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Unpleasant Discoveries

The Burn Palace is my 21st published novel. There are also six novels that remain unpublished and, I expect, will continue to be unpublished. Three were the first novels I wrote and three are from the past 15 years. I say this not to brag but to attempt to articulate the words "how strange" because now, at 72, those novels constitute a life. They are elaborate postcards from the past.

I also have other books published over that life: stories, essays, and 13 books of poems. In addition, my collected journalism would fill another six good-sized volumes. Again, I think, how strange. Ninety-five percent of this work has been done alone in a room. Monks, I expect, spend less time in isolation than do writers.Monks, I expect, spend less time in isolation than do writers. No matter how much a writer might protest, the circumstances of his or her life tend to make them outsiders — stubborn outsiders. My first dozen years of hard writing contained little more than drivel, but I had to forgive myself for writing it before I could move forward.

Historically, many writers, when they've finished a book, have hurriedly traveled to interesting places. And what do they do with what they see? They write about it. Anthony Trollope was particularly good at this, as was his author mother and brother. Contemporary writers do it all the time. I did it by writing over 30 very long feature articles for the San Diego Reader over the course of a dozen years, writing on subjects as diverse as tugboats and drag queens, art restoration and lunch wagons.

All of these writings — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — form metaphors, and first of all they form metaphors for aspects of my life. For journalism this would seem less so, but the choice of subjects and the manner of their telling reflect something about me. Who I am, how I have lived, and my mountain of opinions determine the choices I make in terms of form and content. This is true of any writer.

I will try to avoid the issue of free will, though I think it's extremely limited, but I'd hate to go so far as to think it doesn't exist. I would like to think that my mistakes are my own rather than having been determined by my history, etc. My mistakes are my responsibility rather than my burden, and, with effort, I may be able to make some repairs. At times, I find that foolishly idealistic, but I stick to it nonetheless. Each creature requires its own particular life belt. Mine is often a foolish idealism.

The metaphors for my life in my journalism are unimportant. Sometimes I may notice them, sometimes not. They are worth about one head-scratch, unless by understanding them I might make the writing better. Every writer has favorite words, which, I think, are most often intensifiers like quite, still, even, yet, very, partly, often and many others. In revision, I do word searches for quite, still, even, etc., and I am appalled by how many I've made use of. They don't reflect my wish to be precise; they reflect insecurity and uncertainty, which have psychological beginnings. I cut most of them out.

The metaphors of self that I find in my fiction are more important, but they don't require a lot of attention. I need to spot them in order to avoid repetitions from book to book, to avoid being drawn to similar plots and characters. A reader of one of my Saratoga mysteries once told me that I must be a nice guy because my main character was a nice guy. I politely told him that I'm all my characters; all are drawn from who I am. And, yes, some are nice guys, but some are thoroughly nasty. Any human being has an interior range from light to dark, and a writer takes his characters from the folks populating that range. Mine are almost never based on "real" people, although I might use some particular person's nose or way of walking. Usually I decide that I need a character that fulfills such and such a roll, but the character's personality, psychology, and appearance remain unknown to me until he or she opens the door.

So fiction can be made up of metaphors of the self. My novel Saratoga Haunting requires the detective protagonist to go way back through police files, which he had written as a policeman, to learn about a case and bad guy who have apparently resurfaced. Reading these files, the detective is struck by how foolishly confident he had been 20 years earlier, how immature and self-deceived, how quick to reach false conclusions. And so, to resolve this present case, he must critique who he was 20 years earlier and to revise, emend, and enter into the mind of that earlier self who now seems so foreign.

At the time that I was writing Saratoga Haunting, I was putting together a collection of new and selected poems, Velocities, which included work from the previous 30 years. Then, I realized, I was doing in Velocities exactly what the detective was doing in Saratoga Haunting — looking back at a past self and being struck by his incompletions, immaturities, and faults. It can be unpleasant to look back at a past self, who one thinks has been nicely tucked away in a box in the attic, and to confront him as he was 30 years earlier. There's nothing like the discovery of past shortcomings to educate today's humility.There's nothing like the discovery of past shortcomings to educate today's humility. And then I thought about these new poems: How would I see them in 30 years? How would I see the person who had written them? Would I find him forgivable, praiseworthy, or perhaps only dull?

So much of Saratoga Haunting was in fact a metaphor for the assembling and writing of Velocities. I was struck that I'd been unaware of this, struck that my concerns about the book of poems were being worked out in the writing of a mystery novel. And I realized I probably did this often, that images, ideas, and conflicts that I had thought had been calculated intellectually had been calculated emotionally and psychologically.

But, as I say, in fiction, such metaphors aren't terribly important, especially since much of my fiction is genre fiction. What drives the fiction is narrative and in writing that takes most of my allegiance. I have a strong sense of the beginning of the book and its crucial events, a generalized idea of the narrative arc of the whole, and a sense of the end, although at times I've changed all of this in midstream. But to a large extent, I am writing the book to see why I am writing the book, and I hold the reins rather loosely; that is, I don't want to think there is anything I can't change. I don't want the clay to harden when I am only halfway through.

So the concern in fiction is narrative, or more simply: I like telling stories. I tell them first for myself and second for an audience. I did this as a small child and all through grade school, and then, as well as telling them, I began writing them out.

Listen, this is obsessive behavior; and over the years I would look at pencils, pens, typewriters, and computers in the way that some men would look at women...

But this is a blog. I've never before written a blog, so I'm at the very bottom of my learning curve. More of this later...

÷ ÷ ÷

Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than 30 novels and poetry collections, including The Church of the Dead Girls, Cold Dog Soup, and Cemetery Nights. Among his many honors and awards are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series Prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Burn Palace Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. Saratoga Haunting Used Mass Market $1.00
  3. Velocities: New and Selected Poems:... Sale Trade Paper $9.98


Stephen Dobyns is the author of The Burn Palace

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