I’ve been anticipating some version of this question, hoping I’d have to answer it actually, since about 2008. My last book, Dogwalker, came out in 2001, and even though I still wasn’t close to completing another book in 2008, I liked to think I would sometime soon, and when I did somebody might ask, “What took you so long?”
But then a few more years passed by and still this new book hadn’t materialized. Some days I’d wake up and search my desk, then click through folders on my computer, wondering where it was. Why hadn’t it been written? Boy was I going to have some explaining to do when it finally showed up! What exactly have I been doing?
Back when I was an unpublished writer I told myself that the reason I found it so hard to write anything of substance was that there was no assurance someone might actually read what I wrote. “I can’t sit down and write a novel,” I said. “What if no one sees it and then I’ll have wasted all that time?”
When small periodicals began publishing my short stories I thought, “This is the kick in the ass I need. At last I know that someone will read my work!”
An energetic burst followed, and I completed a book’s worth of short stories. And after that book was published, I felt certain I would now write a novel. I made a plan. I gathered up what was left of my first book advance and bought a ramshackle cabin in the northeast kingdom of Vermont. The place was so remote that I couldn’t have electricity even if I wanted it. But I didn’t! I moved up there with my manual typewriter in the middle of January, a sucker’s gambit if there ever was one. It’s cold as fuck in northern Vermont in January. I had to burn furniture to stay alive! When I wasn’t trying to coax heat out of the woodstove or shoveling snow off the roof to prevent the chimney from falling over, I sat in front of my big heavy typewriter. It was this antique-looking device made in 1929. When I typed out words the whole house shook, making the windows rattle. When I typed at night, surrounded by candles, hot wax splashed everywhere. Many was the morning I rolled out of bed, still wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold, and stared in disgust at the wax-covered chaos of that table. I didn’t write a novel in that cabin.
That spring I moved to New York City and got a job. For years I had believed that real writers should have day jobs, that this was the honorable way to get things done. O. Henry was a banker. Vonnegut ran a car dealership. Harper Lee worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines. That’s valuable real life experience, right? Interactions! But then I ran into Denis Johnson, a literary hero of mine, down in Austin, Texas. He drove me around in this giant red Cadillac convertible and dispensed gems of literary advice, many of which I’ve now forgotten. The gist of his outlook was, “Nobody knows anything. You can’t teach writing.” But the thing that really stuck with me was his declaration that he had refused to get a “real job.” He told me that years ago, when someone had asked him what he was going to do for money, he said simply, “I’m going to write.” And taking this leap had forced him to do it. I was really struck by that, and wanted to do the same thing. But if I learned nothing else in that cold cabin in Vermont, it was that writing alone cannot sustain me, financially or otherwise. I suspect this is true for most people who are not Denis Johnson.
The truth of the matter is I have actually gotten a few things done in the fourteen years since the publication of my last book. I directed a summer camp, made several films, had two children, and currently work at a juvenile detention center in Portland, Oregon. But always on my mind has been, Where is that book I am supposed to be writing? Why hasn’t it materialized? If I think about it very carefully in the moments before I fall asleep, will there be pages on my desk in the morning?
Of course, no pages appeared magically, but sometimes I would steal away and write, and sometimes I would sift through the papers in my desk drawers (I still use that clunky typewriter I had up in Vermont) and I would find something that made me chuckle. I’d scribble in the margins and later type it into my computer. If anyone asked me if I had a story for their magazine I’d always say “yes,” no matter how obscure the publication. I’d send them one of my typewriter stories, happily altering it to fit their needs. Deadlines and guidelines are a procrastinating writer’s best friends.
In Portland I fell in with a group of writers and a few years ago we made plans to meet every other Thursday to share our work. We came up with a set of rules which I think can be helpful to those who find “work-shopping” problematic. Here are the rules I like:
• Everyone brings in new, unpublished work, and puts their name in a hat.
• No sharing copies beforehand, just read aloud.
• No more than ten minutes reading time, strict limit!
• Absolutely no comment period after the reading, just pick a name from the hat and move on. Applause is fine, though.
The last rule is the most important. I find the forced commentary of workshops confusing for the writer, and draining to the commenters. If you feel you have something to say to the writer, talk to them at some other time, but you are not obligated to do even that. It’s my belief that the most valuable aspect of a writer’s group or workshop is simply the obligation to get something done. Likewise, the most daunting aspect of this set-up is the obligation to devote creative energy to other people’s work. The reality is that most writers can feel what’s working and what’s not just by reading something aloud to an attentive group. An attentive reader can sense interest and engagement, and likewise boredom and confusion.
Joining that group in Portland got me back in the saddle, so to speak. I didn’t get that novel done (not yet!), but I do finally have another book of stories, several of which began with the thought that I needed something new to bring to my friends next time we all put our names into the hat. The novel is next, and I’ve promised myself, and my editor, that I won’t fuck around like I did the last time. I don’t have another fourteen years to spare, nor do I need them at this point. But I’m still working on a good answer to that question about what I exactly I was doing for all that time.
Arthur Bradford is an O. Henry Award–winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. He is the author of Turtleface and Beyond, Dogwalker, and his writing has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, VICE, and Men’s Journal. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and serves as the co-director of Camp Jabberwocky, the nation’s longest-running residential summer camp for people with disabilities.
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