redwood City to Stanford, and I was reading a newspaper when the police blotters caught my eye,” he said. “I took note of the fact that they tell you what happened while telling you nothing about what happened and decided that I could do something with that.”

Another time, Orozco went to Astoria, Wash., and his negative impressions of the town became the seed for a story within “Only Connect.”

“I had gone to a wedding there, and I had a terrible time–I was in the motel room for two days,” he said. “Usually, a bad time is what gets a story going. I think there’s a basic rule of dramatic writing that is always true–only trouble is interesting, even if it’s the smallest thing, like a stuck photocopier at work. You can’t write about someone having a great time because dramatically, nothing happened on that day.”

Orozco’s ability to sculpt stories and convey characters’ personas has come from much time dedicated toward improving his writing, and he said there are times during the writing process he finds very difficult to work through.

“I’m a slow and fairly unhappy writer,” he said. “I don’t like 80 percent of the writing process. It feels like a struggle, working against procrastination and my own inability to do the work. But, the 20 percent that I love makes that 80 percent worthwhile. When it’s clicking, there’s nothing like it.”

In addition to his writing career, Orozco is also an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, where he teaches fiction writing.

“I want to be able to always understand how writing works,” he said. “Teaching keeps me in that mode. I like having to talk about it, articulate it and engage people in it. I think that’s important.”

Orozco is also working on finishing a novel, a writing project he started years ago but never finished.

“I worked on a novel because conventional wisdom is that short stories don’t sell,” he said. “My next obligation is to finish it.”

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