|The Book of Life author Stuart Nadler
A warm welcome for today’s guest poster, Stuart Nadler.Stuart is the author of the short story collection The Book of Life. He is graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, and his debut novel, Wise Men, will be published in early 2013.
Stuart has also written, beautifully, for us a reflection on writing that involves road trips, homesickness, the comfort of brutal New England winters, and the happy accidents that transpire when you don’t pack a GPS or bring a notebook. Click the jump to join him for the ride.
I wrote one of the stories in my collection in my car. If this sounds drastic, or desperate, it was. This was the beginning of 2007. I was living in Iowa City. I’d moved there a few months earlier from Brooklyn to attend the Writers’ Workshop. This was my first midwest winter, and it came with as much brutality and shock as I’d been told it would. But even with the forewarning, the cold was still oppressive. One afternoon, when the wind-chill registered something like twenty or thirty below, I felt my blood slow while trying to make the short walk from the parking lot of a Target in through the electric doors. Maybe this was what death feels like, I guessed. To forestall all of this, and to get out of the house, I’d go to the gym. It was well heated there, and it offered a cheery, if not difficult way of staving off what I’d felt outside Target. This was where the story came to me. I’d heard of this happening, stories appearing like cold fronts, everything emerging all at once. Immediately I felt that I should distrust the idea. Writing, I’d heard, was supposed to be difficult. Arduous. If you weren’t feeling awful about your progress, you were doing something wrong. This, if anything, was the gospel of those first few months in Iowa. Struggle, doubt, distrust; repeat if necessary. So here I was, on a treadmill in Iowa City. I think there was an ice storm outside. I may be conflating two separate memories here, but for the purposes of this story, let’s say there was, indeed, an ice storm outside. A freezing rain had coated the trees with such a heavy sheen that as I drove down Market Street that day, huge chunks of iced-off alder and maple broke off above me and crashed onto the roof of my Honda.
The initial idea was simple. A father in his car watching his son walk up to ring a doorbell on a house. That was all I had, that small picture. Why was the father still in the car? Who were they? I had no idea what I was doing at the gym. I was one of those foolish sadists who throw a towel over the readout and pray hopefully that behind the veil the time read some preciously low number. Perhaps there was a television to distract me, but I’m not sure now. What I did was to think over some dialogue between these two characters. Part of life at the Writers’ Workshop is an ever-present, ever-lingering deadline, and I’m sure that while I was running that day, I had in the back of my mind the simple fact that I owed someone a story in a week or two. The dialogue was angry, recriminating, full of loaded innuendo. This was different than what I’d been working on for the past few months, which was a failing novel about a piano-playing savant stuck in a shit-hole bar in New York playing jazz standards. I’d been desperate to drop this book, and eager to start writing stories, having become convinced by then of the power and beauty of the short-form and the potency of a quick, concise, economic story. I kept replaying the dialogue I’d been building in my head. Quickly, I had the beginning of the story, an awkward reunion in the lobby of a Manhattan hi-rise. A father and his estranged son, the boy sullen, insolent, iPod buds plugging his ears. They’d go to Rhode Island, I figured. The Iowa winter, even this early, was making me homesick for New England. I had the end of the story also, a lobster dinner at a seafood shack on the coast. I’d been trying to find a story for this lobster shack for months, having imagined it for some other failed story, and excised it, saving it for later. Here it was: a simple scene between father and son, a big steamed lobster between them, their enmity momentarily paused, a cigarette lit and wedged in the gap-tooth of an ashtray. At the end, I had the boy saying a few lines about feeling alienated about whether, because of his parent’s divorce, he was Jewish or Christian. I didn’t know it yet, but these few lines at the end, this tiny murmuring nod to the confusion of religious identity, would be the seed that sparked the whole of my story collection.
Finally, I made it back to my car, my workout mercifully ended. My wife and I had just driven from Iowa to the East Coast for the holidays, and in this, our pre-GPS life, the side compartments were a mess of road maps and fast-food trash and thin paper receipts. This was what I grabbed – a long receipt, probably from a gas station somewhere between South Bend and Erie. Quickly, I tried to transcribe the dialogue I’d been cycling around in my head. A funny thing happens in the process of transcription, though: no matter how accurate your memory, the message becomes fractured in that tiny space between your brain and your hands. Suddenly the dialogue was different from what I’d been reciting wordlessly on the treadmill. I couldn’t recall exactly how it was different; I only knew that it was. Now, rather than taking dictation from my memory, I was doing something close but altogether different from writing.
Eventually it was all there, this combination of my memory and my quick thinking. For weeks this tiny slip of paper lived on a corner of my desk. It was, in a way, an entire story, but also something quite like a stage play – all this dialogue, free of narration or exposition, free of characters moving or feeling or gesturing. I let it stay there on my desk for so long because I didn’t know whether the fidelity of that thunderclap of inspiration represented something I should heed or something I should discard. Part of this was because of a general inherited doubt about the need for inspiration. Surely, I had plenty to write about without having to search around for something to strike me on the forehead. In Everyman, Philip Roth’s narrator feels this same gnawing distrust of the idea. Channeling the great portraitist Chuck Close, he writes, “…amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” I figured there must be some great flaw in this dialogue, some great gaping error in the ease of it. A story I’d just finished, one that ended up in my book as well, had taken three months. Another that I’d already started work on, I’d go on to keep working on for four more years. When I finally grabbed for tiny slip of dialogue, a deadline was approaching. I thought I had an angle on the story, and I also supposed, perhaps out of some dumb idea about the initial ease of that first glut of material, that the rest of it would come just as easily. But of course, it didn’t. The first few pages seemed stilted. Basic plot points were missing. The only thing that worked was the dialogue. I carried the story around with me for the next two years, tinkering with the opening, changing tenses, trying to find a rhythm to the text that matched the quick, easy pace of my character’s conversation. I’d grab for the story in between projects, trying to gloss over the sore spots. In my boisterous over-confidence, I thought it was finished three or four times before I finally sent it off.
Sometime over the next few years, I lost that slip of paper. I moved twice, and I imagine that it was misplaced in the shuffle of packing and unpacking my office. I’d kept it at first out of some sentimental reminder that I ought to trust myself more. That my writerly doubt doesn’t have to rule the day. But I also kept it knowing that it was a gift. A writer gets one or two of those moments if they’re lucky. Or maybe that’s another canard. Perhaps these moments come and go all the time, and the only important factor is whether you’re willing to write it all down. I suppose I might find it one day. I hope I do. It may have ended up jammed into a book as a bookmark. Or it may have been clipped to back of one the dozens of drafts I suffered over. Or maybe it’s in an accordion folder somewhere in my basement with my tax return for that year. After all, I’d written all of it onto the backside of a receipt.