Monday, January 5, 2015

Diane Cook Writes from a Place of Fear

In the 68th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Diane Cook, author of Man V. Nature (Harper), explores the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.

When Mark Strand died I went back to his books. I hadn’t read him in many years but long ago he was my first favorite poet. The one I found all on my own from just browsing my college bookstore, feeling cool that I was someone who spent her own money on books. No one had to tell me what to read or when, I just found what I wanted. I was 18 and learning to be a reader. I was hardly even learning to be a writer yet. That would come a little later. After I learned to really read. As it should.

One of my favorite Strand poems was always “The Tunnel” so I re-read it. It begins:

Tunnel vision: Poet Mark Strand
A man has been standing
in front of my house
for days. I peek at him
from the living room
window and at night,
unable to sleep,
I shine my flashlight
down on the lawn.
He is always there.

I was stunned to see this again. In my collection, Man V. Nature, one of the stories, “Somebody’s Baby,” begins with a man and woman who come home from the hospital with their newborn daughter to find a man standing in their yard. The man is there to try to take their baby, as he’s done to all the other new babies in the neighborhood. It is a story grown from fear of the unknown and the familiar. It is a fable of sorts, surreal. I had not realized until this moment of re-reading that it is also inspired by Mark Strand. When I wrote my story, my man seemed to organically emerge from my personal preoccupations, a vision of anxiety that made the most sense to me. But the image of Strand’s strange and unappeasable man had stuck in my mind for almost 20 years waiting to find a reason to reappear. Now I see that while my story sprung originally from my brain, in some wonderful way it is also an homage. Would I have ever written “Somebody’s Baby” if I hadn’t read Strand’s “The Tunnel”? Maybe Strand read some piece of writing that led to his own haunting figure of a man in a yard. This is what is great about the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.

Personally, I can’t do one without doing the other. I can’t join the conversation writers are having about being human, about fear, about creation, about writing, if I haven’t read what they have to say. That said, I’m not the most well read person you’ll find. Far from it. I’ve learned to be okay with that. I do my best. My own reading is rollercoaster-ish. Sometimes I’ll read a book in a day. This fall, I mainly read for work. It took me weeks to finish a book. Even though I may have loved what I was reading, the pressure of having a responsibility toward each book slowed me down to a crawl.

This month, I’m reading for pleasure. I have a box of books with me I can’t even hope to finish. But I know that reading and losing myself in other people’s words is one way I kick my own writing into gear. It’s inspiration for me. I read several books at once. They are piled on the other side of my bed. I pick one up, read some, pick up another, and so on. It’s not economical but it’s fun and it feels freeing and inspiring and a little intellectually naughty.

Right now I’m in a cabin two miles up a mountainside dirt road with views of the Pacific when the fog cooperates. I am not remote enough to be in any kind of danger, but I’m remote enough to feel scared. Scared of the dark, of what’s beyond the tree line, of my own thoughts. This is what I do. When I’m ready to write I go to places where I feel on the edge of security. The part of my imagination rooted in fear stands up. When this stands up, everything stands up. This wasn’t always my process but it’s my process now. Read books and be scared. Then, write. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it this way, though I’m sure others have. I came upon it once I stopped trying to mimic other people’s processes—write in the morning, write at night, write every day, don’t force your writing, ass in chair, go for walks, outline, don’t outline, always finish books, life’s too short to always finish books, read the classics, read your friends, writing is just your job, writing is your life. There is a lot of advice out there and it’s not meant to be contradictory but it can feel that way sometimes. What I’ve learned is to just do whatever I want. It might mean I’m reading 12 books at one time, or reading novels like they’re books of poetry. It might mean I’m shaking because every sound outside my door could be some stalking cougar, or maybe worse, a man in my yard. Ideally, it means that I get to a place where I write stories that feel like no other stories I’ve read but are somehow still a part of the conversation. When I do what I want, I write better. Is this essay a kind of advice to young writers? If so, then don’t take my advice, except, do take my advice, if you know what I mean.