Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On process, tribes, and good intentions

Talented writer friend Emily Choate, who is also a Chapter 16 colleague, invited me to take part in a short survey about my writing process. For the record, I'm not certain I have anything you could reasonably call a writing process. I write the way mushrooms grow—in sudden, unpredictable surges under gloomy conditions. Still, I am honored to be asked to this party, and it did me good to give these questions some thought. Thanks, Emily! I'll be tagging some other friends shortly, and I'll add the links here when their posts are up. [UPDATE: Nashville writer Claire Gibson shares thoughts about her novel-in-progress here.]

What am I working on?

The main project occupying me at the moment is a novel, one I've been working on sporadically for a long time. I finally finished a draft of it last year, and I have sworn to complete a revision before this year is out. We'll see. In spite of its long gestation, it's a slender thing, a story about a young woman's grief. There are several absent and/or unsatisfactory mothers in it, and considerable drinking.

I've begun a second novel, which calls to me when the first one has tried my patience too much. It's set in 1910 and concerns a lynching. Don't wanna say more—I'm superstitious. I've also been working on a couple of short stories, and I've got a little memoir piece that I hope to spin into something longer.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don't know. Why should it? I mean, I don't have a hook, a theory, or an aesthetic ax to grind. My work is character driven, and if I do my job right my characters are peculiarly and unmistakably themselves. I hope you'd never confuse them with any of your other fictional acquaintances. I'm in sympathy with Frank O'Connor, who said, "I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting so intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer."

Why do I write what I do?

First of all, see above. People interest me, so I write about them. I suppose what interests me most about people is the perennial conflict between the individual and the tribe. We all belong to tribes of one kind or another, and most of us have a very complicated relationship with our tribes. Just about everything I've ever written or considered writing has had that relationship as a central concern.

As to why tribes are my obsession, I suspect it has everything to do with growing up in a small Tennessee town and knowing from an early age that it could never really be my home, even though I loved it. I was exiled from my tribe at the moment I realized I had one. Some of that is just down to temperament—all writers feel exiled—but it also had to do with some truly awful things about my particular tribe.

How does my writing process work?

I wish I could give a nice, straightforward answer to this question, but my writing process is haphazard and mostly left to the mercy of mood and circumstance. No doubt that's why it takes me so damn long to get anything done. I usually do the initial work on my fiction late at night, often when I'm half asleep. Then I try to make sense of it when I'm awake. I tend to work in binges, despite my good intentions to be disciplined and daily about it.

The stories that seem to pan out for me are the ones that arrive in reverse. I envision the end, or something close to the end, and I write my way to it. In other words, I know where I'm going, but I don't know why, and I have only a vague idea of how to get there. I like to think all the answers are encoded in that first/last image, but sometimes it winds up being a very difficult code to break.

The more sensible course of beginning at the beginning hardly ever works for me. I have had to say goodbye to more promising first pages than I care to remember.

Enfant écrivant (A Girl Writing), Henriette Browne, c.1860-1880