Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What Keeps Helen McClory Going

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Helen McClory, author of On the Edges of Vision (Queen's Ferry Press), talks about reading and writing.

What keeps you going?
I like this question more than the more common “why do you write?”—that one brings on the urge to delve into the past, to rummage out from memory old books and kindly first readers. It optimizes for twinkly-lights nostalgia. Not always unwelcome! But the question of why one keeps going looks to the future. And there is some kinship between writing and the future, however often words are settled in their comfy past tenses, dealing with subjects now long dead.

I write on a computer, the better to order my disordered thoughts, stitch up the gaps and wipe away clean the grotesquery of misspellings. What keeps me going is following a flashing black cursor, its balance of meditative white space and urgency. But if I only wrote, I would write nothing but strings of letters amounting to clichés, pinning them flimsily up like dusty old Christmas decorations brought out year on year. So I read.

What keeps me going is the reading. It buoys the imagination and shakes the heart to know that I have in front of me a supply of books that will last beyond my own lifespan. The best thing in the world for me as a writer is to read a line, or a whole book of lines (yes, the words, the phrasings, more than plot) where everything is bracing and astute and innovative, utterly beyond my talents. Read to feel smaller, to know that writing is not a dead thing. I like to read the books that fail to hit the mark, that acquiesce too much or wander off down indulgent avenues, because I can learn from them. And go down my own wrong ways.

What keeps me going is the risk of failure, which is writing’s ever-present risk. I have so little time to get it right. What keeps me going is the fear of dying, which makes me stubborn. If I don’t write what I want to, what is the best I can manage, then I will die (I will die anyway). I’ll die having failed my role models (who do not know me). I’ll die having been too afraid of having no readers—and in this not trusted that the reader will find what they need, eventually.

What keeps me going is the privileges I have in my life that support me doing something so quixotic and unwaged as writing can be. I write because my husband has a job, because I can work part time, because I have no one to support. All those who write under the conditions of life harder than my own have my deep respect.

I write because the future keeps coming at me; out of anxiety, out of stubbornness, out of a desire to communicate with the books I have read and will read and those who are out there reading on their lunch breaks and subway rides and early at their kitchen tables before their lives crank into gear. If I think about it, there’s plenty of softness to why I keep writing. Maybe the future too is full of twinkling lights. All that darkness, but in it, against it, wherever we look, some stars turning to embers, others blazing out.