“So Much Doubt”

In the interest of — what? self-promotion? an excuse to update this site? deference to the concrete slab weight of peer pressure? — I said yes when Kevin Hardcastle asked if I’d do this “Writing Process Blog Hop” thing that he’d been roped into. The set up is this: somebody tags you, you answer the prescribed questions on your site, then hand the baton off to two others, who then have two weeks to come up with answers of their own, etc. It’s a little bit chain letter, a little bit Ice Bucket Challenge, a little bit TNB Self-Interview. It seems harmless enough, or so I thought.

Turns out, though, far from being harmless, this thing is hot poison, at least according to every writer I asked to participate. So maybe I’m a fool to do it, but I told Hardcastle I would, so here goes:

 

1) What am I working on?

Just about to start edits on my collection (What You Need, available next spring from Invisible Publishing), and I’m getting into a couple of new stories (one about a woman experiencing feelings of ambivalence as she buries her husband, and another about a man who loses his job at a quarry and must get creative to make ends meet), as well as tinkering with a novella I wrote last winter. I also can’t seem to stop writing about baseball. I just spent a week in rural Vermont, in a beautiful old house tucked in among the trees, with a pond, and a little brook dropping over an old mill dam. It had a gorgeous, big screened porch, with a sturdy old rocking chair. It was so very Yankee, like it had been called right out of Washington Irving. I’d wake early (I always wake early) and take coffee out there, crack open my laptop and hammer away while the sun came up over the hills. I’d get in a thousand words or better before the kids began to stir. Mostly I was keeping a diary of days there, but of course anything like that can later be stripped for parts. I was also chipping away at those stories. In either case, it was about running the engine, keeping it all going. When you do four or five pages of work before breakfast, it makes it easy to enjoy the rest of the day. It feels like a reward.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I guess a response to this question depends on figuring out just what one thinks my genre is. Short fiction? Canadian short fiction? Canadian short fiction by writers under 40? Over 30? I have been a little worried recently, if I’m being honest, looking over the lists of upcoming books, seeing that folks like Hardcastle and Kris Bertin have titles coming out, and that Andrew Sullivan is still alive and presumably writing, that we’d all end up being lumped together because we’re all Canadian writers under 40 who write short stories where people fight and swear and bleed and such. Worst case scenario, it seems to me, is that readers come to think of us as a homogeneous unit, and either accept us or reject us en masse. If that’s your way of thinking, then my answer to this question would be: “I’m not as tough as they are.” Age and fatherhood have softened me into a doughy, sentimental mess. I’m more interested in making you cry than in profundity, because I’m so often crying, and misery loves company.

But more broadly, I guess, and more seriously, in terms of short fiction, I think I am generally less interested than some in innovation and fuckery with the form. I’m more interested in putting together stories that work, in the same way they have worked for many, many years now, for a lot of writers far better than me. I’m interested in a thing done with care, and (I hope) done well.

3) Why do I write what I do?

This question is probably better directed at my therapist, whose insights into the subject are informed by his training, whereas I’d only be guessing. But the simplest answer is that I try to write the things that smell and feel and taste and sound like the stories and books that have given me the most pleasure and comfort, that have afforded me some measure of rescue, that have felt to me as though they contained some degree of truth, truth here defined as that thing which produces a strange hum in your heart during a moment of recognition.

4) How does my writing process work?

Wake up early. Pour coffee. Write. Revise. Repeat.

Within all that, if you were to look more closely, you’d see me coming up with an opening sentence, usually having some idea of an ending, and then trying to bridge the two in a way that feels right. You’d see me drinking a lot of coffee or, if later in the day, a lot of water. You’d see me grow agitated and nervy. And when I thought I was on the trail of something that might be really good, when I was sniffing it down, cornering it and chasing it up a tree, you’d see an enormous amount of excess energy being offgassed in the form of bouncy, twitchy limbs, frequent stretches, moments where I can’t bear to be sitting down so I pace, or walk in circles, or type standing on my feet, bent over the table or desk. You’d see me asking myself the same questions over and over again (is this part necessary? would this character really say that? have I earned this ending? etc.). You’d see and hear me reading aloud to make sure the sentences work, that the whole thing hangs together. You’d see me taking advantage of an excellent reader, a friend and writer whose opinion I trust, sending him drafts and waiting a few weeks for his excellent and incisive comments. You’d see me sending out stories and keeping track of all the rejections. You’d see me sending them out again. You’d see me in that small moment of elation when a story is accepted, and again when it comes out, and then you’d see the cratering that follows those events, the hollow, empty, “yeah, but now what?” feeling which is seemingly unavoidable in these matters. And you’d see doubt. So much doubt.

 

*


And there you go. Having written all this, I set about finding others to carry the mantle. Tried but failed. And as failure mounted, I gave up. As a writer, I reasoned, I face enough failure. Why invite more? I won’t mention the names of those writers who declined to pick this thing up, but they know who they are. Their responses ranged from polite to “Oh, hell, no,” but that’s fair. We all have ideas about what’s worth doing and what’s not. In the end, I answered a few questions, got a chance to try and figure out why I do what I do, and that’s not so bad. That I wasn’t able to hand it off isn’t the end of the world — it likely just means I don’t know enough suckers. There’s probably a well-worn adage about not running in circles of people smarter than yourself, but apparently I don’t know it. So it goes. Like a recessive gene, this thing dies with me.

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