Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Traci O Connor on the Difficulties of Being Human (and of Writing)

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Traci O Connor, author of Recipes for Endangered Species (Tarpaulin Sky Press), talks process.

Describe the stories in your collection. 
Every story in my collection is pretty much about this: As human beings we often fail to see other human beings as human beings. We see each other often as something less or, at best, monstrous, and, eventually, we begin to see ourselves thus. The characters in my stories all deal, to some degree, with the ways in which they feel themselves monstrous, the ways in which they act out their monstrosities – in short, they deal with the difficulties of being human.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
My characters almost exclusively live lives which I have never lived. When I find out a character knows something I know nothing about, I might spend fifty hours online, linking to sites the non-writer in me might be ashamed of, just to find the appropriate language for a dinner party.

My spouse claims that the stuff he pulls from the drain under the sink looks like half a dead muskrat. While most of my research is, unabashedly, internet based, I’m not above dissecting the stuff from a drain with a pair of mechanical pencils if I believe the right metaphor is in there somewhere.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I draw house plans. I smash out drywall. I garden and cook and slow the progress of the Allegheny River with a kayak paddle. I paint houses. I speak with my hands, creating enormous little signifiers that erase themselves as they come into existence. I make dolls out of old woolen sweaters and I tell their stories. I drive fast in heavy traffic.

What is your writing process like? 
In the beginning, writing is a lonely—if not downright miserable—experience. Nobody buys me a cup of coffee or asks about my weekend. Sometimes I write something terribly sad, and I feel very bad for myself and the world. Every day I sit down and ask myself, “Wouldn’t you rather . . .” and, well, hell, do just about anything? Go for a swim, for instance, or drink so much Shiraz I can hardly see? Watch a movie with the kids, drive around old neighborhoods, making plans to become an architect, go to the Ice Capades, develop my undiscovered talent for comedy improv, plant something somewhere…

Then I take a deep breath, close Facebook, and start smacking computer keys. I have no idea what will happen next. Sometimes words crop up. Once in a while, a sentence will just be there, and it will be the first time this sentence has ever been written by anybody anywhere. Sometimes I accidentally put my pointer finger on the h instead of the j, and this happens: “ut was a darj abd stirnt buggt.” And that is pleasant as well.

I once spent three straight eight-hour days researching masochism, self-mutilation, vivisection, body art, rare piercings, elective amputation—thinking that I would perhaps write a novel about a character who is deeply troubled by society or perhaps is in love with someone who wants his love but will never love him back. Meat hooks seemed somehow important to this scenario. But at the end of the third day, I wrote, “How is beauty so different than fear?” in a short story that entirely lacks tattoos et al. And every second was worth it.

There is no way to act as if this is not melodramatic, so I’ll just say it: When I write, when I turn everything else off, when I’m unconscious and the world falls out in front of me in ways I could never have imagined before, I feel the weight of everything that has come before me, everything that is not me now, channeling through me. I become much greater than the sum of my parts. My hunger goes away. I’m no longer sleepy. I forget the trivial worries that keep me from doing; I slough off the mundane detritus of the day-to-day. When I step away from my computer, I believe all the ridiculous things those sinewy people wearing nylon short-shorts in the dead of winter tell me about a runner’s high. I think, maybe I’m wrong about god. I think, maybe I’m right about god. I think, maybe the important thing is that I take a breath so deep I nearly pass out. Later in the day, I think I’ll go back to what I wrote and change every “should” to “could” or every “my neighbor Pete” to “a stray cat out back” – and that’s how I feel: as though I can do all things in my writing, as though the universe I create will shape the way my readers think about themselves and other human beings—about the ways they experience the world.

But I don’t go back. I can’t go back. And the next day, I sit down and ask myself, “Wouldn’t you rather . . .” and I close Facebook and I start smacking the keys. And, as long as the words keep coming up there on the page in front of me, I think I won’t have to answer that question.