Making It Look Easy: The Writing Process

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My partner’s mom read The Boy in the Well the other day and, to my relief, really enjoyed it. As she praised it, she mentioned how the writing just “flows out of you.” I had no choice but to laugh, because, as anyone who has been a writer for any amount of time can tell you, it almost never just flows out easily.

Those six stories that just “flowed out of me” took three years to finish. They went through maybe half a dozen different drafts each. For some of them, not much changed between the first and final drafts; “The Ambulance Driver,” at a terse 190 words long, has only altered by a few words here and there to add precision and clarity. Others, like “The Boy in the Well,” have had sections put in and taken out, multiple endings attached, and witnessed me on the verge of madness trying to decide not just what a character would say but how they should say it. It really isn’t a pretty process, and it’s little wonder that so many creative writers have turned to addiction and/or often end up divorced.

None of that comes through in polished writing, though. I often tell my writing students that writing is the opposite of math; math teachers want to see all of your work, but English teachers (and readers in general) want to see all the seams welded closed, no untidy strands anywhere. So much of my own writing takes place in the editing stage, when I go through ruthlessly and look for any scene, sentence, or even individual word that does not belong.

One of the great writing advice clichés is “kill your darlings,” and nothing sticks out as fast as a line that a writer left because they liked it, even if it brought the rest of the story to a screeching halt. Short stories are especially susceptible to this, and the shorter they are, the more certain you have to be about every single word. Even a longer story (anything over ten pages or so) has to emphasize this kind of careful grooming. All of this is an incredibly painful and time-consuming process, which is why it is sometimes much easier to write something new than to go back to something and spend several months working out all of the kinks.

Lots of people have this idea that a writers just sits down at a laptop or in front of a notebook and bullshits whatever random crap enters their mind, and that word vomit magically becomes some best-selling novel. (And given some of the “hit” books in recent history, perhaps on some level that is true.) But a real writer—someone who cares much more about craft than the possibility of a royalty check—has to wrestle with his/her own work to accomplish anything.

Take Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, for example. Both writers have a style that could be described as “easy reading” because, as writers, they’ve done almost all the work for you; all you have to do is enjoy the ride. Reading Cat’s Cradle, one could think that Vonnegut wrote it in an afternoon since we can read it that quickly. However, his writing process was pain-staking: he refused to move on to another page until the page he was writing was perfect.

Brautigan had a similar need to revise and edit constantly; his friend and biographer Keith Abbott once told me at Naropa that Trout Fishing in America went through seventeen separate drafts before it was finally published as the quick, easy read we now think of as a classic novel from the 1960s.

This is not to say that those divine moments of inspiration don’t appear from time to time. There are moments when you’re writing something that you know is gold, and the thing almost seems to write itself. If you’re exceptionally lucky, it doesn’t even need all that much revision afterward. But those moments are rare, and a real writer knows to appreciate them when they come, because between those bouts of inspired genius are long, long stretches of doubt, bad writing, and endless revision.

Five Questions About The Boy in the Well

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I was interviewed by Monkey Puzzle Press about my latest chapbook The Boy in the Well. Here’s an excerpt:

What triggered this project?

Once I finished Tapeworm, my cupboard was bare of stories. Everything I had written up to that point was either among the fourteen stories in Tapeworm or died when my laptop crashed shortly after completing the collection. I had to start over from scratch, which is both intimidating and exhilarating. I started with flash fiction stories about the darkest and most twisted stuff I could imagine. Then, I’d have an idea like “What would Edgar Allan Poe be writing if he were alive now?” or “How would two rednecks dig a grave for someone they planned to kill?” After a few years, I had the thought of putting together a chapbook, so I made a list of the best things I’d written. The six stories that emerged became The Boy in the Well.

You can read the complete interview here.

Embracing New Book Formats While Still Loving The Old

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As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sensation of holding Tapeworm in my hands for the first time. When Nate Jordon handed me that beautiful book, I stood absolutely speechless for several minutes. My heart swelled with pride. Sure, I’d been involved with book publication plenty of times before. I’d put out chapbooks of my work twice, and I’d been an editor enough times to know the joy of holding the finished product. But this was a book I’d spent nearly six years writing and editing, and it was all mine. All the weight of those experiences and memories—from sitting in the window of a furnished apartment in Russellville, Arkansas, typing the first lines of “Second Coming” to the looks on people’s faces when I read “Tapeworm” at the Summer Writing Program to the elation of seeing “The Ringing in Her Ears” in print the first time (then the second, then a third)—flooded back to me in that moment.

I had a similar experience the day after Christmas 2013 when Nate handed me The Boy in the Well, though I do suppose that was less of a spiritual high than the first book. Part of it was I had made the trek to Monkey Puzzle HQ in Harrison, Arkansas, with my brother, and he’d never met Nate before, and I didn’t want to leave them to watch me drowning in a sea of self-indulgent reverie. (This did not stop me from taking long, loving glances over at it from time to time.) Part of it too, I suppose, is that I was, for the first time I can remember, almost equally excited about the prospect of my book appearing on Kindle, Google Play, and the other e-reader formats.

Full disclosure: I don’t own any e-readers. I’m not against them (obviously), but I just prefer the experience of holding a book. I enjoy the book as object—when I moved to Colorado, my parents laughed that I had only one chair, two boxes of clothes, and six boxes of books (and two more we couldn’t fit). For as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, I longed for the days of holding a completed book in my hand, and I maintain that there is no experience quite like it. But the reading world has changed, and it will do me no good to hold on to the nostalgia of the past, especially if I have any hope of success as a writer.

People often complain about how we don’t read as much as we used to, and, to an extent, they are correct. People don’t read novels as much as they once did, but they read plenty of shorter stuff. People want quick fixes, and paperbacks and hardcovers take time, both to produce and to ship. A really thick book can also take up a lot of space, which makes it slightly more inconvenient for people who have to travel. You’ve also got to deal with nosy people (like yours truly) looking over your shoulder, trying to figure out what you’re reading.

Things like the Kindle help with this. Readers can access books in seconds, rather than waiting a week for it to arrive in the mail, or the indignity of putting on pants to go find a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Within minutes of posting that The Boy in the Well was live on Kindle, I had Facebook friends posting that they’d purchased it on Amazon. Because it’s cheaper, because it reads quickly, and because it will always be the same size as your tablet or reader, this new format makes it easier to get my work out into the world. Of course, there might still be people reading over your shoulder, but it’s probably only so they can add that new book to their own queue or wishlist.

Nothing can ever replace the book as object, though. I can still autograph paperback copies (like, say, at a release party on January 15) and I’m guessing no one wants me to take a Sharpie to their reading device. And while I’m happy that my writing can get to people faster than ever, it just doesn’t quite have the same charge as holding a collection of stories in my hand and knowing that every word between its covers is mine. I’m not mourning the loss of paper books—I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely—but I do want to take a moment to praise their contributions to the reading experience before fully embracing the digital revolution in publishing.