Kathryn Scanlan’s story ‘The Poker’ was published in the online edition of Granta 144: genericlovestory. Scanlan’s books Aug 9—Fog and The Dominant Animal are forthcoming in 2019. In this series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
Not having known many babies, I previously imagined them born all alike. As more and more babies arrive in my life, however, I see their staunch difference – installed from the start. Recently, when several babies were present, it was pointed out to me by my mother that one of them behaved much like I had at that age. This baby was silent, still, watchful. She seemed to record what went on without attempting to insert herself. This, at a family gathering where I sat quiet, listening, making notes on my phone.
It’s in this recorded footage I rummage when I work.
During composition, the footage breaks into parts to be manipulated, exaggerated, extrapolated. In a Believer interview, Christine Schutt – paraphrasing Gordon Lish – says, ‘Your obligation is to know your objects and to steadily, inexorably darken and deepen them.’ This happens word by word within the sentence – ‘the one true theater of endeavor,’ as Gary Lutz says in ‘The Sentence is a Lonely Place’. Like Lutz, I favor ‘narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude . . . the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.’ In the work of writers I admire most, the clammy conventions of casual speech are resisted, subverted at every turn. Here is rigorous refusal, an outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional. It is work that makes you put it down in order to write your own.
So you proceed. Constructed in this painstaking way – ‘worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound [have] about them an air of having been foreordained’ (Lutz again) – sentences become like physical objects. Here, I wonder how related my linguistic preference is to my lifelong love of things – wooden things, ceramic things, preferably old and made by hand, certain jewels and gold and garments, odd or broken or useless things, certain furniture. I try to write a sentence as unbudging and fully itself as some object sitting on a shelf in my office.
In an object can be found meaning, pleasure and mystery, if one can see it unencumbered by ideas of how it is supposed to look. The task is to describe a thing as if to an alien, or as if one is an alien herself. Objects have a way of communicating emotion, the unconscious, the body, and can accomplish alchemical feats otherwise unattainable in aggressively composed fiction. Examples abound in the genius oeuvre of Diane Williams.
The use of objects in sentences, and sentences worked into objecthood – both are methods of revealing what one wants to say. Instead of beginning with some rigid purpose, some grand plan of communication (which I believe to be an impossible goal), Robert Bresson instructs us to ‘Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod.’
So attention, then, and willful ignorance – these are the opposing energies I attempt to keep in mind.
Photograph © nikoline arns