The Perilous Production of the Ego, the Limits of Imitation, and Other Non-Sequiturs
I read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, the poetry of Eliot and Poe, and decided I wanted to—needed to—do that. But it felt more like a shrug. Someday. Writing a book would be as easy as, say, I’m out of milk, I’ll go to the store. Later. I never thought to actually do the work. High school passed. College was almost over. I’d like to say I was some prodigy, writing until the wee hours between part-time jobs and midterms, but that wasn’t the case. I wrote when I needed to sober up and be alone. I got good at jotting notes, though, conjuring clever titles, ornately describing the act of scraping frost off the windshield. I suffered from what Ted Kooser, in Poetry Home Repair Manual, calls wanting to be sexy. Oh, to be the pondering bard holding down the corner table at the café, scratching my beard, looking out the window, adjusting my beret and just…reading the air. (For the record, I’ve never owned a beret.)
One summer, I took an intensive fiction writing class at my obscure little religious college. We met every day for two weeks, cranked out six original stories. I wrote a thinly disguised, autobiographical sketch about a high school kid with a troubled home life, qualms with God, and a serious crush on the best friend—parents on the brink of a divorce, a drug-addict sister. The critiques were light. My genius? Confirmed. I acquired a girlfriend, got drunk with my friends’ band backstage at the Fine Line in Minneapolis, got a raise at work. I felt emboldened. Writing was easy! I became obsessed with Kafka, the dark, mysterious swerves that eschewed interpretation. I wrote a story about a boy stuck in a vague apocalypse:
Charlie looked around for a sign of life, but all he saw was destruction. It was the same familiar ruins that haunted him for over a month. He closed his eyes and imagined a world that wasn’t falling apart, a world with his mother’s mashed potatoes and homemade ice cream. An aged mansion blurred like a dark cloud in the foreground.
After college, I felt inspired to take a year off, work as little as possible, and write, so that’s what I did. Sometimes. I wrote on a typewriter in a green-walled room in the basement. Mostly, I wrote beginnings and tossed them in the trash. I discovered many writers that lent a boost of the only version of confidence I’ve ever known: permission to imitate. I read Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and tried to write rambling, self-conscious pseudo-memoir. I read Murakami and tried write bizarre tales of subterranean affliction. I became obsessed with Irish folk tales. One afternoon, I read a story about a black lamb that spreads disease all over a seaside town and felt oddly inspired. I wrote a story called “Loretta and the Lamb,” about a preacher who moves, against his wife’s behest, to a new post at a small town church and away from the city they’ve always known. I’m cringing to share this, but it begins:
Sam muttered routine prayers as he cut through the yard since his usual morning rituals were interrupted by a phone call from Mr. Peterson, the wiry, bald banker. Sam hadn’t understood half of the details because Mr. Peterson was huffing into the earpiece, his concerns static about some “vampire lamb” that had been re-appearing from its grave for three nights in a row. Loretta took the car to work, so Sam walked the three miles into town.
The next year, I was accepted to Pacific University’s MFA program, where my adoring fans were surely waiting--please, Mr. Cook, won’t you allow us to touch your shoulder? I found Raymond Carver’s bleak stories of domestic realism at the same time that I found Don DeLillo’s wild, blown out flights of fancy and Steinbeck’s panoramic, sometimes abstract lyricism, and offered a story to the group about a young addict shipped off to rehab in New Haven:
He walked and wondered, all the while enraptured in the folds of his emblazoned autonomy and design.
Three out of seven of the group wrote in the margin: Not sure what this means. Others? Cut. And lastly, my personal favorite: WTF.
The novelist Brady Udall, in my first exchange of the semester, told me: “Your language is trying too hard, sometimes way too hard, and often getting in its own way. It’s often fragmented, confusing, exaggerated, melodramatic, or some combination of the four.” He was referring to many sentences, but here’s one in particular, from a story about four boys who, on a way to their high school baseball game, get abandoned by the side of the highway after peeing in Gatorade bottles and chucking them out the bus window. More embarrassment:
And as they sit there for the next hour awaiting their demise in reverie of this broken down hunk of metal holding their weight, in the stench of hot light and their own sweat, it looks as if this stunt that both they and the coach equally pulled won’t justify Vern’s passing of guilt or widespread rumor or the lack of keys to the truck for the weekend.
In the margin, Brady wrote: “That is one whacked sentence.”
Over time, I developed calluses. I wrote not just to write better, clearer, but to avoid criticism. I wrote to please. I watered down my style to clipped declarative sentences in the vein of every MFA teacher’s apostle of style: Denis Johnson. Here’s a story about a man who flees to Bullhead, Arizona, outrunning five ex-wives, eight children, and stockpiles of child support:
I climb into the pick-up. The springs moan. I feel around for the keys and smell the funk of the musk and oil. Closing my eyes I lean back and try to picture the life of some previous owner.
This pleased Brady. He said I’d come leaps and bounds.
But the critiques continued. Avoid abstraction, develop motivation, keep momentum. “Language, language, language,” Brady told me, “it’s the only tool you’ve got.”
After graduation, when I landed a gig for Guitar World Magazine, interviewing bands and writing mini-summations of their careers, they didn’t change a sentence. Surely, school had taught me something. The fans had been waiting long enough.
I wrote stories, gave them to friends and they said, “I don’t get it.” They just didn’t understand my genius, I concluded. I continued to send out stories, continued to collect rejections.
I published a few book reviews, which were commented on minimally, mostly edited for compression. Easy fixes.
I landed a gig editing for a Thirty-Two Magazine. The editor-in-chief told me—in the nicest, Midwestern way possible—that I edited too intensely. I once sent a two-paragraph diatribe arguing for one single sentence to be cut from an essay we were set to publish in the next issue. In the end, she didn’t go for it. But clearly, I had something the other editors didn’t.
I started writing for a craft beer magazine, and they sent me to write about the Faribault Woolen Mill, the longest standing textile mill in the country, which, in beautiful detail, I described: “A small dam foams alongside the edge-worn foundation beneath the hodgepodge of vivid red and faded brick.”
I was thinking of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, sentences lyrical and visually astonishing. The editors said: cut this—and the ten others like this. It’s too much detail. Too much detail? Impossible.
Be less literary; stop trying so hard.
I continued to send out fiction, continued to get rejections.
I wrote more book reviews. Editors rarely, if ever, touched a comma.
Recently, I got a piece accepted to a fancy magazine, one of my very favorites. The editor slashed the phrase “Mind-bending,” replying, simply: “Hyperbolic and vague. Try again.”
Try again. He knew that I knew how to remedy the line. He didn’t berate me or make me feel stupid. He just called it what it was. Try Again. It’s one of my favorite pieces of advice, because it left room for me to do the work. Or rather, redo the work. Which is what’s so great about writing. We get to fail, over and over, and then get back in there and redo the work as if we haven’t failed at all. If we have the luxury of time, we can spend minutes, hours, whole days turning over single phrases.
I think back to every piece that’s passed cleanly through an editor’s hands, and think, it’s probably more due to their lack of time—or a deadline—rather than my pristine prose. Not a day has gone by, even with every advance, where I don’t feel the pangs of failure.
At a recent George Saunders reading in Minneapolis, someone in the audience asked him how he keeps the magic alive. He recalls a time when he didn’t have the magic. First, he read Hemingway, tried to imitate him, but when he got all the way to the top of Hemingway Mountain, he realized his story—his disappointments and realities—were different. He was no fisherman, no ambulance driver. So, he climbed back down. But then, ooh! There was Kerouac Mountain. So, he climbed that. Until he realized, again, he was different. Ultimately, he said he had to, “embrace the things I was ashamed of.” Silly voices, low-brow allusions, working class characters, etc. And when he did that, something clicked. His wife started to like his writing. The text had new energy.
Many writers, from David Foster Wallace to Karl Ove Knausgaard, have said similar things. Embrace the stuff you don’t want people to see. How ironic it is, that to boost the ego, you need to first expose your shame.
I’ve always tried a little too hard. Strained too much. I’m not sure how to embrace my shame or how to even begin to invite it into my work. Watch more Glee? Listen to Katy Perry? Sing silly songs—songs that make absolutely no sense—to my daughter? Risk nostalgia? Sentimentalism? I’m not sure. But one thing I’m sure about is the work, and more work, and taking joy in the work. Above my desk is this quote, which I received from my thesis advisor, Jack Driscoll. It comes from Flaubert: “Style is achieved only by dint of atrocious labor, fanatical and unremitting stubbornness.”