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Original Essays

Birthing a Happy Baby

by Stephen Elliott
 
  1. Happy Baby
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Happy Baby

    Stephen Elliott
    "Happy Baby is a most impressive little novel, heartbreakingly and bewilderingly alive in a way most bigger books can't even imagine." Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
  2. Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process
    $23.00 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Looking Forward to It, which manages to be playful and earnest at once, is a compulsively readable document of those cold, wrenching months when John Kerry became the Democratic candidate for president." Anna Godbersen, Esquire
  3. Politically Inspired
    $2.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Politically Inspired

    Stephen Elliott
    "A superb collection, without a single dud. Grab it." Kirkus Reviews
I was dating another writer, which is always a bad idea. But I liked her, and I loved her stories. We were walking in Berkeley and she raised her hand and I flinched. "Oh," she said, wrapping her arm protectively around my waist. Later she told me I should write about sex. "You have sexual issues. You could write about that forever."

She was right on both points. I had been stuck. I hadn't written anything in months. I started a story called "Other Desires," about a man who meets a horribly abusive woman online and falls in love with her. In the months of not writing I'd been reading a lot, and also taking part in my first workshop. I didn't do an MFA but everyone in the fellowship program I was in at Stanford already had an MFA. I got a lot out of those workshops but what I didn't like was the constant questions.

"Why does the character feel that way?" "What happened before?"

It seemed to me people wanted an answer to every question, which made me crazy. Background is often completely unnecessary in a story. I wanted to write without backstory, in the present tense. So I did that with "Other Desires." Then I decided to get rid of all the adjectives, or as many as I could. It took months to write a story this way, and what I finished with was something very lean, and I knew I was going to turn it into a book.

When people ask about Happy Baby, which is not that often, their questions frequently revolve around the sexuality of the character. I don't deny it. This is a book about S&M. A book about a man who associates abuse with affection. The character grew up in some of the same group homes I grew up in and his stories are often my stories, or the stories of people I met in the state system as an adolescent. The relationships he has as an adult resemble some of my own. But, what a lot of people miss is that the book is about language first, confession second.

Minimalism reads easy, and so it seems like it is easier to write. But in writing, minimalism is much harder. It's really difficult to resist the urge to explain a characters motives or situation. I read every chapter hundreds of times. I could never have written a book like this without support, and it's unlikely that I'll ever write anything like it again. The funding I received from Stanford allowed me to spend two years, seven days a week, six to eight hours a day, working on this small book, without having to worry about paying the electricity or buying a burrito and a beer. When I started writing Happy Baby I was in my twenties. When I finished I was in my thirties. It was like coming out of a cave.

It's hard to write about writing and not sound like you're taking yourself too seriously. Whenever I read a writer writing about his or her own writing I think they are pompous. But I'm no better than them. So I won't pretend that I'm not proud of Happy Baby, or that it wasn't a defining experience writing it. I can't write about my own process without taking myself more seriously than I am comfortable with. I gave up something to write that book. I took everything inside of myself and put it on the surface. My own sexuality, which I had kept in a carefully locked compartment, was now at the front of my conscious and would have to be dealt with. I started putting myself in dangerous situations with people I didn't know. To survive I was going to have to stop denying my needs and start looking for healthy and safe ways to fulfill them.

I've always written to communicate. The final problem with writing is that no matter what you want to achieve, express, and do with the language, there's still an audience to think of. Happy Baby is not written for a wide audience. My nonfiction is funny and loose, which is how I am when I'm with my friends. Happy Baby is a sad book and inside I'm a sad person. People that don't like sad books won't like Happy Baby. And people that don't like books about non-consensual sex are not likely to like Happy Baby either. When a book is written for a small audience it might seem like it wasn't written for an audience at all. But that's not true. I was always aware of the people who would read this book. When I thought about my audience what I kept in mind was that for the small group of people who do like Happy Baby, a group that is rarely written for in a serious way, I wanted it to be their favorite book. And I think I achieved that on a small scale. spacer

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