When I learned that I'd won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, my partner had to call 911. My heart stopped beating. Lungs ran out of oxygen.
Slight exaggeration? Maybe, but I was happy—very happy—and at least as surprised. I'd been working on the stories in my collection for a long time, in some cases nearly a decade. This essay could be about persistence or endurance or the importance of revision and faith, but instead I want to talk about what kept me going all those years, what kept me coming back to the stories I'd written and re-written endlessly, revisiting and reimagining endings and beginnings and middles, and scene after scene after scene. Sure, I wanted to see my name in print, but there was more to it than that. There was something about the stories I was telling that I wanted to get right, something beyond craft-y concerns like POV and narrative distance and pacing and the believability of the world I'd constructed. I wanted to get the heart of my stories right.
But what does that mean, wanting to get the heart of a story right? Friends of mine know that many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean have their origins in my life. Nearly all of the scenes and circumstances, as written, are invented, but the emotional core of many of the stories is true—the relationship between the mother and son in "Ventana Beach" grew out of challenges I've faced in my relationship with my own mother. For me, writing about my mother—about a fictionalized version of my mother—was, continues to be, a form of therapy.
Writing has helped me make sense of the web of complex emotions, the push-pull, that defines our relationship. Of course many people write to try to understand events or relationships in their lives, and I've always been aware of this therapeutic dimension in my own literary endeavors. What has surprised me, however, is the dialectic relationship between my work and my life that's emerged over time.
New writers learn about the importance of creating three-dimensional characters, characters that are—as E.M. Forster said—round instead of flat, and readers of many of my early drafts often pushed me to make my characters more complex, to make the mother in my stories less shrewish and more nuanced, to reveal her vulnerability and humanity. At times, when I heard this response, I became defensive. "But that's the way she is!" I wanted to shout.
My response was, of course, immature and misguided, and what I find interesting is that, over time, as I began to deepen the character on the page, to find more nuance and humanity in my fictional mother, my perception of my actual mother began to shift too. The shift wasn't seismic. I didn't suddenly start sitting on her lap while she knitted me mittens and caps, but I did notice moments in our interactions in which the writer part of my consciousness helped me to filter challenging moments in real life. I found myself able, at times, to bring a bit more of the empathy I'd learned to muster as a writer into my actual interactions with her: to put on my "writer's cap" during tense moments and try to see things from her perspective.
I'm not suggesting that writing about my mother has changed my relationship with her in significant ways. Getting the book published hasn't led to an epiphanic moment in real life. We all know things don't work that way. What I am suggesting, however, is that part of what kept me going through draft after draft, year after year, rejection after rejection, was a desire to make sense of my relationship with one of the most important people in my life, a desire to understand her and myself more fully, to get the heart of things right. Or at least as close to "right" as a flawed human being like myself possibly can.