I realize that it might be odd to quote someone like Amy Poehler at the start of a letter defending the collection of my work I have accumulated during my time in an MFA program in fiction. I realize that I should probably quote someone like Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, and that whatever I quote should contain some stunning vestige of wisdom and hope that summarizes everything I have learned from this experience about writing a collection of short stories.
But the words that came to mind when thinking about how I would begin to describe the process of collecting, revising, and rewriting my work from the past two years were not the words of Susan Minot or David Foster Wallace, they were these: “No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”
“Yes,” I thought when I read these words in the introduction to Amy Poehler’s new book, Yes Please. “That is it exactly.”
So let’s begin with the not great parts. At the beginning of the summer, I set a goal to revise one story a week. I turned to my old work, the stories I had written in the first year and a half of my time at UNH, and found myself immediately flustered. The stories felt… tired. That’s the word. They felt flat, one dimensional, as if my work had been taking a nap. These are largely the Okinawa stories. Many of them, I see now, are flawed attempts at figuring out this whole story telling thing: how to develop character, how to create suspense, how to write an ending.
I should back up. Before I talk about what my work was, I think I should talk about what, in the middle of my second year, my work became. “Signals,” for me, was a break through. I could feel it when I wrote it, I could feel it in workshop as my peers discussed it, and I can feel it still when I reread that story. It was the first story that I wrote that worked. It was flawed, but it was all there: character, plot, and a thick undercurrent of heart. After that, my work began to come unbidden. Story ideas seemed to come to me in threes, and so after “Signals” I wrote “Perennial” and “Falling Rock.” One after another, and it felt like they were writing themselves. I spent less time on the tail end revising these stories and more time on the front end working out the details of the piece.
So, when I returned to my earlier work at the beginning of the summer in order to get it into shape for my thesis and saw such glaring differences between what I had been writing and what I was currently writing, I decided to spruce up what I could of the Okinawa stories and spend the majority of my summer writing new things. I wrote “We Were Together” and “Living in Half” at Bread Loaf. Then in the fall I wrote “How to Fall in Love in Three Months,” “The Family,” and “What Makes It Worse.” They’re not perfect stories by any means, especially the last two in that list: I wrote them in very little time and included them in my thesis without revision and without having been workshopped. But I included them because, if my writing from the first three quarters of my time at UNH seemed to me to be sleeping, the writing I have done in the past year has seemed to be very much awake, sometimes only mildly conscious, but at least sitting upright and existing in multiple dimensions. And although this thesis is supposed to be a portfolio of my work over the past two years, I wanted it to show more of what my writing has become than what my writing was.
As for the Okinawa stories, I always think about returning to them. I’m interested in the island as a setting and as a microcosm for so many things—the objectification of women, masculinity, colonization, diaspora—but I also know that most of those stories are trying too hard to speak to all of those things. So when I think about returning to them, I know that many of them will require starting from scratch. “Dead Girl” is a perfect example. It is the fourth version of a story about a girl who goes to see the Banana Show. It is nothing like what it once was, and yet it still needs a lot of work. Recently I’ve been considering cutting the show all together. It seems exploitative of the island to me now, and I can see in its most recent iteration that I am still clinging to the political points I wanted it to make in the first place. There are parts in this version that wrote themselves—the opening scene, for instance—but otherwise it was written at the cost of the character’s true trajectory. Maybe these stories will be a collection one day, but I can assure you that they will look nothing like what you have in front of you. They feel like the stories I needed to write in order to get to the stories I wanted to tell.
The rest of the stories I believe in with varying degrees of certainty. That certainty is largely dependent upon the day and what I’ve had to eat and how many rejection letters I’ve received and whether or not they spelled my name correctly. I touched them up, I made a few line edits, and have since been sending them out.
If writing a collection is how Amy Poehler describes it—occasionally great but usually not—I have to at least mention the few moments in this process that were great: seeing the table of contents for the first time, handing the thing in, passing it off to Shelley at book club and having our friends coo over it, having them cradle it like a baby. But perhaps the greatest part was the day after I finished. I spent it in bed, watching reality television and snuggling my dog, doing anything but writing. But by the evening I was bored. I want to write something new, I thought.
Here’s a quote by someone who is a writer and who is also wise. Robert Cohen was my fiction professor at Middlebury, and on the first day of class he talked about what it was to be a writer, what it was to fail and have your stories fall flat. He said this, which I have never forgotten, and which I remind myself of often: “I was not the best writer in my MFA program, but I was one of the few who kept writing.” That night after I handed in my thesis and still wanted to write felt a little like hope. Like all was not lost on this imperfect manuscript. That I would keep writing. And that maybe, like Rob suggested, I could build an entire career on that.
I hope so.