In the seventh in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, K.R. Sands, author of Boy of Bone (Siman Media Works) discusses getting a late start as a fiction writer.
When people ask why I waited until I was nearly sixty years old to begin writing fiction, I usually flip back “If it was good enough for Daniel Defoe, it’s good enough for me.” Defoe, like me, spent his middle years writing nonfiction, although I freely admit that his pamphlet “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters” is a lot funnier than my scholarly articles. Defoe, like me, was nearly sixty when he began publishing fiction: first Robinson Crusoe (not a bad start!), followed by eight more novels within the next five years.
I’m not sure what possessed Defoe to switch from nonfiction to fiction. But I do know what possessed me to do it: I was incredibly tired of the emotionally controlled nonfiction voice. I had taught university writing courses for nearly four decades. Regardless of the name of the course (composition, expository writing, technical writing, business writing, whatever), the voice I taught my students to write was always the same: calm, logical, open-minded, authoritative, mature, blah, blah. And of course I wrote in the same voice for my own nonfiction projects. This voice was particularly important for my two history books on demon possession in Elizabethan England because many people were so suspicious of the subject (“Do you really believe in demons?”) that they doubted my authority before they even cracked open the books. (My answer to that question was “If I wrote a biography of Napoleon, would you ask me if I was really an imperialist?”)
Between the teaching and the writing, I got very good at the calm, logical, open-minded, authoritative, mature voice. I could whip out whole paragraphs of it in mere minutes. I could knock off a chapter of it during my lunch break. In the tub. During commercials. Waiting at red lights. In my sleep. (Truly—at least twice that I can remember!)
I never consciously thought about getting away from this voice. I’d written it forever, earning paychecks and prizes along the way. It was just the thing I did. But then something terrible happened: My wonderful brother John was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
I’d seen cancer deaths before, and I knew it was all down to waiting. But I didn’t feel I could stand the wait for this one—and I didn’t see how I could help John stand it. I rocked in a dark corner for a few weeks. My daily talks with him ran along the lines of “How are you feeling today?” and “Any news?” and other unhelpful bromides. The talks were excruciating for both of us.
Then I spotted an ad for a continuing education course in writing short fiction, and things began to happen very fast. I took the course, turned out to have a knack, hired the teacher as my writing coach, published a bunch of stories in magazines, and said yes when a publisher offered to make a collection out of them. This was all well and good, but the biggest benefit was that my brother and I had something else to talk about for his final nine months: fiction. We read and discussed stories by Max Apple and Aimee Bender. John made suggestions for improvements to my draft stories. We talked about the handouts for my course. Our daily conversations improved a thousand percent.
It was only after John’s death that I realized why I had glommed on to writing fiction so desperately: because I didn’t have to use that damned emotionally controlled voice! Instead, I wrote voices for a young woman who doubts the value of her work in a vivisection lab . . . for a mixed-race boy struggling with his prejudice against a Native American man . . . for a doctor overwhelmed with erotic love for a medical device . . . for a Civil War surgeon hiding the identity of a female soldier . . . for a tired Marie Curie as she smokes a cigarette with Marcel Duchamp. These voices were anxious, angry, heartbroken, frustrated, self-deluded, manipulative—and they sounded far more believable to me than the nonfiction voice I’d been writing for decades.
So I finally understand the art-as-therapy-for-grief idea. Maybe Defoe’s switch from nonfiction to fiction had something to do with his huge debt load, his nasty stint in the pillory, and his imprisonment. I hope the switch worked for him. It seems to be working for me.