October 4, 2010
[She] . . . told me how genuine I seemed to her that night in the bar. How real it felt to talk to a man who lived in his own true skin instead of in a lie like so many do. A man who was strong in some ways and weak in others and could live with that, who didn’t need to cover his weaknesses up with fake strengths that only rotted him out from inside.
— Steven Wingate, b. 1964
American fiction writer
from “The Balkan House,” in Wifeshopping, his 2008 debut story collection
Three weeks from tonight I will be in my room (or maybe even my studio still) at the Vermont Studio Center, one day into a four-week fellowship there. I applied originally in 2008, and was granted an opportunity for these same dates in 2009. But when I got back from Bread Loaf last year, I knew that the time was not right for me to undertake a residency so soon after. I needed a breather after a summer of reassessing the direction of my work, after trying to figure out if I wanted to continue at all with the writing of fiction, with this novel that I claim I’ve been writing since 2002.
VSC graciously allowed me to defer my award, and to virtually write my own ticket. These dates in 2010 were better for me not only because it allowed me a year to regroup and start finding my voice again, but also because they would coincide with the presence at the Center of Antonya Nelson, my Bread Loaf workshop leader and mentor in 2008, whom I sometimes refer to as “Mighty Antonya Nelson,” the way Emily Dickinson referred to “Gigantic Emily Brontë.”
My habits of being tend to make my progress toward achieving the Six Goals of a Quality Life haphazard, most of the time two steps forward, one step back, but not infrequently one step forward and two or three steps back. In the year that my fellowship was deferred, I really did make some progress in Number 3, Develop as a fiction writer. I read more, and I wrote more, with a clearer focus to both of those endeavors than I had ever had before.
My Double Shot Summer, two big writers’ conferences packed into six weeks, was very good for my education as a writer, but emotionally and intellectually draining. I came back from Bread Loaf knowing that I would have to plan carefully if I were not to spin my wheels and fritter away the eight weeks until I left for Vermont again.
The first thing I did was choose what to do in Vermont. One of my weaknesses as a developing writer is my reluctance to undertake hard revision. I come back from Bread Loaf with all I’ve learned, with all the guidance my mentors and fellow workshoppers have given me, put the marked up manuscripts and the notes in a crate, and move on to another idea. Before I did anything else in late August, I chose four short story manuscripts that are in advanced draft, one to work on each week that I will be in Vermont, put them in a box, and set it under my desk in my place near the river, knowing I did not have to look at those materials nor think about them again until October 25, my first full day in Vermont.
And I spent the next six weeks forging ahead. I read, I wrote, about 5,000 words so far for a planned 20,000 new words on the novel. I treated this fiction work like a job, the choices I made about what to read and what to write like lesson plans. And I have to say, considering my past successes at this, that this season, which I labeled “Fall 2010A” in my plan book, I’ve moved maybe three steps forward and one step back.
In looking over what I’ve accomplished, I saw that, of the nine authors whose fiction work I read, six were women. The work I did on my novel concentrated on the female protagonist, on developing her character and taking her through a crisis in her young life, writing her into the decisions she made then, and discovering the consequences those decisions had for the woman she became, the woman who must bring her family through their greatest challenge.
I finished Michelle Hoover’s novel, The Quickening, last week. I moved the title from the “Reading In” category to the “Completed” category on my list of a year’s reading. On to the next piece.
In this house you don’t have to take many steps nor put out your hand very far to find something to read. On the top of a pile of books brought back from Bread Loaf I found a story collection by Kathryn Ma, whose class at Bread Loaf on dialogue had been quite worthwhile, giving me the start of a crucial conversation between Andrew, my central character’s almost-fiancé, and the woman who broke up with him after six years. (“It’s not that I don’t love you,” Tonya said. She reached across the table to take his hand.)
Kathryn Ma’s collection, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is called All That Work and Still No Boys. I laughed, knowing I had found the focus for these next three weeks.
Men. Men in their own true skin. Men who are strong in some ways and weak in others, and who accept that about themselves.
To read, three novels by men: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which I read as a college sophomore and never glanced at again; Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead, with whom I studied in 1995, an era in my development as a fiction writer that seems to belong to another lifetime; and Little Peg, by Kevin McIlvoy, my most recent Bread Loaf teacher.
And to write: Andrew, who needs to complete that awful conversation Tonya started back in Kathryn Ma’s classroom, so that he can come out on the other side knowing where he is strong and where he is weak.
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