One hundred and fifty-four manuscript pages completed, edited, proofed, and submitted to two first-novel competitions on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how long it took to write the collected short stories. My answer: I don’t know. It’s not because I’m brain-drained from sleep deprivation and deep immersion in storylandia. I don’t know how long the process took because I can’t pinpoint the exact start date.
Did I begin in September 2010 when I attended my first MFA fiction workshop? However, I had kicked my writing into high gear once I decided upon Rutgers in April 2010 and received the program director’s email that strongly suggested we have story drafts ready for September. And I had already started drafts the moment I submitted my MFA applications in January 2010.
Focusing on the writing that I had labeled as meant specifically for this first collection doesn’t make identifying a start date easier. That means going back to fall 2008 because “Swept Away”, my strongest story of that season, did not arrive alone: It showed up with a bunch of unanticipated story friends that took residence in my mind and made noise until I brought each of them into the world. That rowdy bunch didn’t all make it into the final collection, but bits and parts did, and they all influenced the final stories.
That’s what surprised me most in the development of this story collection: Everything in my life flavored the stories – writing that I did not label as “for the collection”, even life events that had nothing to do with writing. I’ve been “writing” the stories for this first collection since before I could even write. Deciding to create a collection gave me a way to navigate my mental archives and select, organize, connect, and order the bits and parts that made these stories. How crazy that in completing a short story collection I learned that I’m a life-long hoarder.
At my low points, I believe I am crazy. Other people think it too. However, I always find something that confirms that as a writer, I’m not imbalanced, just wired differently. I need to accept this in order to keep growing and get stronger. I found my most recent well-timed affirmation on Sunday, February 24, in The New York Times Book Review. Fernanda Eberstadt began her review of Jamaica Kincaid’s latest novel, See Now Then, with this:
“Writers make uncomfortable kin. Not only do they shut themselves off from family in what the novelist Jamaica Kincaid calls ‘the infernal room’ from which their stories come, but, worse still, those stories are quite likely to deal one day with the dreams, terrors, tics and moral lapses of their loved ones. There’s a reflex in every writer that trumps even the maternal instinct, a part of her that, even while her newborn suckles at her breast, is cold-eyed, choosing words to describe the pit-bull clamp of its gums, the crusted globe of its skill, with the same dispassion with which she might describe fellow passengers on a bus.”
I know the date when I emerged from “the infernal room” with my completed first story collection. I don’t know how long the whole process took because I’ve been amassing the material for and writing the stories since the first moment of my memory. And probably even before then.