My stories come from little obsessions, ghosts that won’t leave me alone: maraschino cherries, a dead deer in a river in Montana, something my 4th grade teacher told me at first snow fall, the smell of the soap in my grandmother’s bathroom after she died. I used to think stories had to come from some higher order, some grand tale. But I only started writing stories when I learned how to make peace with those ghosts, when I learned how to listen to what I was already telling myself. They come seeping out the cracks of the life you already have and you have to run around and collect them like rainwater.
"Rare Items from the Universe," the story that landed me here, was the last story I wrote for my thesis while taking workshop with Denis Johnson. He was everything and nothing like what I expected. More than anything he just calmed me down when it came to the writing I was doing. He told me, you might not know the end for five years, and that that was okay. Someday it would come wandering in through an open window and, damn, there it would be, that ending I’d been looking for. I think beginnings can be that way, too.
For me, "Rare Items" started as a whisper, clear as day, as if someone sitting right next to me in class had said it: It was the same summer I started calling my mother by her first name. This was originally the opening line to the story. I used the name Joanne because my grandmother had just passed away and her name was on the tip of my tongue all season, maybe it was she who said it. But that single line so wholly opened up the story that I felt it rattling around in my insides. I rode my bike home from class, repeating the line out loud so many times as to never forget it. I skipped drinks that night—a workshop tradition held in that basement bar we frequented those years—and wrote the first few pages in my attic bedroom in Idaho.
My point is that the only reason I heard that voice, and heard it in a way that made me feel like I had to remember it, was because I’d been making peace with ghosts all through grad school. I’d started mining those obsessions until I could write them down, let them rest, and then something else would come along. But, it took a certain kind of trust in myself to seek them out and follow them home. I suppose what I am telling you is that the vein of strangeness running through you might very well be the best thing about your writing. You just have to make peace with it and listen carefully to what it has to say.