Conversation/Kōrero: Tracey Slaughter and Sarah Strickley
Tracey Slaughter is the author of the highly acclaimed poetry collection Conventional Weapons (VUP, 2019) and short story collection deleted scenes for lovers (VUP, 2016). Her first collection of poems and short stories, her body rises, was published by Random House (2005), and her novella The Longest Drink in Town by Pania Press (2015). Her short fiction has received numerous awards, including the international Bridport Prize 2014, a 2007 NZ Book Month Award, and BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards in 2004 and 2001. She won the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition, and was the recipient of the 2010 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary. She teaches Creative Writing at Waikato University, and edits the journal Mayhem.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose and other honours. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville.
This conversation took place via email over December 2018 – February 2019.
From Sarah Strickley:
While reading your collection, I was thinking a lot about voice and the many conversations that tend to eddy around that term in writing circles. I think it’s safe to say that we’re both writers who prioritize this element, so my guess is that we’ve both been ensnared in many conversations about how we arrive at the voices we employ.
I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m forever disappointing folks with the revelation that my stories don’t in emerge in one, big muse-inspired frenzy. An interesting voice might pull me into a story, but, once I’m in there, I start planning and structuring the piece in a way that I think some might regard as anathema to the mission of “listening” to the voice powering the storytelling.
The un-fun truth is that I don’t really consider myself a channel or a medium through which my characters communicate, but I do prize my ability and my willingness to imagine very very deeply. Sometimes I think that when we’re talking about voice, what we’re really talking about is imagination and I tend to prefer a deep dive to a dunk.
I knew you were a pro deep diver by the time I’d finished reading the second paragraph of your book. You’re abundantly willing to see and notice as your characters see and notice. I think not all writers are willing to go there and that’s fine. But, I happen to find it riveting. I wonder what your thoughts are regarding voice-driven works–the writing and the reading of them.
From Tracey Slaughter:
Just how do we dive the way we do? I must admit, despite long trying to step outside the process to get some self-reflexive hold, there’s still so much that mystifies me – and so much swept up in those strong currents which pull and pour into a piece of writing that I can’t catch in a critical discriminating grip. I can’t describe myself as planning – although I do know there’s hard craft involved, and the knowledge that comes from ceaseless reading, poring through every page I encounter looking for methods, structures, cues. But yes, I believe in total immersion, giving over my senses to the depths of that imaginative dive. I love your metaphor of the dive – because I think you do have to enter the element of your story, its dark risky water, with your whole body, let it flood and fill you, breath, mind, eyes, pull your consciousness down. It is often voice that calls me to that edge, then character that leads me under. That can be a swift haul, with the story coming in a rush, dragging me into thick unconscious currents – or it can mean a float, a drift in sensation, waiting to pick up glimmerings, streams of connection, flickers of narrative. Either way, for me, it’s a process of working through the senses, listening with the whole imagination awake and submerged. Has someone called this disciplined surrender? If so, oops, I don’t recall who…
But today, too, I went to a play which quoted Katherine Mansfield on her mode of immersion: ‘I’ve been this man, been this woman. I’ve stood for hours on the Auckland wharf. I’ve been out in the stream waiting to be berthed – I’ve been a seagull hovering at the stern and a hotel porter whistling through his teeth. It isn’t as though one sits and watches the spectacle. That would be thrilling enough, God knows. But one IS the spectacle, for the time.’ That somehow captured it for me – that sense of utterly inhabiting the scene you’re writing, living it visually, responsively, palpably. In every dimension. Being it. But of course, at the same time, there’s got to be this other self present, a tactical, observing, recursive self, that knows it’s creating all of this from its command of words, it’s hardwon structuring of sentences…You see, I’m circling back to mystery!
But I do think that the deep dive is the only one worth doing. To hell with the detached and lukewarm dip! I love Ann Lammott’s demand, that the reader needs to sense ‘a lot of very very dark water down below,’ that the writer has to be fearless enough to crash through and plunge us into the places ‘where life is so cold and confusing and hard to see.’ And I loved your stories because they took me there instantly! That submerged woman on the cover seemed the perfect eerie image.
I wonder: are you gripped that hard with character? Because the cast of your stories hit with such force. In ‘The Collapse’ you really did have me trapped in that hole, so I could hear the darkness and get gooseflesh from the mutterings of the men and taste that stale countdown of hope…
I love how you describe the experience of simultaneously tending to the needs of the medium (words, paragraphs, sections, white spaces) while also inhabiting a scene as fully as possible. The most powerful writing moments (for me) are when I don’t have to think about shuttling between modes. It’s just happening. I’m in the scene and I’m also sculpting it with some spontaneous precision. A writer friend of mine once told me she feels like she’s playing a piano when she’s writing in this mode and (for whatever reason) that image has always stuck with me. I do sometimes feel like sound is coming out of me; it’s not, of course, but this is as close to the kind of immediacy that a musician regularly experiences as I ever get in the creation of my art.
I regard revision as a superpower (one that works best when no one notices you using it), but I don’t get the same writerly thrill in this phase of the work. I’m often quite distanced from the prose and can be brutal in this mode. I make big edits: chop, chop, chop. And I move things around. It’s in this phase that I often first see the larger shape of the piece, so it may not be as thrilling, but it is very crucial.
That said, the composition/deep dive stage is often so intense that I can’t always handle it for very long. (In fact, sometimes I’ll avoid working on a piece because I know I’m not ready to fully dive back into the headspace required for me to forge on.) So, it’s nice to have a few pieces in various stages on my desktop at once. That way, I can toggle over to more distanced, analytical mode. The trick is toggling enough to get anything done. (Spoiler alert: I have not mastered this trick.)
But, to answer your (very perceptive) question more directly: yes. I am gripped very hard by character. My spouse, who is also a writer, often asks me why I put myself through the wringer to get a character down and the short answer is that it’s the only way I know. The long answer is that I believe the most powerful art is always very deeply imagined. I recall a scene in one of your stories in which your protagonist dunks her head in the sink and I could see it so clearly and with such startling precision because you’d seen it so clearly and rendered it with potent, fresh imagery. That level of exchange between reader and writer is why I’m in the game. I just love it. As you say, to hell with the lukewarm dip!
There are, though, some risks in deep diving. For one thing, it means your readers often have to follow you into dark places. An editor once warned me that I needed to make sure there was a glimmer of hope in each story lest I make my readers want to fling themselves off bridges. At the time, the advice made me grumpy. But, now I do see the point. I like to think that all of my characters stand a chance of finding themselves heads-up in the water. I wonder if you ever struggle with that question: how do you go about balancing lightness and dark? Is this a consideration as you draft an individual piece? Or, does it begin to be a more meaningful consideration once you’ve pulled a tentative collection together?
As always, looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
There’s a kind of heaven that comes from hearing another writer interpret the mysteries of process – & I could not connect more with your depiction! I got so excited when I read it! Being in the scene, breathing and sensing and seeing it, yet simultaneously ‘sculpting it with some spontaneous precision’ is exactly what it feels like! It’s a ‘seizure of awareness’ (& in the pattern of wanton quoting which I seem to be following in our dialogue, I’m ascribing this to Anne Sexton!) where everything you’ve critically absorbed is also acute and operative during the trance. I know I’m going to sound crazed and rapt, and there’ll be many readers who loathe me now but: it’s actually taken me two days to respond to you because I’m deep in that process now, and a little dazed by it. It’s been a sudden arrival – unbidden, the outset of a story has just broken out in me. And it feels long. And it’s dragging me under hard. To the point of, yes, a kind of shellshock. But also I have no choice but to follow. Because there’s nothing like playing the music of unconscious sentences that way: feeling the sound and the rhythm and the pressure of them just glide the meaning into place. Somehow, out of nowhere, I just know these pages: I know the sound of the piece, I know the score, I know the flow, the melody and beat of its sentences, so when searching for the words I just somehow feel the sound-shapes I am after, down to the syllables, edges, stresses, vowels. And yes, the silence between the notes, the pull of the white spaces. Its profound, and exhilarating. And fierce. And I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it. And I’m kind of getting gooseflesh even daring to voice it aloud, in case I break the spell. Superstition closing in…fear that it won’t last! That it will spread its wings and sweep away as fast as it rushed in on me.
But I also know it’s costing me. I feel it in my nerves, down my spine. It’s going to be a very dark dive. So yes, there’s a great risk of finding yourself in cold spaces, in other lives you don’t want to breathe and see, in events whose traumas you don’t want to have to carry around under your ribcage. But there’s no other way, I agree. If I guard myself, detach, put on armour, I do break that pact of immersion, of empathy – and somehow that’s just a part of the deal, that the story gets full access to me, mind and body. It’s the only way to transmit it to the reader’s senses, if it’s first allowed all over and within yours.
I really like your idea that the editing stage could be a place to take a breath though, come up for some less intoxicating, or polluting, air. Because I must confess, I’m just not drawn into the editing process with the same intensity – and so have to drive myself to grind through that task. There’s just not the same grip and fix in it! Yes, I can get quite cold while labouring there, a bit distant and disengaged. But I think the concept that it’s a healthy little head-break from the bodily demands of the dive is a stroke of genius. So rather than missing the rush of composition, and lamenting that the music is defused there, I should see the edit as a phase of almost release, a taste of (maybe) easier analytical pleasures. I’m going to adopt the art of toggling!
And yes, I’m sure this all feeds into the issue of the balance of darkness and the danger to the reader. God, yes, in the past I’ve felt constantly assaulted by complaints that there’s just too much darkness in my work. But now I think I’m muscling up, getting a bit of mongrel in me, on this question. Recently I did a flash fiction panel with the magnificent Nuala Ni Conchuir, and she fielded this issue with such a ferocious eloquence I wish I could remember what the hell she said! – but in essence it was a radiant middle finger in the face of critics who complained women shouldn’t write dark. I do agree with you, that there has to be some equilibrium, some balance – even in those places of absolute fracture there has to be a glint of hope, of resistance, let in. In this way, my heart belongs to that Van Gogh quote, which says something like ‘I’m trying to paint the darkness, which nevertheless has some light in it.’ That’s what I see my stories as trying to do. ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in,’ says Cohen, too – and I’m not ashamed to say that song dissolves me every time I hear it! I guess I believe that you have to show the dark, expose the cracks, to find a trace of the light. Maybe to earn it…Ultimately I think the light is the language itself, that we have a hope of using it to illuminate what hurts, what starves, what hunts, what weights. That we can find a voice that lives to speak the story. Because as bleak as some of my characters’ stories are, they’re still stories of survival, through the sheer fact someone’s telling them.
But yes, too, I do find that balance comes into close focus when ordering the stories. When I’m in each one, I’m owned by it alone, and I never have a prefigured flow or sequence of overall pieces in mind. It’s a strange transition. With deleted scenes I somehow felt this triptych fall in place – I knew the pieces that should begin and end the piece, and the one that stood halfway – but outside that bare frame I did find the weaving of the others quite a challenge. And it was the impact on the reader that I found playing most on my awareness. The story that stood at the centre was ‘consent,’ which is just a bodyblow of a story, as the title gives away, and I found it a struggle to know what to follow with, after such brutality…I searched for every inspiring metaphor I could find from other writers on how to arrange pieces – the one I liked the most was the image of the old LP, with the flow of listening experience across sides A and B. So any insights you could share on the art of ordering stories would be so good to hear! Because I found the experience of your volume beautifully ‘tuned.’ (And stay dark – maybe we should get that printed on teeshirts!): I goddamn loved the darkness of it!)
Yes, I do think we may need the shirts: go dark or go home. I too have felt a great pressure over the years to lighten up. It’s difficult not to hear the sexist undertones (or are they overtones?)—all my life, strange men (and even my familiars) have told me to smile, relax, let it go—but, for better or worse, my gaze always returns to darker territories. I am cursed (blessed?) with the literary equivalent of resting bitch face. And I get it: not everyone is in the mood all the time to read a story, for example, that won’t let the issue of a missing girl go. But I honestly tire of texts that use the missing girl as a mere device and my work has become a means of resisting the dominance of those kinds of narratives. I don’t know that I initially went into it this way (I think my early direction as a writer was largely instinctual), but now I feel as though the depiction of female emotional pain and trauma, for example, is a form of radical resistance. I won’t shut up and neither will my characters.
I hope you’ll endure, though, a sudden veer into another territory of conversation: I recently did a visit with a class of college students who had read some of my stories in advance of the visit and they asked me what I’d been reading when I wrote a particular story and what I was reading generally. I anticipated this kind of question and had a few texts at the ready, but then I found myself unexpectedly talking about how I was attracted as a writer to “stealing” shapes from other texts in order to form a structure strong enough to hold my (sometimes highly expressive) prose style. I noticed (with great pleasure!) as I read your collection that many of your stories assumed distinct shapes: epistles, stories told in parts, etc. And I wondered if you arrived at those kinds of choices organically or if you went into the writing process with the knowledge that you’d employ a chosen form?
One of the stories we discussed in that class was “Sole Survivor,” which is a story told in three rotating parts, but also a re-telling of a Grimm’s fairy tale. It came out of an assignment I’d given my own students (I often write alongside them because I’m always looking for nooks and crannies in my teaching life to fill with my writing life) and it was probably the speediest story I’ve ever written. I think I had the parts in place in a week and then I shuffled and re-shuffled a little. The quickness of the writing was a big revelation for me (I have been known to work on stories for decades (!!!)), but the synergies between the parts of the story were also big surprises. This one little story taught me how to write better faster and how to bring spontaneous discoveries and rigid formal structures together. Since then, I’ve regarded pre-fab forms as a secret superpower. I’m always excited to hear from other writers how they approach these kinds of things. I expect that we use these new superpowers until they become old and we need new ones to keep us going. What’s keeping you going these days?
‘I won’t shut up, and neither will my characters.’ I feel like nailing that over my desk! (Or should we start that line of lit-bitch t-shirts?: there are days when I need to wear this branded on my ribs! I agree: that message to ‘lighten up sweetheart’ doesn’t even seem disguised as an undertone in so many cases – one of the things I gloried in when reading your stories (‘Peek-a-boo is such a killing encounter with the sexualised Jane Doe) was the way you eyeball it with such feminist ferocity!)
Far from having to endure a detour into the question of structure or shape, I’m just struck again by how uncannily you’ve pinpointed an issue which runs deep into the core of craft for me. I agree that structure can be key, especially for writers like us, who want to play with the full palette of language and let poetry ripple out into the prose sentence. One of the things that pulsed for me when I opened your book was the atmospheric sound of your sentences, and the way you pushed depictions into such sensuous tension through your painterly awareness of words. They had a sculptural, bodily feel too, so skin-temperature and arresting – I connected instantly. Because that’s the way I’ve worked: refusing to strip back and sacrifice poetry, trying to seek ways to transfuse it into narrative. (I’m a fan of writer Sarah Hall who describes poetic-prose as ‘cat-dog’ literature: yes, we all know the dog of narrative has to run ahead and chase the damn stick, but the cat likes to stretch, and sneak, luxuriate and hunt where it pleases, sunning itself in sound-pleasures). And shape has been central to that project – I utterly identify with your perception of needing a hard structure to take poetic weight. It’s like you need a tight frame to keep all the colours and sound-intensities contained. I don’t know how conscious this discovery has been, or how much outright stealing has been involved in it – but I certainly woke up at some point to the way in which a rigid structure can license release, and let the unconscious, animal energy of language out within a strong formal cage. And like you, I’ve had those moments where that fusion of the two just seems to pour the story through you, at speed – and yes, now you ask me, I realize that that has often occurred around stories where I’d struck upon a kind of ‘pre-fab’ skeleton or architecture for the piece – not in the sense of knowing what the plot would be (a facet which I usually know nothing of to start with…) but in terms of having found some schema, a network, or sequence, or patterning, even a refrain, or repeated phrase (like poetry…hmmm, maybe that’s where it comes from???). So it’s structure as stylistic device rather than design of narrative events, I guess. It’s like finding a kind of choreography that the language can dance to…With the title story in ‘deleted scenes for lovers’ I remember the first line arriving and working on me like a chant, that hummed vaguely in the back-room of my mind for days: ‘They are the lovers. You can’t blame them.’ But initially I had no idea where that line I found so hypnotic was taking me…Then the concept of inter-cutting the story from film-scenes of lovers to the sufferings of real ones just flashed upon me, and frame after frame surfaced from there. Or in ‘scenes of a long-term nature’ (which came after ‘deleted scenes’ like an antidote for those lovers) I had the aim of capturing the scope of a lifelong relationship within a short fiction – but it didn’t leap to life until I set myself two technical controls: writing in future tense, and switching from scene to summary. It’s fascinating that those stories both use sliding scenes, or a sequence of shifting frames, the same way ‘Sole Survivor’ does – a piece whose deliciously menacing tone and eerie filmic control I just ate up! It’s the tone that seems to focus that story with such irradiating fixation, dwelling on lush and chilling detail with such an aura of threat, and dark irony: I wonder, did the voice of each section grip you straight away? Was the voice or tone or point-of-view inseparable from structure, roused instantly by the formal discovery?
But to go back to another facet of your structural insights that fascinates me – I’m struck (& heartened!) that they happened around your teaching. Because looking back, the breakthrough around these two ‘scene’ stories of mine did too – and it was a similar process: I was so consumed by teaching that I snatched time by attacking exercises I’d written for students. The more walled-in by teaching my creative self gets, and the more blocked off from her own time, the more she switches from ‘resting-bitch’ to ‘bloodthirsty animal,’ so I had to let her out somewhere! It’s uplifting to think that amidst the often-dominant demands of teaching the breakthroughs still came. I remember being terrified when I once read Jayne Anne Phillips’ comment that ‘teaching shoots writing in the head.’ I know exactly what she means because there can be whole months where my skull is just owned by it, drained and vacant – and I have to stage violent brawls with my timetable to batter back in some alone time with the page. To teach, and to write, you have to give, give, give – and I often, sometimes graphically, even physically, hit limits. But simultaneously, there’s nothing like it: and as much as it can tap and tax and over-use me, it can fill me back up, or relight me in unforeseen bursts, such as with those stories. And I’ve even wondered whether the conditions of pressure are what’s caused the story to unleash in a rush – I’m so restricted in terms of writing time, and the need to get words down builds to such a pitch, that ‘the blood jet’ is story…How do you feel about the teaching/writing balance? Are you poised beautifully on that tightrope? Or do you sometimes fall without a net?
I’m aware I haven’t answered your question about whether the formal discoveries surfaced from my reading. Do I steal shapes from what I read? I can’t put my finger on any that I’ve overtly pinched. But I often get triggered to give students exercises built around particular pieces – and I think in some way that process of creating tasks based on structures or techniques drawn from others’ work, is kind of just externalising and extending to students my own reading-stimulated process. They’re always asking me where I get the exercises from: I’m always answering, READING (that thing I relentlessly urge them to do, and lament at the eternal evidence that they don’t!). And reading is one thing that keeps me going: as soon as I’m in a book I feel my creative self being fed, and moving among the lines hunting for inspiration. And intoxicants. And sustenance. And yes, those formal tools to draw fresh blood.
Here’s a question I’m hungry to ask you, because the sound of your lines is so bodily and radiant – how much is it the sound or the feel of the words that draws you on, keeps you moving ahead in a story? I have to confess that I can’t connect with the ‘shitty first draft’ theory in every sense (or at least, not in solely narrative terms) – I believe in letting go and making whatever uncensored mess necessary in the first creative stage, yes, but I just can’t sacrifice awareness of the sound of my sentences in order to chase that big stick of the story. Because in some primal level it’s the words themselves that lead me on, prick my senses, light my way ahead; it’s the words and their energy that make the scene vibrate and live, so without them, there’s no way to see…Is that the same for you I wonder?
First, a thousand apologies for my disappearance. I seem to have fallen off the very tightrope you described in your last (wonderful) message. I’m teaching more than I usually teach this semester and also editing a literary journal, which I am apparently so hellbent on growing that I seem to do nothing in the evenings but read submissions. It is finally time for me to claw my way back to more creatively vital (to me) endeavors, so I made writing to you and editing one of my own stories my two priority items for the day.
In any case, I find so much with which to concur in your last message that I fear I may appear to be the human embodiment of an ardently nodding head in my reply. In answer to your question of how much the feel of the words figures into my forward movement on the page, I’d say that I tend always to follow the sound–perhaps even to a fault. In my head, each word is connected to the next like a garland I’m winding around a room. Going too far along without righting an item on the strand creates a kind of dissonance that wrankles the whole damn line. So, I’m tweaking and tinkering and—yes—sometimes even speaking quietly aloud as I feel for the “right” words and sounds and stringing my way forward.
Some of my oldest stories are so deeply embedded in my felt-sense of the process of writing—testing the whole line again and again for resonance, for rightness—that lines will come to me unbidden as I’m walking through the grocery store or driving to work. It’s a weird thing having one of your own sentences land on your tongue like some famous quote—I think therefore I am!—might for another person, but there it is in the checkout line: I was sixteen the day the water came. I’ve worked and reworked the lines so frequently that their sounds are permanent decorations in some deep anteroom of my brain. I suppose there are worse things to carry with you, but I will say that I envy the speed with which I witness other prose writers filling pages. It would be easier, I think, to not worry too much, to not hear, but then I’d be writing in a way that didn’t carry the same weight and meaning for me. I’m not sure it would carry the same, enduring interest for me. I write therefore I am.
This summer I spent time with a writer who writes in a similar fashion—all the words seem inextricably connected because we’ve so carefully sounded our way to them—and we both confessed to each other that we’ve tried and failed repeatedly to write a shit-ton of shitty first drafts. Both of us are known as good editors and alpha readers for other writers; I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I talk to my students frequently about learning to trust their gut instincts about the way a sentence should sound, or a way a novel should reach its way into being. As writers, we’ve been training all our lives to hear missteps in pacing, detail, timing—every book we read is yet another opportunity to build upon this deeply internalized knowledge base. I’m reminded of Italo Calvino’s lessons in “On Quickness.” He argues that the “defects of the clumsy storyteller” are above all “offenses against rhythm, as well as being defects of style,” because the writer does not “use the expressions appropriate to either the characters or to the events.” It’s about paying attention, I think. About listening. Hearing. Anyone who has ever endured a poorly-delivered joke knows what it means to sound your way to the better line. Writing is not so different to me.
So, yes, as you say, the answer to so many questions is READING. I’m currently two books into an apocalyptic trilogy and I think I may never complete the sequence. It’s very unlike me, but I’m just not sure this series has anything more to teach me. I wonder what you’re reading. Have you discovered anything to love recently?
To answer your question regarding “Sole Survivor,” I went into it thinking that each of the three storylines would represent different degrees of lyricism. So, the first cycle, which is the most direct re-telling of the Pied Piper story is thick and dense. I open things up a little in the second cycle, which features the dance recital. And then, the art professor’s sections, I’m about as loosey goosey as I ever get. I wanted the difference in the style to be clear so that even without the section breaks the reader would have the very clear sense that the story was shifting into a different mode. It’s so wonderful that you mention “deleted scenes for lovers” in conjunction with that one because I so deeply connected with the structural finesse on display in that story. I love the sense of the pieces coming together to create the fullness of the whole—the shuttling between modes as a performative aspect of the tensions in the story. It’s really not very often that I see that happening in short fiction and, when I do, it’s often couched as “experimental” fiction, which shuffles it off from “the norm” or the “mainstream” in fiction in a way that I don’t find terribly productive—which brings me to my next question for you: what (to you) is true experiment in fiction?
As the editor of a journal with an “experimental category” I find myself trying to define this for myself quite often. I’m always interested in work that challenges formal conventions—the boundaries between poem and story or story and essay, for example—but I tend to balk at work that invests very deeply in concept and doesn’t seem to utilize all of the other tools at the fiction writer’s disposal. Where’s the rigor? The kind of experiment in fiction that turns my head around are stories that make me rethink what a story can do, but also tell me something about the world in which I live. And, in a way, that’s not very experimental at all; that’s what all writers should be striving, on some level, to do. As you can see, my thinking on this topic is, in a word: fraught. What are your thoughts?
I’ll close here with apologies again for vanishing for so long. It’s so good to climb back on the tightrope and begin to balance again.
So – now it’s my turn to beg forgiveness for my vanishing. I can’t believe I let the world wash me out from our project quite so far – but a tide hit that was over my head by miles & I feel like I’m only just resurfacing. God, doesn’t real life like to blindside you, & blow all your pages into the roar…Maybe life is what happens when you think you’re only writing…
Anyway, this is an attempt to pick up the traces: you asked about what I had been reading – and the truth is, pulled off course into crisis, I wasn’t reading anything at all. And that’s always a bad thing. It’s guaranteed to deepen the dark. When I’m not able to read I feel cut off, only half-awake, like a kind of electrical system within me has nothing left to run through its nerves. There’s an atrophy to it that gets outright terrifying, a drought around the heart. Something inside me that needs to hear that music feels shut off, solitary, in a sound-proof cell. The lesson must be not to let go of reading no matter what place life leads me into, no matter what high-pressured straits of time the conditions of each day drive me through – it’s like trying to give up breath. And to finally learn that reading, for me, is an inextricable part of the writing process: once I’m restored to it, the rhythm of my own words somehow wakes back up in answer. It’s like a kind of call-&-response – and if I don’t open books the call never comes…
So lately I’ve been trying to read my way back – and it’s short stories that have pulled me back above: Lucia Berlin for her boozy iridescence, her husky been-there look at rock bottom; Carmen Maria Machado’s lush and fleshy and hard-eyed re-takes on the apocalypse; the chime of Kirsty Gunn’s high-strung brightness, the smiling middle-class brink where her characters tip; Katherine Mansfield’s luminescent sadness, the barest wing of it brushing through the light glint of her sentences (which Gunn is the inheritor of); Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker, whose precision cruelty & twisted sexual loneliness I intend to flourish in future at anyone who dares to brand my work dark (it’s a pale dream up against Meijer’s wounding psychodramas); and a short story writer I just met, Robin Maclean, whose stories in Reptile House are like a tour past dark & breathtaking pieces of sculpture. And god Sarah, yours: because I’ve been re-reading Fall Together and the stories all hollow my sternum with the same sense of recognition: when I came again to the words in the final piece ‘The Roads Are Like That,’ to the heroine longing for ‘a place deep enough in the woods for people to forget me as more than a face that happened once behind a bar,’ to her realisation that ‘behind the bones in my face were the bones of a hundred other women gone before, none of us having made it straight’…well, those sentences struck. I felt like you’d somehow distilled the lonely voice of women’s short stories, lined it up shining on the bar and made me shoot it neat. I felt brokedown, but goddamnit, home. And home too, in that final axefall of sentences that ends the story, where she talks of splitting wood, last trick against the bleak still alive in a body that rocks with unquenched longing: ‘You have to let something of yourself go, and strike without doubt, because it is necessary, because there is no one else…to swing your palm up on the neck of the axe in one motion, like a one-syllable word…like want, like I want this, and it will happen.’ Those words are a clean fatal hit to the heart – and they must be among the most perfect closing words to ever shear off a story, and a short story volume. (But I shouldn’t have been shocked at how perfectly that last blow fell, because the evidence of every story in the book is that you’re in possession of a true gift for the end – so I wonder, when does the ending of your stories hit you, and does the sound and rhythm of it ring out strong from its arrival with those particular words?)
Brokedown realities up against the ache and rock of want…that last sentence sings to the collection so perfectly. And yet each story in Fall Together is so utterly itself, so strikingly its own stark object, with its own properties and voice and weight and light. (And I need to veer off and thank you here for directing me to Italo Calvino – I hadn’t read his Memos and I’m now poring through them, and feeling, though my thoughts are still hazy around them, like some zone of my brain is inhaling insights I need). Which leads me to your other question, about what constitutes experimentation. Is it a stretch to say every story is, and should be, an experiment? It felt to me, reading you, that each piece had been carved into character and drive and shape and style utterly anew, each story its own fresh work with language. I don’t know if you feel that when you start a piece, you’re standing on a new unknown edge – but I always do, and it always feels like it’s an experiment with what language can tap or scrape or whisper out of this particular darkness…a bit like your buried man in ‘The Collapse’ ‘spend[ing] hours developing words in this pipe-rock language, a vocabulary broad enough to communicate…realising that your language is already dead. How do you…teach it to the men on the outside? How will they come to understand your pain, the pressure in your ears, and the thirst that rises in your throat?’ It’s a physical need to find a method of connecting through the dark that always takes experiment. And yes, we come to the unknown of each story with the technical tools that we hope might help us leave a mark, but what works this time will always come as a shock, and will usually, at least for me, be reached by instinct and the unconscious. I think that’s where I always land on experiment: my stories don’t experiment out of conscious technicality, I don’t tamper or play up out of tactic or strategy, it’s something that arises from the need of a freed unconscious, the baseline of instinctual surrender that has to be allowed to let the language run through me and take on the forms that it wants and wills. So the pieces that might look, from the outside, like they came of testing and calculation, usually came instead from unconscious rush and a sense of physical pressure: they didn’t happen because I was switching technical hats, but because the top of my head came off, as Emily Dickinson says. Absolute experiment – wide open radical no-holds submission to free-ranging wildness – has to be in play for the unconscious to touchdown on the page. I don’t know…if good prose is like a windowpane, as Orwell says, then I seem to have taken a sledgehammer to it in my latest couple of stories, which are not so much a narrative sequence of scenes as a shattered collage of story shards, the form and language smashed up with all the opacity and jaggedness of trauma-ridden telling. The result comes perilously close to poetry, jerking the story round the page in discontinuous flashes, but again that’s the kind of risky genre-fluid space that I most want to navigate. Letting the unconscious loose in the composition of story, as with poetry…it’s all trying to get to the inarticulable, to grip it and ink it, and face it and pin it, and that will always lead the way of experimentation. I don’t think there’s any other way. And I think what I end up loving in other experimental work is that sense too: that it came about not through cerebral antics but through the rule-break and blood-beat of the human, the pushes of the Id, the trespasses of the heart – yes, as you say, it’s experiment that’s founded on a deep need to see and say who the hell we are now that holds far more appeal than any masterful po-mo for-the-sake-of-it trickery.
Maybe that’s why I stay with short stories and poetry, and shy from longer prose…because I fear the novel has a longer-term investment in shutting down those risky energies. And here (descending trio of threatening chords, dun-dun-dun) is where I creep towards the question I know I’ll regret if I don’t ask you, and yet I fucking dread! As a writer who’s obviously got instinctive gifts for the short form, how do you find longer prose? I’m always trying to wander there…but I think Calvino might be helping me see where, when I work at length, I lose quickness and lightness…
I have chosen a day when snow has hushed the house (the children are out sledding with my husband) to formulate a response to your always-immensely insightful treatments of this crazy business we call writing stories.
I say crazy because it does feel really very crazy to put something so unwieldy and at least half unknowable at the center of your life and try to hold it there. Forever.
It is easier, far easier, to vacuum or grade papers or shovel the walk than it is to force writing time into the average day. The flip side, of course, is the emotional toll NOT writing takes. With my vacuumed carpets and graded papers and shoveled walk, I can feel as though I’ve been good, but I can’t feel fully realized. At best, I’m a guilt-wounded thing staggering around in search of a way back into regular practice; at worst, I’m an angry malcontent: why is all of this stuff in the way of my work?!?
A good writing day, meanwhile, makes me feel like myself, my best true self. Sometimes, on very fleeting but exhilarating occasions, it makes me feel powerful—like a massive and confident being stomping around in my own life. And reading, as you note, is a pretty damn reliable way to draw forth that potential giantess. How strange to re-realize again and again that reading brings me back to writing. What a strange affliction these bouts of writerly amnesia can be; so many things I must teach myself again and again.
All of this is a way of thanking you for your wonderful catalogue of juicy book leads. I have Machado’s spunky collection, but I’m putting Berlin, Gunn, and Meijer in my queue. Lately, I’ve been too easily seduced by the bright shiny object of political news. I am attempting to wean myself off my evil phone by downloading digital books to my slightly-less-evil tablet. And I’m in desperate need of new short story loves.
Alexander Chee’s brilliant How to Write An Autobiographical Novel and Sarah Sweeney’s super saucy Tell Me If You’re Lying are helping me to see how some literary non-fiction I’ve been tinkering with might organize itself into a longer work. And I am also, I must confess, working on a (probably very weird) novel, so I’m reading some books that operate in the absurdist realm: Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love and Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area are both novels that pull off literary strangeness in a way that seems both effortless and significantly mind-altering, but they are otherwise nothing at all alike. All of these books (and others) live in a tablet that I share with my children, so fingerprints and snack remnants are part of my reading experience.
Full disclosure: I finished writing a very conventional historical novel a couple of years ago and can’t quite figure out how to fix it, so this second novel was initially an attempt to get some time and distance on a project that has sucked up more than a decade of slogging-type work. And this new, other book also lets me work in a much freer form. The POV is very mobile, so I’m able to pop into very lyrical modes for short bursts and then toggle back into a more conventional, novelistic mode.
The malleability of the form is what is making it possible for me to write something that might wind up becoming 200-300 pages long without tossing myself off any available and nearby brain-cliff: vacuuming, grading, rage tweeting. While I do find writing longish short stories to be a good fit for the way my mind works (dear Lord I love the m-dash and all of it’s embedded expansiveness), my most automatic and deeply-ingrained way of being on the page is to lean into the image in a way that is not entirely sustainable beyond 10-15 pages. So, to answer your question, the way I am doing it is to trick myself into doing it. I bargain, I cajole.
Look, I tell myself, you can write a two-page chapter today! And it can be super voicey and stylized! Hardcore persuasive tactics are required to force myself into the planning part of things. I allow myself to do that kind of work on my phone (a now-forbidden object) in the “note” function. Look, I tell myself. That’s the kind of work that you can do anywhere—at the bus stop, for example, or in a waiting room. What could you lose by giving it some thought? You do remember that decade of slogging aimlessly, don’t you? And then I hammer out a series of outline-type things with my thumbs.
There is a great deal of pressure on the level of the career to write novels, of course. I became aware of it as I was working on my MFA, but I was so in love with stories that I couldn’t even imagine turning away—even to experiment, even to ponder a decent advance. Stories were my fuel—the writing and the reading of them. They were the best way I’d figured out how to live. And I’d say that that’s still true today, but now having written a novel, I know that I can do it. And writing in the longer form showed me something about realizing a bigger chunk of life on the page. I’m sufficiently intrigued to give another whirl. But, stories are still my thing. It seems the form’s impression on me is permanent.
After publishing a collection of stories that may not have reached a bazillion readers, but did reach readers who said they felt “found” by the book in (wonderful, sustaining) messages of support, I feel buoyed in a way that I simply didn’t feel before. And it doesn’t have very much to do with career in the financial sense of the word. (Short stories are not generally known for their cash-generating properties and I have resolved myself to the reality that whatever I write, it’s necessarily going to be somewhere outside of the mainstream.) Rather, it’s about rationalizing the decision to place writing at the center. Trying to hold writing there—forever—is very difficult, but it’s who I am. I made myself a writer and, since there’s no undoing it, I may as well trick myself into doing something interesting with the time I have left in this life.
I assume you feel that career pressure too (all prose writers do), but I suspect (based on the fire in your work and what you’ve shared of your life here with me) that stories are the enough, the way. I know I’d be happy to read about a bazillion more from you. So, wherever you may go, I hope you’ll keep returning to the form.
I think short stories love you back in a way that novels can’t. You can read a story you wrote a decade ago, two decades ago, and you can do it in one sitting and walk away feeling: Oh, yeah. I did that, didn’t I? I did that. I wonder: what’s the story you know in advance will remind you of what you may have forgotten of your own capacities and potentials? When you cited the final lines from “The Roads Are Like That” in your last message, I so was happy to ping back to the moment when I put those words on the page. I was many years removed from the woods that inspired the story, but I could feel the trees swaying around me and knew the story was right. What a feeling of potential!
The children have returned—red cheeks and enormous appetites for spicy hummus. So, I’ll close here.
There’s snow at my house too…but that’s been created by the process of tearing up cartons of old failed manuscripts in an effort to carve clear space in my new little cottage. I’m not sure yet whether kneeling in a new ‘room of your own’ to shred long-abandoned pages is a good way of breathing fresh life into your writing world…or whether it’s an act of mourning. Whatever it is, it’s a tough kind of rite. There’s something physical about it – the sound of all those gashes sliding open in your words! My muscles ache tonight from the trash I’ve made out of the alphabet. Maybe if I throw myself down on this landslide of scraps I can sled off to somewhere unexpected – maybe I should just try to remember the creative rush I first felt riding these early words, even if I finished up crashing at the end of the slope…Instead, I’m trying to bodybag all these white feathers and dump them out on the kerb – hoping a late-night dog doesn’t turn it to a blizzard.
I think the hardest thing about the process has been this: all those pieces that flashed before my eyes that might have lived in a shorter story, but instead were lost because I couldn’t press on to give them their whole form. I pick up their fragments and they almost breathe…but ultimately I can’t find a way to revive them. I hate the feeling that if I’d stuck to what seems to be my instinctive mode I could have given them a beautiful story; instead I’m left with all these stillborn pieces. And yes, the pressure to push into the long form does come from the dreaded market and its insistence that the novel is the only commercially viable model for prose. There’s an overwhelming sense that as a short story writer you’re committing career suicide if you don’t strive for a novel. Make what sells, box up words the way the industry wants. I find myself showing my teeth on this subject all the time – it gets me good and red in jaw and claw. And yet, the twist here is that simultaneously I am immersed (again) in something longer, that does keep speaking to me. And at the outset of it, I knew it as utterly as I know my short stories when I start to write them, knew the beat of its sentences, knew its scenes in the gallery at the back of my mind. But – & this is the threshold I know I have to find a way to cross – I can tap into, channel this knowing swiftly in a short piece, I can catch at its connections quick and light. With a long piece, somehow gravity hits me. There’s some tipping point of wordcount where I can’t outrun doubt, where all of those fears that the sheer thrill of writing has ousted for long enough in shorter work, come back to weigh me down. I know what I’d tell any other writer facing these: keep the faith, kill the angel, surrender, write like everyone is dead. I need to scull flagons of my own medicine. For a novel I might need intravenous doses.
Slog, grind, chip, battle, bluster and drag – I do take your point about the bootcamp tactics that it takes to bully yourself through to the thick end of a novel. It’s a kind of stamina I was very conscious of missing as I ripped up those old soft boxes of words. But I don’t think it’s truly a lack of grit, so much as a surplus of good old dark and doubt. I’ve just got to find a way to tease and decoy those demons. I am inspired to know that a writer as rich and rhythmic and image-lead as you has battered their way across the finish line – and I’m definitely keen on scamming myself by similar means of bribe & lure: whatever setup of feint and chicanery keeps me writing through! It definitely has to be a trick that allows the language to stay central. And yes, refusing to see the long form as any more fixed and limited and blinkered and mainstream than the story is going to be key, so I still give myself full permission to play as loose and crazy as I please. An experiment at length. An extended episode of reckless poetic fucking about. And ultimately there is a piece of me – even crouching on my office floor circled by tatters – that thinks no work with words is ever wasted. All the false starts and spoiled chapters might just be where the light gets in, and shows the way ahead. I have to hope that Joyce Carol Oates is right, and ‘failure is preparation.’
That is the only course I can take, because, just as you say (so goddamn beautifully), I have set writing at the centre of my life. nailed my colours to the wall. I love how you lay such boldface claim to it, that unwavering ‘I made myself a writer.’ Yes, a writer is what, & maybe all, I’ve made of myself. I’ve lit that flame and thrown everything to it, fed it so much there may be nothing else. And if I have to keep feeding it – even stacks of story I’ve torn clear through the heart – well, that’s what I’ll do.
You are so right though, that the feel of a single story that worked can lend such grace back to you years later, so matter how slender its pagecount. Cross my tired heart I’m glad you sent me looking for those! Because even amidst the gloom of dumping all those old discards, I did have some seconds where I sat and looked at a story, a very early one called ‘Wheat,’ where I felt like I’d truly caught what I needed, in this case to capture mother-child love (maybe the traces of your little ones’ footprints coming home in your last letter took me there…). And by coincidence I was also sent back, by a publisher’s request (oh how we need to cling to tiny victories), to a fresher piece – one of those experimental stories that hit the page in fractures I was telling you about – and then, out-of-nowhere, the weirdest kind of chain-epiphany struck. It was too crazily multi-layered to explain – it was more of a detonation of shards than a traceable sequence of thought-connections – but a whole net of things just scattered into place – including ways I might be able to solve not just one but two of the stalled longer stories…Creativity is such a hair-trigger thing. It’s always capable of stunning me with strange unforeseen moves. Early days, but…it’s such a mystery to feel that fire in your brain again, burning along tracks in a glistening instant where it seemed that every direction had shut down, gone dark. (And not just temporary dark, but the dark of months, even years, staring at a stunted story). Just what sets those atoms humming? I do not pretend for a split second to understand that. But I’m hopeful that just carrying the ache of the questions around with me for long enough has done unconscious work. And also, maybe the process of actively pondering these issues in letters to you has set those questions so alight in my mind the heat just built to flashpoint around them…Perhaps that’s a good reason to keep some kind of diary on process, to keep those everpresent questions vocalised, to keep prodding the mind to push & stretch at issues of craft. God knows I love reading other writers on writing, whether diary or essay or interview – do you?
And yet (the lead-in to my next question)…I’m also conscious that both the stories which prompted this strange spurt of renewal are attached to memories of a win, of approbation, confirmation coming from outside, in the form of publisher or judge. Of an external source telling me it was good work…I’d hate to think that I’m that spinelessly vulnerable to outside reassurance – and I know that I’d never let outside views alter anything about how or what I wrote – but I have to confess that if I hadn’t had some of the wins I’ve received, especially in the early years, I might not have managed to pull together the self-belief I needed…Do you find that you need (even just a little dose of) the sustenance of others endorsing your work? Or have you mastered a way of saying to hell with approval?
How brilliant are to blizzard your manuscripts. It’s a wonderful thing, I think, to let some of the debris of past writing lives go. I have done it mainly by accident—too many big moves to count, two failed hard drives—but I recently tossed some old files and had this very strong feeling that the fact that I was able to see their uselessness to me meant that I’d made it just far enough to escape a certain era of doubt. And then I read an interview with a writer who said she’d just placed a story she’d written 20 years ago and felt instant regret.
Let it go, says the animated girl in the movie my girls wisely recognize as a bit too scary in her insistence to be believed. Let it go, let it go, let it go.
In the beginning, you’re writing to create a pile that’s discernible as a pile. Anything less than a pile isn’t quite enough. And then two decades pass and the piles are all around you—suddenly all too discernible. I do agree that no word is wasted. One takes you to the next and the next. Sometimes I’m revising my novel and I swing past several different versions of myself in one edit. I think that’s the difference with the longer work. It takes many of you to bring it into being. A story I can write as one self.
Speaking of selves: I do try to record them in a journal, but I’m a terrible slob in notebook form. I have these moleskines I try to make last for about year and by the end they are scrap-bundled messes. Teaching helps me to articulate matters of craft and process in a way that keeps me accountable, keeps me reaching, keeps me organized. I too love reading other writers on craft—especially for those little technical nuggets—and I collect those pieces in a folder in the cloud.
One day, I’ll be confronted with the great pile of digital debris I’ve created and I’ll have to discern its meaning. Until then, though: file, save, file, save, file, save.
On the matter of outside approval, I do need and absolutely crave it. But I’ve never listened to anyone on the business end of things about what I should write. Or, maybe I tried and failed to listen. I tried once to ghostwrite, for example, and wound up writing a deranged re-telling of Little Women than I absolutely love, but is so far from what was asked of me that I have to laugh a little. An editor once told me that I’d better start writing magical realism—a genre I happen to love to read—because that was all anyone was publishing at the time, so I set out to write the story of a mystical pregnancy and normalized the bulge into a tumor. I love the story that resulted, but it isn’t at all what I was supposed to do. Once, a well-meaning professor asked me why I kept writing so many stories about women in bad relationships. I’m not writing about women in bad relationships, I said. I’m writing about men who are assholes. We can only do what we can do; we have very little control over what that means to anyone else. It would be nice, though, one day to do something that accidentally lines up with the market. A girl can dream!
Placing a story, selling a book, winning an award. All of those things mean so much—mainly because they rationalize the fact that I will keep going. No matter what, I’ll keep going. It’s not always very smart, I have to admit. And it can be lonely and depressing and a slog. But then someone wants to publish my deranged re-telling of Faulkner and I’m doing actual fist-pumps and a half-assed moonwalk in my office. I’m alive again and making my piles, making my piles.
Tell me more about this spurt of renewal? How do we bottle that light?
It’s a different kind of blizzard I’ve let loose in my house tonight – I’ve spread out the next collection of stories in a wild white cloud around my lounge, and I’m crawling around them trying to piece together a sequence. There’s something good about getting down here, all fours, clambering round these pages, stories crackling under my hands and sticking to my knees – in some ways it has made me a kid again: I’m remembering being down on the mat banging round those sucked blocks of the alphabet, or belly-down on sketch-paper with a stubbed crayon melting in my grip, my tongue out (because it had to be out) to make those shaky rainbow letters. Once it felt impossible just to make bits of the alphabet hold up, keep a tricky stack: once it took a mess of muscles just to make that streak of crayon link into a word. But I kept doing it. The love of language has been in my body from the start. And it’s still there, climbing round the piles of type I’ve fanned around my floor – they’re thin piles, yes, not the solid foundation of novel that the market wants from me. But I love them anyway. And some of these piles were total gifts, stories that just broke out in me, nape and gut and fingertips – why would I ever send those back saying no, sorry, not commercially acceptable, not long enough? Nope, down here bodily among my stories, I know there’s no way I’m closing myself off to them. I dent them and drop them, smooth them and shuffle them – and then I have the whole swatch in my hands – & it seems to me that they add up.
It’s that sense of page as play-pen that I love about the notebook too. I know what you mean about the pile-up of scuffed books – I’ve got a tower of them now too, leathery, spiralled, brimming with mad biro. And yes, the weird tilts in handwriting would make anyone think they’d been scribbled by a blur of selves – I seem to have one script when I think I’m writing fiction, and another when the currents of poetry blow the letters down. And I scratch notes at all angles – nothing toes the line. I make my students keep notebooks for this reason – so they learn to use the page as utterly free space again, a place to jot and blurt and hoard and chase whatever word-fragments they want, a room to jam in, to let the language in them make a musical mess, a free-rein noise. And though my notebooks are now a faded bank of scrap, every so often something leaps from them, and glitters – if I’m lucky sometimes I’ll be glancing through an old page and a whole net of notes will suddenly lift free, link and breathe…(Maybe it was one self saving words for the next one, bits of code it didn’t understand but the self to come could crack – your idea that the longer work takes many selves is fascinating. I know that sometimes if I’m forced to take a break from a story – if life knocks me away from the page – I can find it a struggle to fit back into the self that was first focused on it. And lately I seemed to have slipped a whole continuum of selves – maybe I’m getting a sense of the many skins it takes to shape a novel…I’m loving reading Alexander Chee too, and the way he talks about the novel’s many faces, the way that its first skin may be utterly unlike the self that steps out at revision’s end. You just have to keep opening doors to let the next version of the stranger enter. You just have to keep using words to weave that ‘chrysalis of guesses.’)
Which is all to say, I suppose, that it’s worth making the debris. That cloud of trash is where the light can abruptly strike out. So many of the stories rayed around me on the floor were accidents – not exactly unbidden because of course I’ve filled my life with language, packed my days with it, house & eyes & heart – but still they’ve often been strange arrivals. ‘After the successful accident, you wake. Something is left in your hand’ writes Chee. Of course, he’s talking about the novel – and I’m ready to suffer that kind of accident – but even if I don’t then I know what I’ve got in my hand. It’s a manuscript of unruly gifts, a sheaf of dark blessings. There’s still a lot of work it must go through – it’ll have to be pored and combed and stripped and questioned, yanked apart and pieced together again. And inevitably it’ll be up on that charge of darkness again, & yup, it’s a line-up of ‘women in bad relationships’ — but damn you have armed me with some shithot comebacks for those complaints! And on top of those bits of feisty artillery: your letters have meant so much to me – I think, if there is a way to bottle the light, then it comes from talking to other writers, even if all we’re doing sometimes is comparing the cracks in our work, the strains & missteps…Other times, like you say, we can kick off a shared dance round the desk at the sheer rowdy pleasure of writing. So right now, sitting with a new MS of stories in my fist, I wouldn’t change a word.