I sat down here in my Chamber of Literature, with Eliza Gilkyson on the internet radio, intending to talk about hope and discouragement and the majestic trauma of the writing life. Then I thought, hmm, maybe later. Instead I give a little detail on my writing “career”. No wait, that should say Career. No, no, it should say CAREER. It should, damn it, but so far it’s a career almost no one has heard of.
I think I became a writer around 13 years old. Sometime around that age I remember looking at books and wondering how anyone could write such a thing. There were so many pages. How was that possible? I plunged in seriously at 20, when I started a novel. The novel was about—oy, are you ready for this?—a guy in high school, growing up in Georgia. Living in the house I lived in. I’m not proud. That’s what I did.
I had always heard “write what you know” but had not yet heard that with research, you can know more. The book was handwritten and I got about 100 pages done before I had sense enough to stop.
Let me emphasize my lack of knowledge about how to write a novel. Also at 20 years old, on one occasion I went to the bookcase and started pulling novels off, going to the last page, to see how long a book was supposed to be.
About five years later, I read a two-volume description of a true journey across Siberia in the 1880s. Inspired by that book, I wrote a science fiction novel. At that time I had not yet been to Russia, and I want to point out my prescience in instinctively recognizing that Russia evokes an alien planet.
With any luck, both of my early novels ceased to exist long ago, but I fear the third one lurks as a reputation-destroying epistle from the past. Not that I have a reputation, but I mean theoretically. The idea for that book (a visit by Lenin to the United States in 1898) was so ambitious, full of history and geography, divided into major sections based on types of folklore, with magical elements, and with a dictator as its human interest protagonist, that even a powerful mature writer probably could not have pulled it off. I certainly had no chance. So three years and 600 pages later, it was done, and I was ready to amaze the world with what I had brought forth. Look ye, future readers, at my heart-touching masterpiece. Or don’t.
Maybe you can see that I’ve had a Russian obsession. I’ve still got it. In the last ten years I’ve finished two more novels, and this time I’ve revised them, and revised them, and revised them, and… I have learned my craft, and learned to delete. I have also learned to work, mostly when I’m tired. It seems strange to me to write when I’m fresh and not exhausted, because most of my writing has been done late in the evening after work, when dinner was done and clothes for the next day ironed, and so on. I’m not saying this is ideal.
During all this noveltry I have also done short stories, and I see two main advantages to a short story. Because they can be done more quickly, they can sometimes be used to release emotions that might otherwise lead to activities that involve prison. And because short stories are, you know, short, they are a safer place to screw around, to experiment and push the envelope, if you’re the sort of writer who likes that. I am on occasion. I’m not bold enough to write an entire novel of insane babble, like James Joyce, but I’ll sometimes write a short story that moves in that direction. I was even surprised to publish such a story in the magazine Fiction International. I haven’t published much, around twelve stories, but that was one.