Thursday, November 5, 2015

Are You My Process?

Many people may not realize this, but P.D. Eastman's children's classic Are You My Mother is actually an esoteric guide to writing a short story.

Here is how it works.

You are sitting around waiting for your next great short-story idea to hatch.

Nothing is happening.

In the story, this where the mother bird flies off to get something for her baby bird to eat.

In your process, this is where you start trolling lists like Clifford Garstang's Pushcart Prize Rankings of Literary Magazines to find out where your short-story masterpiece should be placed.

Or maybe you actually get up and go to the fridge to figure out what to make your family--who are all off doing productive things--for dinner.

Never mind, writer, that you will only get yourself a snack. Never mind that you aren't even hungry. Eating is certainly preferable to sitting there staring at that blinking cursor.

Then just when you've got out the ham and the mayo and the onion and the lettuce and the bread and two kinds of cheese...

Out comes the baby bird.

Your idea is so fragile. Maybe it's just a line or two with a distinctive narrative voice. Or maybe it's a weird-ass situation with a hilarious conflict. It doesn't matter how small it is. Its tiny story heart is beating under its downy chest, and you race back to your desk and write it down.

And writing that first draft is a kind of free fall. It's fun.

Down out of the ethereal realm of pure potential, your story falls into the the world of form.

Down, down, down! It is a long way down.

Good work.

You get up and and go back to the kitchen. You make your ham sandwich. You don't even mind that you have to cut it into three parts to share it with your family when they come home for dinner.

Your confidence carries over to the next day. You get up early and meditate.

When it's time, you fire up your computer. You pull up your story.

It isn't done, of course, but like some Platonic ideal, you know its perfected final version--its mother, so to speak--is out there waiting to be discovered, and full of optimistic zeal, you set off into the unknown.

Surely the essential heart of the story is right there in your first draft, but no matter how long you look at it, you will not see it. So you begin your rewrite, and as you do, you unknowingly pass by exactly what you're looking for...

...and come up with something that isn't even close.

So you write it again.  

And then you do it again.

You're starting to get weary, but you're nothing if not persistent. You know you have to be. All the inspirational quotes from famous writers (one of which you are not) have told you as much. 

So you try again.

You still don't feel good about it, but you know you've looked at it too long. Maybe you're failing to see its quality, and so you decide to submit it to The Paris Review.  

The Paris Review writes back.

"How could I be your mother?  I am The Paris Review."

You take stock. You've written four drafts, and your baby bird isn't any closer to home. In fact, if anything you seem to be getting further and further away. Was there anything to your inspiration to begin with?

There was. You know there was.

You will finish your story. You will. You WILL!

Now you do not walk through the next draft.  You run. You change your story's setting to a zombie apocalypse in 1932 Berlin, which is somehow also in the future because it is a parallel universe.

You write it again.

And again

You know you are in danger of going off the rails, but you don't know what else to do, and you've put so much into it already. Maybe if you just keep with it you will figure it out, and that's when you see it.

This has got to be it.  

Look at it. Look at how complicated it is, how sophisticated. Look how many moving parts. There are magazines out there that publish 80-page short stories, aren't there? It doesn't matter because this is definitely it. Look at it!

Never mind how it speaks to you.

Never mind how it makes you feel!

Look at its bright colors and the cool teeth on it! Look at all the pulleys and gears! The smoke and the awesome tread! This story has it all, and determinedly, you and your delicate story go up, up, up to new and dangerous heights.

But now what's happening? The story is driving you, shaking you, running amok. It's completely kicking your ass. You try to fight it, but it is totally unmanageable. You ask yourself:

"Where is this story taking me? Why didn't I just start a novel?"

And then everything grinds to a halt.

Your story is a mess.

You feel like this.

But you are not famous.

You cry out. 

"What the #@%! am I doing?  What made me think I could write anything worthwhile?"

You want to go home. You want your mother.

And defeated, you close your document. You shut off your computer and turn off your light.

There is no way in hell you could possibly write this story again. You've given up. You've given up not only with your head; you've given up with your heart.

The next morning as you lie in bed, mocking faces appear in the random patterns of your ceiling tile. You do not shower. Even if you cared enough to shave, you could not be trusted with a razor.

Downstairs, you mumble your "Good Mornings," and as you pack the lunches, sighs well up from your chest. After everyone leaves, you sit in a chair looking out your back window. The sunlight on the leaves and grass is positively radiant.

Maybe, you think, it's not too late to become a carpenter, just like Jesus.  

And then for some reason, maybe because you want to run off to Africa, you remember that quote from Isak Dinesen, the one that says: "I write a little every day, without hope, without despair."

And you think, what a dumb quote. But you get up anyway and walk to your desk. You sit down and turn on your computer. You open a new document, and something happens.

Calmly and evenly the story starts to pour out onto the page, the words stacking themselves like stones, and a crystalline certainty circulates through your being as your tale takes shape. It's not showy or complicated or abstruse, and it doesn't even feel particularly "literary," but you make it to the end...

...and it still sucks.

But you, writer, have made it home, because you finally remember that this is your process, and yes, it is frustrating and isolating and the tangible rewards of money and prestige are so meager, but you do it because it is the only thing you've found that engages every part of your being, because it gives you a chance to conjure up something even better than the best thing you have inside of you, and sooner or later, after rewrites and feedback from trusted readers and tons of rejection, someone will like your story and publish it, or maybe not. Maybe before that happens you will let it fall by the wayside to be dealt with in some distant future project, perhaps even in some future life.

So there you have it. It's not pretty. It's not neat. It's not romantic, or certain, or even particularly pleasurable to do most of the time. But if you keep with it, you will, over time, begin to feel how fortunate you are to be able to engage the material of your life in this manner, and you will continue to get better and better at loving it, because it is your process, and it, writer, is your mother.

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. So good.

    I'm glad someone can take something from that book other than complete dread at having to read it for the 4,329th time. Stupid bird.

    1. Thanks, buddy. The multiple compulsory readings are definitely what allowed me to penetrate so deeply!

  2. this was great. insightful, engaging, penetrating/profound, meta, and honest. and funny: I smiled most at the Paris Review's "I am not your mother" bit. a joy to read the entire post.

    1. Thanks, Brooks! I'm glad you liked it and really appreciate the feedback.