The Story Prize blog

Here’s a guest post I wrote for The Story Prize blog. There’s so much good stuff to read there.

I don’t write every day. I don’t even write every week. Not since grad school have I had the luxury of uninterrupted writing time, so my habits have adjusted to fit my schedule—a schedule that currently includes teaching a fiction-writing workshop and two freshman composition classes. It’s work I usually enjoy, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no denying that grading undergraduate ethnographies can eat into one’s writing time.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I’d want it any other way. If I won the lottery, I’d still want to teach, but maybe not quite as much. My stories come to me gradually and they require my active participation in the world. They begin as a solitary image or puzzle piece or bit of dialogue. “All Happy Families” (which was in Chicago Noir on Akashic Books) derived from my interest in applying James Joyce’s uses of lists to the station names in James Brown’s rendition of “Night Train.” “The Phillie Phanatic(Fiction International) began as a neo-slave narrative set at a baseball stadium. Right now, I’m contemplating what to do with a big red ice chest full of freshly caught fish and human body parts.

Don’t ask.

These ideas will percolate sometimes for years, literally.

I don’t write my ideas down, preferring instead to let them steep and grow more concentrated. (Despite my compulsion to buy every notebook I see, I don’t keep a journal though, you know, I definitely should.) Eventually—a week later, a month, a decade—I’ll sit down and bang out an entire draft of the story, start to finish. A few months ago, I published a story that first occurred to me in the winter of 1993, during an undergraduate workshop with Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires. Yes, I understand that it’s now 2010.

My first drafts are almost always in first person. Over the next few days, I’ll throw together three or four or five more drafts—sometimes complete overhauls—in which I roll them over to the third person. I can get pretty obsessive about it, writing all day and all night for however long it takes. The rest of my life falls to the wayside. Just ask my friends, who I never see, not until I’m satisfied with what I’ve written or I’m too sick of it not to care anymore.

At that point, I’d like to put the story down for a few weeks and ignore it. But that doesn’t always happen. In fact, it never does. I’ll invariably and impulsively send it off to a literary journal or my agent when what I should do is file it away and forget about it. Take a few months, then look at it with fresh eyes and revise it some more. Never happens.

I’m totally going to do that next time, though, I promise. This time I mean it.

Once a story is finished, I may not write another word for a long time. I’ll go back to spending quality time with my wife, seeing my friends, getting outdoors, playing World of Warcraft with my nephews. I suppose that makes me a kind of binge writer.

It’s an approach that serves me well for longer stories, like the three novellas that make up Extraordinary Renditions. It takes me so long to transition into actual writing that once I’m there I like to keep at it. To stay in character.

I wrote those stories in a different order than how they appear in the book. It started with the U.S. soldier Brutus, whose story “Brooking the Devil” now comes second. After that, I wrote “The Empty Chairs” and thought I had a complete book on my hands, one that mimicked in some oh-so brilliant way the narrative structure of Julius Caesar, which changes direction halfway through. An agent sent it out and among the rejections came the excellent suggestion to add a third novella. That became “14 Bagatelles,” which is probably my favorite of the three. (Shhh—don’t tell the others.)

I started writing it the spring of 2001, shortly after I’d quit a lucrative Internet job. And I was working on final edits up until the day the galleys went to the printers in the spring of 2010. Given my writing habits, it took me about nine years of actual on-again/off-again composition. But Brutus is a distant descendent of a character that first found me during that undergraduate fiction seminar in 1993, so the stories had been toiling around for much longer than that. Much of my writing process happens off the page.

I’m also careful about choosing what to read so that I can push my thoughts in different directions. Something as seemingly innocuous as a book-review assignment can throw off my thought process for weeks, but I do them anyway. I keep the complete thirteen-edition set of Frazer’s The Golden Bough next to my desk, and I consult it before starting every new fiction project.

What I’ve learned, if anything, is the need for even greater patience. I need to stop sending my work out before it’s ready—but maybe I need to concentrate more on my writing life and to work faster too. With some luck, my next book—a novel I’m calling Orwell on Jura—will be published in this decade. That would be nice. After that, I’ll begin writing a long novel-in-stories set in Philadelphia from 1600 to the present. I can already feel it taking shape.