In this series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
When I think about what I want in a short story I think about a clip from RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a reality television show following drag queens competing in challenges, runways, lip-syncs. It’s not important what the show is, just a moment in the seventh season that transcends it. The drag queen Violet Chachki walks onto the runway in a black sequined gown and tartan gloves. Midway across, she takes off her belt and twirls. The gown unfurls into a skintight tartan jumpsuit. It’s beautiful. Revelatory. I don’t even want to describe it. Judge, Carson Kressley is thrown back, he gasps. Violet keeps walking. She walks as if nothing happened.
Seasons later, the show attempts to do a whole runway inspired by this moment. But the drag queens are boring. They unclasp buckles, a dress turns into a longer dress, someone tears open what looks like a garbage bag. It’s all imitation. The moment’s been reduced to a trick. They don’t understand what it was. The thrill isn’t contained in the action itself, it’s something else entirely. It’s like a short story, a great short story. It appears, everything else fades away, then it’s gone. Miraculous. An act of transubstantiation, matter simultaneously changed and unchanged.
To pull it off, I think, demands a kind of audacity. There are certain writers whose stories consistently have this quality. I’m thinking Amie Barrodale, Lucia Berlin, Leonard Michaels, Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s technical skill, deep feeling and something else, something intangible. Each sentence and paragraph is like a glass dropped from a height, then they step forward then drop another. As the reader, you see flashes of light. Stories like this make me think of a line in Susan Sontag’s journals; ‘people who stand alone + burn.’
When I write I’m trying to make a story that does this, that stands alone and burns. I’m not interested in any middle ground. To try and approach that place takes a lot of work, and it’s often unpleasant, but punctuated, sometimes, by little bursts of joy. The hard thing is I don’t feel I’ve ever been able to get there with a story. There’s a point where craft alone can’t take you. I don’t know. But I try. It’s a slow process. It’s a lot of rewriting, it might be for sound, for affect, instinct. When I was younger I would open my laptop and feel desperate, obsess about failure and then buy stupid shit online. Now I’m okay with just sitting in front of a story and being unhappy. I’m always thinking how easy it is to write a bad story, even easier to write a boring one. I have to approach writing as a crucible. Eventually, something will ignite.
Sometimes in that space I get lost in drafts. It’s often at a point that turns out to be close to, if not, actually the finished work. I’m just stuck. I’m too close to see it so I hover over it. I spend a lot of time like that. It’s something I struggle with. I’ve been writing a collection for a while now and I feel like I’m haunting an empty building, inert, waiting for each room to burst into flames.
I’d wait forever but I’m lucky. I have a brilliant reader and mentor, writer and Stegner Fellow, Abigail Ulman. When I’m near the end, she’ll read a story and tell me if it’s arrived. Even something as simple as a yes or no is invaluable. It can free me from haunting something too long, though everything that comes before is vital too.
Last year, I was in Italy and went to the Mors Tua Vita Mea workshop run by Tyrant Books founder Giancarlo DiTrapano and the essayist Chelsea Hodson. Gian and I were walking through this seventeenth century castelletto on his family’s estate. It feels condemned. The interior is just ruins, piles of ash, broken glass, stone. We were alone. There’s something about Gian that makes him seem more than a person, like a character in a western. You take him seriously. Gian asked why I thought I worked slowly. I said I didn’t think I was slow I just got into a certain space. I wait and wait and wait, either for the story to change or for me to. He told me to stop wasting time there. Then he paused. ‘No, whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it.’
Photograph © Will Folsom