If you follow this blog and are disappointed I haven’t posted since Labor Day (hi mom!), rest assured that I have not abandoned my writing. I am simply doing much more of it on my own, which I hope is better and more artful than my blogging here. A short story is complete (in the sense that the story is there), and I’m in the process of expanding another. The whole process is exciting for me as I’ve always wanted to try my hand at fiction but have never mustered the courage. That’s the glory of a 9 to 5 job.
I’m also exploring the much more vague craft of nonfiction storytelling. The thing I like about it is that it ties journalistic research and investigation together with compelling narrative. You get glimpses of this in long-form magazine articles, I would say, but a nonfiction essay is even more open and potentially unruly, which is of course a challenge. Currently I’m reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and am curious as to how she got the information that’s in these stories, for instance the one about John Wayne. There’s so much detail. Does a nonfiction writer make up the stuff she can’t research?
A few days ago I bought The Art of the Personal Essay by Philip Lopate at Book Culture, which is down the street from Columbia. I was checking out, and the man ringing up my purchase asked me if I want to be a writer. “Yes,” I said, and he followed with, “Are you a writer now?” “Sort of,” I said, not wanting to exaggerate or back down. “Have you ever thought about doing it Kerouac-style?” he continued, a dreamy look in his face setting in. I asked him what he meant. “You know, you could just get on a bus to California, or … go pick grapes in Chile. Or even just sit in a cafe in the Village and write whatever comes to your mind. You could babysit in Paris!”
I asked him if he was a writer, and if he had done any of those things. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “I have two kids, and a job. This is why you have to do this stuff when you’re young!” I thanked him for the thoughts, and went home to write.
One of the pieces I am working on is a “fairy tale” about a family living through the Great Depression. I say “fairy tale” because if you ever read it you will realize it’s not that. I’m going more for the effect of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or even a Flannery O’Connor short story.
I’ve recommended this book before, but the past two weeks I’ve found this part of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life to be true. She discusses the moment when a writer realizes that to move forward, she must rip up much of what she’s already done.
You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-worn. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now.
In an old interview with the Paris Review, Don Delillo said something similar about his work:
I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph or a sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it’s almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don’t think I’ve become ruthless or perverse—just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself.
Even composing this silly blog post I’ve “demolished” paragraphs, so hopefully that’s a good sign. If I’ve learned one thing in the past weeks, it’s that writing is not always romantic.