Last year I finished a novel called The Ballad of Two Sisters. I have been submitting it to contests and small presses, and though there have been no takers yet, initial reactions have been positive. This is what I remember about writing the novel: I sat down every morning and I wrote and it was not difficult to live in that world with those people. I wrote steadily and happily. The characters were extensions of myself; I knew them intimately and could see their lives from birth to death.
It has never been my business to let characters die, but in this novel, one of the characters dies. I spent days writing around his death until I realized the problem with it: I could not let him die alone. I loved him too much. He hung on growing sicker until I came to that realization. Finally, I put his wife in the room with him. She held his hand. He died. I cried as though I had lost a beloved.
Now that the novel has been finished for several months and my first collection of short stories, Six Months in the Midwest, has been edited, published, and promoted, I decided to go back to the short story, which has been my favorite form since I was a child. With a sense of relief, I imagined getting back into my normal writing routine. Most mornings I wake up, exercise, read, then drink tea and write. I looked forward to the linear progression of storytelling, to doing the thing that has always made me feel best about myself: making something.
But more often than not in these past few months, I find excuses not to write or not to finish what I am writing. I have never experienced such acute blankness when staring at a computer screen or a notebook page. Everything comes out in vignettes or scenes and as much as I try, I cannot seem to find the roads that lead these fragments to one another. This is the dark side of the short story, one that I seem to have forgotten about in the year or more I worked almost exclusively on the novel.
Since these troubles began, I have been trying to diagnose the problem. Have I simply lost my ability to work in this form? What is it that I have forgotten? I put myself on a diet of books that I thought would help, eclectic of course, since I always find reading in different genres to be best. I have been reading William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Moore, Nikki Finney. In other words, I’m eating healthy food, I’m exercising, so why am I ill?
Yesterday I had a tooth pulled out, a large molar that had already been treated with a root canal and crowned. It had become reinfected six years after healing. This morning I ate real food again – a scrambled egg with spinach and cheese and half of a grapefruit. While I was cooking this food just for myself, something I do with a strange and secret pleasure, I came back to the central problem. What I thought of was this: it is a question of time. Like the body taking its time to heal, so it is with letting go of past work and starting new. Here I am now with Rusty and Eli and Matthew and Bud and Elaine and Pauline and Stephanie who all live in a small Wisconsin river town, a town that now is locked in winter. People do not go out much. They nod at each other but do not stop to talk. And so Rusty and Eli and Matthew and Bud and Elaine and Pauline and Stephanie are still strangers to me. I do not know them yet, cannot know them yet. I am learning about them in fits and starts, our encounters like conversations at a cocktail party where stories are exchanged in the haze of wine and beer. I have seen only the parts of their lives that they have allowed me to see thus far; there is still mining to be done. I cannot assume anything about them for I may be wrong. I cannot push them too hard for they may fall silent.
Like a healing wound, like most everything else, it is simply a question of time.