Post #84: Sorry Stand-Ins

Dear Charles

Dear Charles,

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been writing much. And when I have, it’s been in marked avoidance of my novel, Returning, which winks at me from its home on my hard drive like a growing tumor. Though I write a good deal of short fiction, I can’t deny that, even though I enjoy it and it’s good practice, it’s neither my forte nor my passion. But for strange and complex, or perhaps very obvious and embarrassing, reasons, I’ve created a life decidedly unfriendly to a person trying to revise a very long, complicated novel. What will happen is that I’ll plug in for a few days at a time, just long enough to find the thread, then life will grab me by the ankles and yank me back into the hallway. You’ve said it yourself a million times, and you’re right. Writing or revising anything of length hinges on momentum. Sweet sweet motion. A novel is too large and fragmentary an experience to work on without consistency, which just so happens to be the very thing I’m lacking. Revising this novel the way I’m doing it right now is the equivalent of trying to read a book in a pitch black room in which the lights only come on for ninety seconds out of every hour. While the lights are on, you’re frantic, trying to absorb and soak up and enjoy what’s before you, and then the lights are out again. You mark your page. You wait. At first, the routine is bearable. But before long, the ninety seconds become tainted by their own onerous repetition and every time the lights come back on you begin to wonder why you should even bother reading anything at all. At this rate, it’s going to take you forever. You grow dispirited. Consider going to sleep instead.

Or it’s like diving down to a lovely coral reef that’s thirty feet below the surface. The reef is lovely-you’ve never seen a reef like this before-and you keep pushing yourself to get there, but it’s so far and your lungs are starting to hurt and you’re starting to feel woozy and because of the effort it takes just to get down there, you start to wonder if it’s worth the effort.

I can hear you in my ear right now. Shut the fuck up! you’re saying. Stop whining, you sad sack of shit! Nobody told you to create a life that’s not conducive to writing novels. Did they? And besides, you’ll add (because you can’t help yourself) on some messed up level, you probably made the decisions you did so you wouldn’t be able to write so that you could complain about it and not have to deal with your mediocre novel instead.

And while I’ll acknowledge some truth to your brutal logic, I’ll ask you to be kind, to take the broad view, to acknowledge life’s complexities and pressures.

Would you believe that I’m not meaning to whine, but merely to observe and make sense? How can a man work out his reality if he doesn’t pull it into separate parts and create metaphors for all the little parts? Isn’t that what everyone does?

Sorry for the rant. Write back when you have time. Hope you’re well.

Best to Martha and the girls,




Post #6: Revision and the Clock

Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

A writing teacher once told me that you know a piece is done when you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  For a long time, I thought that was about the best writing advice I’d ever heard; it distilled a lot of my own beliefs about revision to a luscious sound byte.  Though, as I’ve progressed in my own work, I’ve become less and less confident that it’s fully true.  I do still feel that the diligent and dedicated writer’s gut is a useful measure of a story’s relative “doneness,” but I’ve also started to see a broader, longer, and more methodical approach to revision creeping into my work.

Enter Alan Heathcock.

I met short story writer Alan Heathcock at this past summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont.  Full confession that I’d never heard of Alan before the conference, but after his reading in The Little Theater the second night “on the mountain,” as they say, Heathcock, constantly wearing a fedora, become one of many writers I made a mental note to learn more about.  Alan gave a craft class on Revision at Bread Loaf, much of which he covers in a great interview he gave to  Some of the ideas may be unappealing, mostly because they imply that you’re probably sending in your stories too green, but there’s a great deal of wisdom coming out of this guy’s mouth.  And you can tell he believes it.  Like, really believes it.

Check it out here:

Also recommended is Alan’s story collection Volt, which is garnering praise and earning well deserved rewards.  The collection took him 12 years to perfect and he talks about why in the interview; his approach to revision is a big part of it.  A sobering reminder here that we all work hard, but to get something truly “right” means you may just have to kill your clock.