It’s nice to get to write to you without needing to ask some favour, or say I’ll be late to class.
Since I was lucky enough to take your workshop twice, about two years apart, I can look back on those classes in a before and after sort of way. The first time I was in your class, I may have been able to string sentences together well, maybe had a pretty good sense of narrative, but I didn’t have any sense of the why and what of what I was doing. Later, though my stories possessed the same raw workshop quality, I knew much better why I was writing them. To learn the craft, I’d just written random stories, whatever came into my head, attempting to storify any thought as practice for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But just writing whatever wasn’t really being a writer. A writer, it seemed to me at the time, was someone with a creative or intellectual project that lasted not the length of a story but over years of writing many different things.
I asked myself what I was fascinated by, scared of, drawn to, repelled by, in love with. What did I like thinking about and what could I never find an end to musing over? For me, then, it was the natural world, any angle of it. I opened this umbrella and began to write stories that fit under it. And suddenly I knew why I was writing a story at any particular moment. Even if it was a mysterious or troublesome one, I knew I was pursuing something with it. The thing is, I’m not sure these pursuits are ever very obvious to anyone but me. They get obscured. Or maybe they are really just the jumping-off points that send me back to the big questions we all think about, the stuff too big to approach head on. Like, I tell myself I’m exploring the wilderness, but really I’m trying to figure out grief. But the concept of the ongoing ‘project’ forces me to remember that writing is active and not just a product.
I can imagine someone reading your novels and stories and coming up with some kind of thesis about your work: This is Sam’s intellectual, creative, emotional pursuit. I can imagine what they might say even. But I wonder if you see your work like that. Is there a thing you think you’re pursuing and can it be articulated? Do you think it’s clear to a reader? Is it a real thing, or is there a buffer between the page and the closer-to-the-bone thing you’re really worrying on?
Or, you know, you can just say, Hey.
Hey. And I do miss having you in workshop. I knew there’d be a strong and fascinating story to discuss every time you were up.
You’ve asked some very intriguing questions. My main answer to them would have to be yes. When I’m writing on a good day, attending to the sentences, the paragraphs, the rhythm of the prose, the tonal integrity of the piece (story, novel, essay), I’m not thinking about my body of work. I’m just locked into the current project. It’s when I’m not writing well, or just not writing that day, that I start to turn over other questions. Why am I writing this? Why did I write that? Is there something I’m trying to get to? I think there is something. But I never know precisely what it is, so I keep writing. I write to find out what I’m writing, and maybe to find out more about what I’ve already written. I’m aware of certain themes I’ve explored in the past and others I want to circle back to, or the way my books ‘talk’ to each other in strange ways, but that’s not quite what the pursuit is all about. I’m not trying to bring all of my work under one unifying theory. But I am after something. The pursuit you speak of has something to do with the ‘fail better’ model and something to do with death, probably. The umbrella is a patchwork job of fear, desire, love, loss and mortality, or the way my heart and mind filter them in both abstract and visceral terms. I know writers who think about what they ‘should’ write at a particular moment, what makes logical sense at this point in their careers, or what they suppose their readers expect, but I can’t get that distance on myself. I just try to remember that there is no ideal form for my next fiction out there in the ether, waiting for me to arrive and tuck it under my arm. It’s just endless improvisation, not just the first draft but all of them, all the editing, all the thinking, all the discussion. This is the bigger picture for me.
What about you? Your first, wonderful book is out. Are you approaching the next thing the same way? I like what you say about imposing certain strictures to help you. These stories will be about animals or weather, etc. It’s really the same concept as writing without the letter ‘e’. Strictures can be thematic or structural or operate on the level of diction and syntax. In any case, they provide boundaries and rules for play. I find them to be of enormous advantage in terms of generating energy, even if the goal is to break down the boundaries.
Strictures – yes, they gave me a reason to begin. Without them, at least at this point in life, I feel a bit adrift. Of course, once a rule is actually applied to real characters, places, it all becomes about much more. The stricture has to fall away. I got better at revision through this. Eventually I was able to look at some writing and know, ‘It’s still living with the rules instead of the characters.’ Like, if a baby stayed a baby and never became a person with a big full life. Terrible baby. When ‘rules for beginning’ was bundled with ‘thing I’m obsessed with and wondering about’ I was able to feel like the writing was pushing me somewhere unfamiliar. In this place, I wouldn’t know what was going on or how to behave, and I’d have more questions than answers. Which was good. I felt better pursuing something I didn’t have an answer to than knowing what I’m writing, being certain.
Before grad school I was a producer for This American Life, a public radio show. One of the reasons I left that job was because each day I had to be sure about what I was doing. Stories worked or didn’t, writing was good or bad, there was a right and wrong way to do things and I grew to believe my job was to know that way, not instantaneously, but pretty quickly. The job was having an instinct and being certain that instinct was right. In the beginning I floundered – when you’re learning it’s hard to be confident. In the middle I hit a stride. I knew what I was doing. I was so right about everything! I had to be. I had deadlines and piles of work. What I find so refreshing/scary about writing fiction on my own without a deadline or purpose is that I can see that there are a myriad of different ways to tell something, and I have to figure out for myself what feels right for me as a writer, or for the story. You said above, ‘I just try to remember that there is no ideal form for my next fiction out there in the ether, waiting for me to arrive and tuck it under my arm.’ That open-endedness is what I liked. I could explore and I didn’t have an end point to get to yet. The bewilderment was productive, and relit a good fire under my instinct, which I didn’t have to conflate with certainty. Having an instinct is not the same as being sure. It’s this other deep and wobbly thing.
This all is a path leading me to say I like what you were saying in your note, that the moment for bigger reflection – the bigger WHY – can come during the worst of writing. Since the bigger reflection obviously is important, maybe it goes that the bad times, the shit writing times that get you thinking and questioning, must be important too. The not knowing. These moments of uncertainty are just as key as the confidence that gets us working.
Which is leading me to want to ask, because I think of you as someone who has assuredly placed each word in your work: have you ever reread something that is out in the world and wished you could change it? Perhaps because you’ve shifted as a writer over time, but more because maybe you were certain at some point and no longer are? Is knowing a piece is done or a word ‘right’ even about certainty? This is another way of asking, How weird is it that these books are forever
It sounds like the job at This American Life might have been great training in some ways. Maybe it taught you to proceed with a certain amount of intensity and concentration, and to make hard decisions. Mostly, fiction writers are not on deadline. Then again, there is only one serious deadline. I take my time writing, and don’t want people to see it until I think it’s done, though of course soon after that I realize it isn’t done at all, that it’s full of mistakes, or missed opportunities, and that I’m an idiot for being blind to various connections. Time is a wonderful editor. Cioran said you don’t finish anything, you just turn away in disgust. A lot of people don’t like to hear that but some find it strangely comforting.
I would love to make minor adjustments to most of the sentences I’ve put out into the world. Major adjustments as well. Why not? It’s not that I would make them better. I could ruin some. But it might be terrific way to delude myself about my control over things. Hey look, I can travel back in time and visit old paragraphs! I can change history! Maybe it would be like one of those Ray Bradbury time-travel stories where the world is altered upon my return. Dick Cheney is president and the US is fighting a small nuclear war with Canada. But to further answer your question, I believe I did the best I could on every book. Each time around I was a somewhat different set of selves, and it would be impossible to replicate those combinations. Not to say I won’t ever try to revise old work. Because we always want to fix the past. But I know it would just be some flawed version of myself in the present trying to straighten the collar of a younger me, hissing: ‘Don’t embarrass us!’
There aren’t many certainties. We have to accept that. And revel in it! As to books being ‘forever’, I’m not sure about that. But I admire your optimism, and will happily defer to it.
Sam, don’t be surprised when someday you find yourself in a decimated world, wearing animal skins, riding a horse down the beach and suddenly coming upon a copy of The Ask sticking out of the sand like a monument. You can pound your fists and yell ‘Goddamn you all to hell’ all you want. Books are forever.
Long ago, one piece of advice you offered was to write what you wanted to read, or see in the world. I think you were talking about how you came to write Venus Drive. Being a producer prepared me in some ways – I’m used to living my job, and I have a steady brand of panic, the kind you can safely balance stacks of fine china on. But I was surprised by what I had to unlearn in order to be able to write what I wanted to read and see in the world. I had styles, tics and expectations from my previous job that weren’t going to work for me as a writer. I still flounder when I try to figure out what I’m doing. There is so much to learn, test, keep or cast away, case by case – these rules that do and don’t exist. Will I ever again feel so right about what I’m doing, like I have in the past, when I’ve felt like an expert? I doubt it. I don’t think that’s how writing works. There are some ways it always feels new, whether I want it to or not. And that’s what I like best about it. I just got an email from a friend who is an expert in her field and is doing and making something new. She says she feels like she’s going to puke all the time and she isn’t sure when or if this feeling will end but she can’t turn back. What an awful feeling, but also what a strange gift to do something so new but so important to you that you’re nauseated by the effort. Like, Ugh! Yay! Ugh! Yay! When I was finishing this book, I couldn’t eat. I would go for walks in the woods and end up running because I couldn’t contain myself. I have that kind of feeling working on a new project now. This mix of dread and excitement. Of being certain I’ll fail and certain I won’t. One feeling cancels the other out. Leaving just me making something, doing the work, loving it, gulping audibly every now and then when it gets hard. Very simple. Deceptively so.
You know, Sam, you’re a great teacher because you always manage to challenge, inspire and soothe. I feel bad for the people out there who only get to read your books. They won’t get the opportunity to have you look at them with kindness and bemusement in workshop or conference as they struggle through some fraught moment of not knowing. Maybe the bemusement comes from the fact that you know the uncertainties don’t actually go away, just that you form a different relationship with them. As you said above, you know it’s all an endless improvisation. If that’s the case, then phew.