“Maybe every debut book is a mystery to its author—maybe every book after that is too. Writing tends to be messy and ongoing work, tracking as it does alongside life. It’s not finite, so maybe there is something inherently alien to writers about ‘finished’ products. The book is done, bound, closed—I can’t pry it back open and recover its secrets. I put them in there, between the covers, so they would be safe in there, perhaps even from me.”
—Jayson Greene, in “The New Nonfiction 2019″ in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine
I return over and over to this passage—’I didn’t know it could be done. I had never seen it done. I had, in fact, been told it couldn’t be done’—from Julia Alvarez’s ‘On Finding a Latino Voice.’
The current political moment requires that we speak the truth as much as we can, but truth can be relayed in many ways. We have already seen truth twisted, shaped, and contorted to fit a political agenda. Poetry works against this because poetry has no true agenda.
I always go to Samuel Beckett’s ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ And, Toni Morrison’s ‘A failure is just information.’ Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Isak Dinesen’s ‘I write a little every day, without hope, without despair.’
Don’t be careful; definitely not in the first draft. I was so worried when I began the book about doing the time and its people justice that for quite a while I didn’t let my imagination take the lead, which can happen when grappling with the dark side of history.
“I don’t see myself as a success story even though I’ve experienced success. Everything I learned along the way was a strength. If I didn’t have my communities, that many consider broken or forgotten, I wouldn’t be where I am. I don’t want to be a sob story or anybody’s project. I want to show that you can have pride no matter where you come from and joy without forsaking the pain it took to get here.”
—Ocean Vuong, in a profile by Rigoberto González in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2019)
I had a blast writing the first draft…and just let myself take risks and go down rabbit holes, but in the revision, I had to really reign it in and flesh it out….Write the shitty first draft. A finished story is better than a perfect story that just lives in your mind.
Knowing that writing is a process more than it is talent eases most of my anxieties when the words just aren’t there. Baldwin once said, ‘Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.’ Because of this, I keep going back to the blank pages.
I’m so interested in how the sight lines, soundscapes, flora and fauna of our childhoods shape us—how those earliest encounters with the land become part of our private, interior vocabularies of dream and thought. And I love novels and stories where geography shapes plot and gives rise to character. I think the question ‘What’s possible or impossible for this human personality in this landscape?’ is a good starting place for fiction.