I’m currently working on a project set in the early 1920s in Cuba. I’m not a historical novelist and it’s a bit daunting to embark on something set in another time and place. However, at a reading by noted historical novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez, I heard some advice that’s proven helpful. Perkins-Valdez, who meticulously researches her novels, said that she writes a draft of her story before doing much of the research, to figure out what she needs to know. Then she dives into the libraries, archives, etc. I found this very freeing, allowing me to plow forward, knowing that I can go back later to find out what I’ve gotten wrong. I also find that as I research elements of my story, it suggests plot possibilities that help get me unstuck when I reach a narrative dead end.
I’m currently working on a critical essay about two contemporary literary novels, both of which tackle sexual subject matter, yet in ways that feel decidedly unsexy. Yes, there’s a difference between literature and pornography (which I define as sex without characterization, bodies in motion without souls or psychology in operation). And yet, as Steve Almond argues in his classic essay on writing about sex, on some level, one point of a sex scene is indeed arousal: “the intent of any effective scene is to evoke in the reader the feeling state of your characters, including the aroused states.” That said, so many works of literary fiction leave out the sex or else, like the recent story “Cat Person,” published in the New Yorker and which caused a mini-stir because of its frank depiction of a one-night stand gone bad, show sex as unsatisfying. Why? Maybe in part, it’s a function of Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As writers, we often find the downsides of life more interesting and dramatic to explore. Happiness, joy, and yes ecstasy are more challenging to make interesting.
I’ve recently received galleys and edits for two new pieces coming out next year, and I’m reminded of how much I love working with smart editors, how they challenge me to dig deeper than I might otherwise have done. Writing is such a solitary activity for most of the time, that it feels incredibly gratifying to have someone on your side helping to bring your vision to fruition. It’s funny too, how the final stages of the editing process teach you the most arcane information, like how many candies are in a roll of Smarties, or the current condition of the Windsor, Ontario train station!
In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Lamott talks about the necessity of what she famously terms “shitty first drafts.” Novelist Michael Chabon has also said that his first drafts are as bad as the writing he did in high school. I pass on this advice in my writing classes constantly: have the courage to write badly. However, in practice, I find that writing badly takes even more courage than the kind I espouse to students. The blank page terrifies me, and what terrifies me even more is the way my first attempts to fill the page with words come out as complete garbage. After years of reading, writing, and teaching writing, the flaws of what I’m producing are all the more glaring, I’m all the more aware of how much work will be necessary to transform these first drafts into anything resembling a story, a work of creative non-fiction, anything that anyone else would like to read. That kind of recognition is very humbling, and humility is not a popular personality trait these days. Maybe it’s one worth cultivating, not just for ourselves as writers but also for our selves.
I’ve been working on a personal essay for Tin House magazine that made me think of a quote from Gordon Lish (paraphrased by Dana Spiotta), “Whatever you’re trying to hide is what makes you an interesting writer.” I’ve used elements of my life in fiction and non-fiction all throughout my writing career, but I’ve often skirted certain aspects of my life because I found them too painful and even embarrassing. I feared what people might think if they knew these things about me. Instead, what I’ve found is that my work has become all the more rich and vital by sharing the most vulnerable part of myself with others. Now I’m wondering, why didn’t I do this sooner? Maybe I just wasn’t ready until now…