By: Dennis Vannatta
Mid-winter this past year, I lost the ability to write.
Of course, what you are presently reading is writing of a sort, but I’m here speaking of Writing with a capital W. The real stuff. The big Kahuna: i.e., fiction.
Certainly, I have great respect for nonfiction writing. I’ve done plenty of it myself. And I know that many believe that “reality so beggars fiction,” in the cliché of the day, that to continue to write the latter is to indulge in something akin to literary dilettantism. The only relevant game, according to this theory, is nonfiction.
Maybe so. I’m not trying to plead a case, to convert the apostates. All I’m saying is that for little ol’ anachronistic me, writing fiction—creating worlds with words—is the truly exalted prose writing. But I can’t do it anymore.
When I say that I can no longer write fiction, I don’t mean that I can’t put words down on paper that conjure characters, settings, scenes—all “made up,” all fiction. What I can’t cause them to do is coalesce in such a way that results in an actual story, a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that makes some sort of sense, that it’s not totally unreasonable to envision an editor wanting to publish and a reader to read.
So what?, you might well ask. Few people write fiction; most don’t write anything at all except the occasional tweet or email. Who among them would therefore question the meaning, the value of their lives? But that’s them, this is me. I’ve written fiction my entire adult life. I’ve published a fair bit—six collections of stories and a novel—and while the Nobel Prize folks have never lost sleep worrying about whether to give me The Big One, I think a few of the things I’ve published are fairly good.
I’ve also, I’ll be the first to admit, written far too many bad stories. I no doubt should have spent more time trying to improve the bad ones. My philosophy throughout most of my writing life, though, was, if this story doesn’t seem to work, forget it, maybe the next one will. I had oodles of ideas for stories, after all. I’d imagine them hovering at the back of my head like airplanes stacked up in a holding pattern over O’Hare, impatiently waiting their turn to land. Probably I had too many ideas, for I’m afraid that all too often I’d get halfway into a story, or maybe even finish a first draft, and then, impatient to get on to that next more alluring idea, fail to develop and revise sufficiently.
Dear God, I’d settle for finishing a bad story right now.
I recall a movie from as few decades ago, Hearts of the West, starring a young Jeff Bridges. Jeff’s character wrote Westerns, badly wanted to write them for the movies. At a Hollywood party, he’s introduced to a crusty old writer played by Andy Griffith, who, when the callow lad confesses that’s he’s a writer, too, replies something to the effect that, Young man, you’re not a writer until somebody else says you’re a writer. To which I say, bull shit.
He who writes is a writer. You may not write deathless prose like Cormac McCarthy or even pop stuff like Steven King (wouldn’t we all love to be able to write “pop stuff” like that?), but even if you’re writing bad stories, you’re fighting the same battles with the blank page as the Big Boys do. Maybe in an existential sense the bad writers are even more admirable, for, without their works ever seeing the light of day (i.e., published), they keep pushing that rock up the hill. Camus would be proud of them.
I’d like to think that Camus would have been proud of me, too, because for all my adult life I kept pushing that rock without hope of any commensurate reward. I refer to those rewards that starry-eyed young writers dream of: wealth, fame, groupies, all of which will descend upon them once they get that first story into print. Sorry about that, kid. Wealth? So few make a living at writing (I’m not talking about teaching writing), that it’s pointless to even think of it. Fame? Not one in ten thousand Americans would recognize Cormac McCarthy if they passed him on the sidewalk. Groupies? Join a rock ‘n roll band. No, I’m not a good enough writer to be vain about it, but I’ll give myself high marks for one thing: early in my career I did discover the one sensible and in its own small way noble goal of writing: that is, to write. The writing itself must be its own reward.
But I can’t do it anymore.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. Alarm bells started to ring as I worked on a story provisionally entitled “The Russians Aren’t Coming.” It concerned a twenty-year-old man living with his parents. For reasons that he himself can’t articulate, he hasn’t left the house for two years except to go to mass. There’s sibling rivalry, new neighbors whom his mother thinks are connected to the Russian mob, a chance encounter with a girl on the beach, etc. I thought it had potential. In fact, I hammered out twenty-nine long-hand pages (around 6,000 words), brought it to The End. I always plough through a first draft fairly quickly so I can get to the real work: revisions. But something was causing me to hesitate. Then I realized what it was. The ending made no sense. I mulled it over. Aha, this is how I should have ended it. I wrote another ending. Hell, it was worse than the first one! I tried out two more endings, one totally new and the other sort of a combination of the first two. The four endings ranged from the fatuous to the wretched.
Let me tell you something that you can take to the creative-writing bank, oh my brothers: if you can’t find an effective way to end your story, the problems began way before that. I couldn’t end “The Russians Aren’t Coming” because it had never been a story in the first place. It’d been a grotesque dumping ground of mismatched parts that even Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t have breathed into life. I slam-dunked those twenty-nine pages into a trash receptacle on a Burger Kind parking lot.
Fairly quickly I came up with an idea for a different kind of story, not just another humdrum tale of yet another disaffected youth this time but something with some real punch to it. A man is returning home after several years in prison. Waiting to welcome him back are a houseful of relatives, among them a cousin, our hero, who’s aware of the rumor that the ex-con had had an affair with his wife. Or, alternately, our hero warmly welcomes back the ex-con, who apologizes for having the affair, which in fact is the first our hero has heard about it. Potentially hot stuff, right? Damn straight.
I zipped through four pages, introducing the family, situation, our hero, and the ex-con, at the end of which I’d brought the two face to face. OK, what next? . . . What next? . . . Well, come on, what next? I didn’t know what next.
That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, many creative writing teachers would say it’s a good thing, vastly preferable to knowing at the outset everything that’s going to happen, in which case you’re not creating so much as recording. Sort of creative clerical work. Discovering as you write the direction the narrative most inevitably, and interestingly, should take results in a story that lives, breathes. That’s the theory, anyway.
It ain’t necessarily so, of course. There’s more than one way into the narrative woods, and what works for one author might not work at all for another. I’ve done it both ways—known before I ever put pen to paper what was going to happen every step of the way; begun with no more than a scene, character, even just an opening sentence and discovered as I wrote what came next—and have written pretty good stories both ways and far too many bad ones. Whatever process allows you to do the best job with the particular story you happen to be writing, that’s the one for you. But I’m past worrying about writing the best story. I’d settle for writing any story at all. But I can’t.
After destroying twenty-nine pages on the Russians, then four more on the cousins, I resorted to flipping through the little spiral notebook in which I’ll occasionally jot down a story idea, some going back years. A couple seemed like possibilities. This time I wised up. Instead of vandalizing more paper with inane scribblings, I just sat and thought for an hour or two. Who would the major characters be? The setting? General conflict? How could I get into the story? I could answer all questions for both ideas. Then: what next? Nothing. Nothing next.
You’re just blocked, you say. Happens to the best of us at some point.
Perhaps, but it depends on how you define “blocked.” In the common view, “blocked” is a sort of narrative stutter. A writer begins a story, decides, no, that’s not right, begins it again but, no, that’s not right, either, and so on. (The movie image of the writer jotting down a few words, then crumpling the page, writing a few more, crumpling that page, etc., until the waste basket overflows is absurd; writers don’t make enough money to waste all that paper; we cross out.) Worse than the stutter is the narrative stammer: the writer sits before the blank page, but no words come at all.
Both the stutter and the stammer blocks, it seems to me, are based upon the assumption that there is a story there if only the writer could overcome a sort of creative paralysis and get it down on paper. A writer-friend of mine argues, however, that there’s no such thing as being blocked in that generally understood sense of the term. If you can’t write it, he says, then you don’t have a story to write. I’m not sure if that’s universally true, but I’m very much afraid it’s true for me, which is disturbing in a profoundly existential sense because all my adult like I’ve identified myself as a writer. And now I can’t write. So again I ask, not just for my story but for me, What next?
I can hear within a truly irritating Devil’s Advocate hectoring me with several possible courses for me to take:
1. If nonfiction isn’t a noble enough pursuit for fictive-world-creator you, how about poetry?
Hm. God (and my Devil’s Advocate) knows that I have all the respect in the world for poets and poetry. Indeed, I wouldn’t argue with anyone claiming that poetry is the very highest literary pursuit. All the more reason for me to avoid it. Oh sure, I’ve published a dozen or so “poems” (let’s keep that in quotation marks, perhaps followed by a [sic]), enough to have demonstrated to myself and the world that I’m no damn good at it. I have too much respect for poetry to inflict more of mine on an unsuspecting world.
2. Quit equivocating about stuttering and stammering and admit you’re blocked. Does it hurt? Sure, but many other writers have faced the same thing and survived, some even stronger for the ordeal. Stop your whining and fight your way through it.
Touché. I’m sick of my whining, too, but give me some help here, O great Devil’s Advocate: what exactly does “fight your way through it” mean? How does one do that? The only logical way to fight not writing surely is to write and I CAN’T DO IT! How about a little sympathy from the Devil here?
3. You don’t need sympathy, you need a hobby. Let me rephrase: you need another hobby.
Touché again. It’s true that to the best of my recollection I’ve never, when someone asked me what I did/was, responded with, “I’m a writer.” It’d always be, “I’m a teacher,” or, if I wanted to gussy it up a bit, “I’m a college professor.” If the subject of my writing happened to come up, I’d aw-shucks it off with, “Oh, writing is just a hobby for me. Golf, wood-working, writing.” Sure, I tried to do right by my students, and I’d like to think I was at least a competent teacher, but the truth is that teaching was a way to pay the bills. In my heart of hearts I was a writer. Why be coy about it, then? Why not just say so? I guess I was embarrassed to claim for myself a status I could back up with such meager accomplishment, in economic terms, anyway. (I’ve earned less from twelve books and well over a hundred stories and essays published than I made in two months teaching at No Raise U.) But damn it all, it’s not he who earns but he who writes is a writer. I don’t know if it’s a noble calling, but it’s my calling. So, Devil’s Advocate, stick your another hobby where the sun don’t shine.
4. As you wish. But let me call your attention to the fact that you’ve already done quite a bit of revising on this essay (and you’re still concerned about that bloated passage back on p. 3), that you in fact see this as just a first draft, which means you’re planning on more revision, all of which tells me that you consider nonfiction as a form worthy of close attention. Why not just embrace the genre, forget fiction?
Well, sure, I want to do as good a job as I can. Hey, I revise emails. I revise text messages. If I had a Twitter account, I’d no doubt revise tweets. And if you’re hinting that I might already be a better writer of nonfiction than fiction, you may be on to something. I know nonfiction is a hell of a lot easier for me to write. Get an idea. Spend a half-hour brainstorming, jotting down some things you might want to say about that idea. Introduce it. Develop it. Then write, “In conclusion . . . .” Bob’s your uncle. Yep, knowing you can end it all at any time with a simple “in conclusion” sure does take a load off. But so what? That doesn’t change a thing about what I feel about fiction writing. If I can’t do that, I might as well not do anything.
5. Now that you mention it . . . OK, let’s cut to the chase. A hell of a lot better writers than you have, after long and distinguished careers, chosen the dignified, one might say courageous, course: silence. I don’t expect you to call a news conference to announce it like Roth and Munro, but please please please stop your pissing and moaning and just quit writing!
Roth and Munro were better writers than me. They’re not now. They’re not writing. Remember, he who writes
But you’re not writing, either.
This is starting to sound like a Vladimir and Estragon routine.
It was worse for them. At the end Estragon wanted to commit suicide. . . . Why are you looking at me like that?
Uh, no reason.
Bullshit. Out with it!
Well, if you insist. It’s just that I can’t help noticing that there’s a fact about yourself you’ve failed to mention. That you’re, well, a bit long in the tooth.
You mean I’m almost seventy-two. That the ability to write a story isn’t the first thing that’s failed me.
Spare us the particulars. Sorry I brought it up.
That once you reach a certain age, the failures start coming faster and faster.
OK, let’s drop it.
That unlike when you’re young, although you failed then, too,
Time to write those two little words
when you were young, you could learn from your failures, make it better, because there was still time
Write it, man.
but now there’s no redeeming failure because there’s not enough time for revision, and it’s not failure to write that fills you with fear and despair, it’s
Write it, write it, damn you!
In conclusion . . .
Dennis Vannatta has published creative nonfiction in SHADOWBOX, ANTIOCH REVIEW, RIVER OAK REVIEW, and elsewhere and fiction in BOULEVARD, RIVER STYXX, PUSHCART XV, and many other journals and anthologies. His sixth collection of short stories, The Only World You Get, was recently published by Et Alia Press.