How I Wrote Certain of My Books

[In which I elaborate on an earlier post, “Slow Writing?“]

In thinking about my earlier contention that writing ought to be slow, I decided to examine my own process. Specifically, I wondered if I, a man with two books coming out this year, was living up to my own lofty standards. I thus constructed a mental timeline for one of those books, Critique of Pure Reason, out this fall from Noemi Press.

Critique is a collection of essays and fictions, and so already has the patchwork frame of an occasional book built into it. But I had the concept of it in mind at least since 2009, when I gave my Master’s thesis that title after thinking (at absurd length) about what to call the heterogeneity that was to be contained therein. (It should be noted that, of the seven stories in that thesis, only three will appear in the book, and one of them has been completely overhauled. The rest, it transpires, were not meant for posterity of a more public kind.)

The oldest story in the book, “The Behavior of Pidgeons,” was begun in 2006. I won’t bore you with “VH1 Storytellers”-type information here, just the (boring) facts. It took me another year to get it into shape. I began another story, “Play,” around the same time, but it was put aside while I was in grad school, and didn’t get finished until two years later, a sort of book-end for that experience. While I was in grad school, I began two other stories from the book, but neither were “finished” at the time of my graduation. 2009 was a relatively productive year for me — I finished “Play” and one of the stories I had started in school, I pushed forward with a third, and I started and finished a fourth. In 2010, I wrote four of the remaining stories in the collection, start to finish, and started another two. But last year was the worldbeater. I finished those last two, finally finished overhauling the one from school that had been languishing, and wrote four more, start to finish. But I had an advantage I hadn’t had before: a project. I was thinking about this loose shape or constellation of creative work as a book, and seeing for the first time its bounds and its gaps. With a proper map, I could explore the remainder of the territory, free from worries of unprofitably covering the same ground or taking the long way from point to point.

But: to the numbers!

It is silly and reductive, I know, but let’s — just for the sake of this post — arbitrarily assign numerical values to work that resists statistical thinking. Once we’ve done so, we see that:

in 2006, I completed 1 story (which is to say, I started 2 stories, so .5 +.5 = 1)

2007 = .5

2008 = .5

2009 = 2.5

2010 = 5

2011 = 5.5

For a total of 15 (and what do you know? there are 15 pieces in the book) over 6 years. On average, then, I was writing 2.5 stories a year for each of those 6 years. Not bad; pretty slow, I guess. Maybe?

1.3 Stories a Year

If we look at a collection like, let’s say, Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, we have 9 stories. The title story was published in Fence in 2002, and the book came out in 2009. So, at least 7 years for Mr. Tower, which gives us an average of just under 1.3 stories a year. Hmm. Things are not looking so good for me and my “slow writing.” Especially when one considers that 2002 is the year that the story saw print: presumably, Tower was working on it for some time prior. But probably that doesn’t tell the whole story. Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at Mary Caponegro’s collection, All Fall Down. It, too, was published in 2009. The story from which the collection takes its title, “Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down,” was published in Conjunctions 34, Spring 2000. 9 years for just 6 stories, an average of .7 stories a year. Yikes. Things are really not looking good.

.7 Stories a Year

3.25 Stories a Year

But how about an author I might consider a rough contemporary, like, say, Matt Bell? Well, his collection, How They Were Found was published in 2010. The earliest story I can find there was published in 2006, in Caketrain 4. So, only 4 years for 13 stories. That’s 3.25 stories a year. Again, I realize this doesn’t take into account the time it may have taken Bell (or Caponegro, or Tower) to actually write these stories, but we’re being silly, so let’s just be silly. Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party (speaking of Caketrain), a collection of 8 stories, was published in 2011. “Cake” was published in 2008, which is the earliest I can find (I could be wrong). So 8 stories in 3 years, or 2.7 stories a year.

2.7 Stories a Year

So my 2.5 is looking maybe a little more stately, a little more respectably sluggish after all. And what’s two and a half stories a year anyway? Does that really sound like so much? That’s only 1 story every 5 months or so. For a guy who was working an average of 28 hours a week for most of those six years, that’s pretty slow. I mean, what else did I have to do really?

And that’s maybe the real point of “slow writing” for me: in those six years, I changed careers twice, got an internship and an editorship, moved twice, got married, went to Mexico City, New Orleans, Asheville, Charleston, Denver, Kauai, Taos, and all points California, not to mention read any number of books, saw a bunch of movies, went for thousands of walks and hundreds of runs, and on and on and on and on. And this list doesn’t include a number of things I seem to be having some trouble talking about, so consider it even more incomplete than it seems.

I was originally spurred to write and post this post because, reading through a story I had not looked at in some time, I noticed some turns of phrase that seemed too familiar. I had a terrible feeling: had I used them in another story? Why did they seem so familiar? They were not things I would write today; helped by several layers of smart editors, I had been shown the error of those ways. I would have new language for those things. This, I think, is the value of slow writing; so much happens away from the desk as time passes that what happens there feels new. (Even when it isn’t. I did a search of the book — technology is great… sometimes — and found that the phrase had been used more than once, in stories that I had finished two years apart. Their contexts were quite different, and the language, for all its familiarity, did not seem the same after all. It seemed, then, somehow valuable (to me, at least) and interesting to have come to the same ideas through different channels.)

On any given day, we have just so many synapses firing. After some period of time whose length is probably inversely proportional to the frequency at which we meet new challenges, these synapses are replaced and new connections formed, connecting things that didn’t need to be connected before, giving us a new narrative language. If our work is a dead march, trudging on without seeking out new vistas, the ruts in our brains only get deeper and wider, we make the same connections again and again and again until it becomes difficult to make any other connections, and our work, too, fails to inspire. It becomes writing by rote, even though we pretend that it is creative. Simply allowing time to pass guarantees that we will not be writing by rote– our lives cannot be static for very long (as much as I might wish mine was, for the sake of finally getting some writing done).

But if time is the simplest guarantee, it is still not the only guarantee. Writers develop techniques for disorienting themselves, challenging themselves, digging themselves out of their ruts. And not everyone’s life moves at the same rate. And that rate is not static. I wrote so little finished work during grad school because, well, I was in grad school. My writing was not supposed to be finished, it was supposed to be a tool for educating me in how to write. Judging by the years that have followed it, it was an effective tool. For those two years, I did my best to ignore everything else so that I could focus on learning, and then, when I had finished, all of those concerns I had been holding at bay came rushing back in, perhaps spurring those productive years.

If this hasn’t already become patently obvious, I really don’t know why some years are “slow” and others aren’t, why some writers can produce finished work quickly and others agonize over it. I myself have been both, and I suspect that I am not alone in that, or at least would very much like to think so. As always, any conclusions I might reach here are conclusions I don’t believe in, so I’ll stop there.

[But I would love to hear others’ experiences in the comments.]

5 thoughts on “How I Wrote Certain of My Books

  1. Thanks, Amber! It’s less reassuring than I had hoped upon setting out, but somewhat more reassuring than it could have been — if i continue at my present rate, I should have completed my next story sometime around the end of May. And, considering I haven’t started a single one yet this year, that seems just barely possible.

  2. That is a very engaging piece of entrail picking. The prose, though, belies the thesis. It’s very fluid, open, horizon-less. I know that young writers are very “unit oriented”: this is a story, this is a book. I know, the culture rather insists. I no longer believe in or perhaps I should say I no longer care about units. Maybe that’s because I’ve already had more than my share. I retired a year and a half ago and in that time I’ve written nearly a thousand pages. Fiction things, memoir things, philosophy things. And yet they do not constitute a thing, unless they constitute an every-thing, my personal “artifice of eternity,” as Yeats put it. As far as I’m concerned, my writing’s life as a thing is hopeless and therefore beautiful. As Buddhist’s say, “Life is the play of energy in the void.”

    Let it flow, my brother.

    • Thanks, Curtis, and you’re right. “The culture rather insists,” and, as a result, so do my anxieties. When I indulge those anxieties, I indulge them in numbers so as to hold them as far away from me as possible. I’m imagining a golf announcer whispering “Blackwell’s writing a 2.5 this year.” The result, rather than more anxiety, is a stubborn, stupid grin.

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