Two years ago, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I read at the beautiful Literati Bookstore downtown. It was for an event celebrating National Short Story Month (May, in case you didn't know, as I hadn't, until I was asked to participate). I'd been living in Ann Arbor since 2009, when I'd moved away from New York after graduating with an MFA from The New School. I was forty-one now, but this was my first reading, apart from student events.
I read part of a story from the collection I'd been working on for a decade. Afterwards, my fellow readers and I were invited to write on the wall Literati has designated for advice and encouragement about writing. I'm no good at coming up with something pithy on the spot. I scrawled three corny words: Read, Write, Love. Later that evening, the authentic thing I had to say came to me. I should have written only one word: Patience.
When I teach introductory creative writing to college students, I tell them that in taking this class, they're a lot braver than I was. I'd wanted to be a fiction writer since I was in first grade and had done a picture book about a boy named Charlie and his dog, but when I graduated high school and hadn't finished anything since, I decided I was a failure. I also decided that nothing had happened to me and so I had nothing worth writing about. In college, I was an English major, but I didn't take a single creative writing class. Finally, in my mid-twenties, I began the laborious work of writing stories, sentence by painstaking sentence. My process usually involves going back to the beginning every time I look at the work and pruning, polishing, tweaking—slow, slow, slow. And then, after all that snail's-pace work, I often overhaul the entire thing.
For instance, one of my stories, called "A Lady Who Takes Jokes," clocks in at nineteen double-spaced manuscript pages. The seed of this story arrived when I was in the MFA program at The New School (I was one of the older students, at thirty-two) and read Bruno Schulz's lyrical story collection, Street of Crocodiles. I wrote a style imitation for a class assignment, imagining a woman who worked in a sleep lab. After I'd described this character watching people's faces in sleep, I thought of a woman watching her baby sleep (this was before I had children myself), and then I thought about the terrible phenomenon of SIDS, where an infant dies in its sleep. I began a story called "Lullaby," about a sleep researcher whose baby dies of SIDS. I had no idea what happened in a sleep lab, so I found a friend of a friend who worked in one, and he let me come see it, minus the sleeping subject. I turned in a story draft for workshop and got fifteen marked-up copies back. All I remember of those comments now: the thing needed work.
A few years went by, during which I had my first daughter and decided I was going to focus my story collection on women's experiences with pregnancy and new motherhood. The sleep researcher became a cognitive psychologist who worked with babies. I had no idea how cognitive psychologists conducted their experiments, so I signed my toddler daughter up to participate in a study at the University of Michigan. Little did they know that her mother was studying them.
For a while, I'd been carrying around a line from John Berryman's "Dream Song 22": "I am a lady who takes jokes." My main character, it turned out, studies laughter in babies (this too required research), and in her personal life she hides her sense of isolation, her disappointment, and her grief behind humor. She wants a child but doesn't have one; it's her best friend who has a baby, and it's that baby who dies in his sleep.
The story was published in Iron Horse Literary Review in 2015, but when the time came to look at it again as part of my story collection, it still needed work. Aspects of the main character's personality and relationships weren't as clear as they could be. I'd gotten away with shirking my writerly responsibility, and I had one last chance to try to make it better. I was revising right up until the final manuscript was due.
This is the very long story behind just one of the twelve stories in my debut collection, Look How Happy I'm Making You. At forty-three, I'm an older debut author, and I've decided to embrace that—all the time it took to figure out what I had to write about; all the time it took to hone story, structure, characters, sentences. Next week, I'll read at Literati once again, from my just-published book. Maybe afterwards, I'll go over to the wall filled with advice and encouragement, and find a tiny bit of space for my word. When I get back to writing, I'm going to need it.