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Original Essays

How I Learned about Writing Fiction by Not Writing It

by Kevin Smokler
  1. Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times
    $1.00 Sale Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "If you're a writer, Bookmark is pure inspirational power juice. If you're a reader (we know you're out there), it provides lots of heartening evidence that literature isn't dead, and that novelists can be just as entertaining as Dave Chappelle." Marc Weingarten, Los Angeles Times

    Enter by August 1st to win 15 books recommended by the contributors to Bookmark Now!

In my mid-twenties, I spent four years running my own business, which I'm convinced was a long excuse to not focus on my writing. So when I became editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, an anthology featuring essays about the continuing relevance of books and literature in the digital 21st century, all those poisonous thoughts showed up again. Was I doing an anthology so I could publish a book without writing one? I'd have to compose an introduction, sure, but my primary role would be as manager, not as artist, hosting the party and cleaning up afterward instead of being the guest of honor. Did "editor" really mean "writer with no guts"?

Nonetheless, I had both an agent and a contract at age thirty. I knew others would kill to be in my position, so I pressed on, ignoring as best I could those doubts clinging to my back bumper. Talking shop with other writers helped, giving me a sense of belonging even when I didn't exactly feel I deserved it. A few of these writers had edited anthologies, too, but most were novelists, deep in the thicket of character, setting, and dialogue. They talked about writing as being like a plummet into a dream, a delicious insanity of their own making. Being there challenged, even scared them, but they loved that every brick, lamppost, or chance encounter in this world came entirely out of their own imagination. Diving back in seemed like an adventure that they created but still surprised the hell out of them.

I listened and tried to contribute where I could but the truth was, I'd never thought about my "process" much at all. I began writing professionally as a reporter for a weekly newspaper where you scarcely have time to check your facts and file before deadline, much less discuss the "writing process." Your process consisted of a notebook, a pen, and several good questions. The writing part resembled a kind of linguistic project management, shifting this quote here to fit this goal of narrative there, reacting as news of the day or column inches permitted. Writing was the final step towards completion, not the reward itself.

Not having a "process" made me feel alienated from the "real writers." But after two years of work on Bookmark Now I see the silliness in that. Of course nonfiction writers have a process. Research, reporting, and staying current of changes in your subject are intrinsic to it. But because they take place out in the world instead of at the desk, it's less instinctive to call them part of the writing process. Fiction writers do research, too, but the labors of information-gathering, organization and management seem more endemic to nonfiction writing, as opposed to the forging of imagination into sentences, and sentences into a finely-honed story.

Novelists build worlds in their heads. Nonfiction stubbornly inhabits this one. Novelists create characters that, when done well, grab control of the story and force their creator to keep up. Characters in nonfiction are real people or the authors themselves, people who bleed when cut. My novelist friends often talked about voices or lines of dialogue in their mind they couldn't silence. Writing made those sounds real. I replied that the only voice I heard in my head was my own and it had just come back with some big news of the world that everyone had to listen to. Right. Now.

I wasn't no stinkin' novelist. I never had tales to fashion, settings to erect, or characters reaching toward the light of their birth. I was a nonfiction writer, dangit, and held onto that title so proudly I wanted to sew it on a cape. Messenger from the smoking battlefields of truth, ink-stained apprentice of Mencken, Didion, and McPhee. I am Nonfiction Man!

Here's where I should have been grounded from a gale of my own hot air. Instead, it was my own book, an issue-y, urgent nonfiction project, that gave me perspective. Somehow, by working on the exact opposite of fiction, I developed a greater understanding of my novelistic brothers and sisters.

÷ ÷ ÷

A little about the book: I put together Bookmark Now to show that my generation (the Atari/VCR/Internet generation) still cared about books and literature and that authors of this age were committed to both producing great books and making sense of writing in an age of intense competition from other media. My first two priorities for contributors were that they be writers whose work I admired, and who represented what I saw as the increasing wealth of diversity in American letters: Writers of different races, genders, regions, and sexualities all addressing the same subject but from their own points of view and in their own voice. The third priority built off the first two: I wanted a nice blend of fiction and nonfiction writers, perhaps even a few poets, writers who would take the issues I offered up as editor but address them with their own literary flair.

A few early editors passed on Bookmark Now because they wanted a unified answer to the central question it raised: How do young writers produce literature in the digital 21st century? Well, how do they? That question not only had multiple answers but multiple methods of answering it. By having novelists, short-story writers, poets, pundits and journalists on board, I wouldn't have a collection where the contributors all spoke in the all-too recognizable tones of their editor.

I also didn't want Bookmark Now to err in the opposite direction and have the roster trump the topic. Sure I would have loved every hot young author this side of Shanghai to be in my book. But I also needed Bookmark Now to address the issues I had felt so strongly about that I had to go and write a book. And I wanted something else: A story. I'd read and enjoyed several anthologies in preparation for creating my own. All had great essays, a meaty topic, and compelling ways of addressing it, be it food, motherhood, or economic downturn. But their shape seemed to be that of a wheel, topic at the hub, essays as the spokes. I wanted Bookmark Now to resemble a chain where one essay threaded into the next, while staying part of greater whole. I wanted an anthology shaped like a narrative, a collection that still told a story.

I did this by laying out for the writers I solicited both the goal of the anthology and my suggestions for essay topics based on their books and projects. I gave each a copy of the book proposal, where I had laid out the collection in our sections: Beginnings (How I became a writer), The Life (What it's like being a writer), The Now (What are the challenges of being a writer in 2005) and The Future (what will be those challenges in the decades to come). Although the contributors ignored my topic suggestions all over the place, all their essays managed not only to fit into one of the sections but also played off one another as well. I'm glad they ignored me. We have a better book for it.

I noticed something else while editing. Most of the contributors with a background in journalism turned their pieces around quickly, sending me a first draft in a week or less, and then worked with me to hammer the essay into shape. The novelists took weeks, even months. I had to email several times to remind them of deadlines. But what they handed in was pretty damn near done. The fiction writers saw their process as: hunker down and write until it's exactly where you want it. The nonfiction writers, more accustomed to working closely with an editor, had a more suggestive style. Do you like it this way? Okay, how about this way. Together, we'll get it there.

I didn't favor one style over the other, but I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed the difference until now. "Together" happens much later for a fiction writer, after the roads have been laid, buildings dedicated, and the characters moved in. Editing a novelist's work, I felt like a surveyor, studying cities already shaped by the regime changes of new ideas and narrative strategies. The nonfiction writers had me as foreman on their construction crew, suggesting improvements in design and structure during building instead of afterward. They rolled right along with my feedback because the nature of their work meant they had another job going down the street right after mine. Novelists take on new projects every few years. At that rate, I wouldn't want some guy with a red pen sniffing around early on either.

When wearing my "Nonfiction Man" cape, I privileged my own, with our real world pressures, and lack of time for fuss. Editing fiction writers taught me a new kind of respect. Take away those deadlines and you're forced to actually sit with your writing and make sense of it, to think long about whether you are actually saying something or just phoning in fancy phrases because the clock is ticking. (I'm thinking that right now as I write this essay. On deadline.)

When novelists talked to me about "voices in their head," I thought that meant writing fiction made you schizophrenic. My nonfiction idols like Joseph Mitchell and Barbara Ehrenreich had made brilliant careers out of being good listeners, but they were listening to, ya know, real people. Fundamentally their books were about them and what they have to say, right?

Wrong. Editing an anthology, you learn that those voices are all you've got. You are trying to make an argument, to illuminate a corner of contemporary life with the light source of your ideas and passion. But you can't do it alone. The essence of an anthology is that the issue at hand deserves more than one voice to answer it. Otherwise, it's a monologue and those other names on the book cover are window dressing.

It took all two years I worked on Bookmark Now and then some to learn this but learn it I did. As editor of an anthology, no matter how proud I am of it, I'm the conductor of the orchestra. It's my job to get everyone playing on key and with excitement. But I have to listen to them or what we play isn't music at all, just me waving a baton and saying "You Must Listen!" even though there's nothing to listen to.

I had learned the value of a narrative thread, of giving the writing time to mature and of paying attention to other voices. All were the lessons of fiction writing that I didn't think I needed until I was faced with producing a nonfiction work. That's when I needed them the most.

I'll be visiting nearly a dozen cities this summer on the Bookmark Now tour and contributors will be joining me in nearly every one. A few I have to handle on my own, and in those bookstores, I always read a little bit from their essays to make sure I'm not the only voice in the room. I've also been meeting up with some of my novelist friends in those cities who remember Bookmark Now as an embryo. I thank them for including me in their conversations about "process" even when I didn't get it, even when I was an intolerant jerk because of that. I thank them for letting me talk about writing with them as a peer and bringing me to a place where I felt no need for excuses. spacer

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