I wrote a book called Go Fish. It’s a chapbook of three short stories published as part of the prize for winning the Merriam-Frontier Award, a cross disciplinary award given annually to a student at UM “to recognize distinguished achievement in writing.” Inspired by a copy of Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips and illustrated by Yvonne Jacquette, I asked my mom to do the illustrations, and she did a beautiful job. I have the drawings framed and hanging in my house.
I finished editing the third story about three months before my wedding. We had just moved to Portland from Missoula in April, and it went to print in May. I remember sitting with the manuscript at a Starbucks near the printers, the great guys at Rhino Digital, and proofreading it one last time. I was tired of looking at it and so ready to be finished with the project that I could barely force myself to keep my eyes on the page. I was looking for typos. I did not want to find anything else that had to be changed. Deadlines have a way of creating a state of waking nightmare in me, but they also produce results. After Go Fish was published, of course, I read through it and found a typo or two and smacked my forehead, but that’s just the way life is. I think the clean beautiful format of a book reveals typos in a way that no word processing format ever can.
I have only been in print one other time. In 2002, a very short story I wrote, “Elsa,” appeared in a small literary magazine called Whetstone published by the Barrington Area Art Council. I received an honorarium of $50, which may sound like small potatoes, but I was only applying to places where I didn’t have to pay an entry fee. Today I can’t even find a reference to Whetstone online except 1992 Chicago Tribune article and an excerpt from the Writer’s Market Companion published in 2004. Further research reveals that the BAAC closed in July, 2007 due to a significant drop in financial support, a fate, seemingly, of many small arts organizations in the last several years.
In 2004, I decided to take a break from writing and return to painting, which was my first love. In 2007 I learned to sew and started making monsters. And in 2010 I started a blog for those monsters, the first time I’d written for an audience in years. The blog is utterly goofy and really fun to do, and I doubt that any of my professors or fellow students in the MFA program would take it seriously as writing. Nor do I, really, but I am grateful to it for getting me writing again and making me laugh.
I’ve become superstitious and reluctant to talk about my serious writing, or even revealing if I’m writing it or what it’s about if I am. I used to do that. I used to say “I’m writing a story about…”, but, as Inspector Clouseau says, not anymore.
I think about writing all the time. I read books by writers about how they write and I think about plot and character and dialogue and exposition. I try to understand why I like certain books and not others. I try to understand what makes writing funny and why certain writers piss me off and why others don’t. I like to edit sentences even if it’s just for some silly story about my monsters cooking dal and rice. I read and listen to a lot of books and I read and listen to my favorites over an over again because I want to understand them. I want to imprint them on my brain. And lately, I’ve begun to read blogs. I read blogs and I return to some of them not because I need the information but because I like the writer and I like how they tell stories and how they think and because I feel kinship with them.
If I were writing Go Fish now I would probably write it differently, but I’m glad it exists and can’t be fretted over and changed. I’m glad I put it all out there in a wholly earnest way. I remember hearing William Kitteredge (who unfortunately retired the year before I started at UM) say something to the effect that in order to write something that matters to people, you have to risk sentimentality. It is so easy to get caught up in trying to be safe from any criticism, in being hip and maintaining ironic distance. The workshops I had at UM were full of writers like that, writers to whom the exposed nerve center of my fiction either made no sense or was distasteful in it’s earnestness, or, which I sometimes thought, was threatening to them because of the very fact of it being so raw and so completely felt and lived. I look back and doubt that last possibility. Having just had a head injury I was not only bubbling over with feelings, but was practically incapable of keeping my plots on the straight and narrow. A well-meaning professor once tried to rescue me from a harsh critique by explaining to the class that my story was obviously a first person narrative of someone on drugs. Later when I told him that wasn’t the case, he said, well, you can leave it as it is and it works as a hallucination story or you have a lot of work to do to. I decided to work on it.
That story is not in Go Fish, but the three stories that are had to go through an excruciating process to make them what Chris Offutt called Catholic stories. You know, the kind where it’s obvious who the main character is and that the ocean and forest are not main characters. The kind of stories where you know more or less what it is going on. I was not trying to write about drug experiences or time travel. I wasn’t attempting to be avant garde or modern (or post-modern) or experiment with magical realism. I wanted to write a good story.
Fortunately or unfortunately for me, because of a decision I made to ride an untrained colt, I was mentally and emotionally incapable of writing the kind of story I aspired to write. I was so amazed at having inexplicably survived what could so easily have been a fatal accident, and yet I was grieving the body and abilities I had lost. I learned how to walk again, and that was thrilling, but I couldn’t run, and that was heartbreaking. The world was terrifying and precipitous one moment and sacred and sustaining the next. In those golden and black days, I felt a lot of gratitude and a lot of anger and it was all raging around in me and ending up in Rorschach-like passages that, in the absence of plot, could have meant almost anything. The language was good, the clarity of seeing and sensing the world almost synesthetic; what was missing were coherent story lines.
So I had to learn how to write from scratch, to learn what plot is, what role dialogue plays, how characters need something to be at stake and how the author should not try to hide that from the reader. I had to ax character after character until I finally could decide who I wanted at the center of my story and which story of the many on the page I was going to tell and then I had to discover what that story really was and how to tell it so it made sense. I had to kill my darlings over and over again. It was freaking hard.
Go Fish is the boiled down syrup, the lump of amber. It’s what I have to show for the most difficult time in my life and I’m proud of it even though I know it is flawed. I’m proud that in the face of what felt like an overwhelmingly hostile audience, I stuck to my guns and didn’t write anything that was calculated to fit in. (In fact, I wasn’t capable of fitting in, but I didn’t know that at the time, not really.) I worked hard to make it coherent, but I couldn’t have changed the intensity even if I had wanted to. I didn’t want to and I’m proud of that.
In 2001, I went around selling books to friends and family and to the very kind booksellers at Wallace Books, Powell’s, In Other Words, and Broadway Books in Portland, and Fact and Fiction in Missoula, but by 2003, I stopped pounding the pavement and checking to see if any of the copies had sold and trying to sell more.
This morning on my walk, it occurred to me that I have a blog of my own now that also has a store and I can sell my books to anyone who wants them right here on my own website.
Last I checked, there was one used copy at Powell’s but you can also buy it new from me here.