I arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall of 2009 having written only a handful of short stories in my life. Most were from high school. Most had puns for titles.One was called “The Last of the Bohemians,” which was one and a half pages about a man walking up a staircase, which The New Yorker rejected, which I could not believe.
From that first rejection letter to my first workshop at Iowa, my fiction consisted nearly exclusively of a novel I began when I was nineteen, working full time at a UPS Store, and at a loss as to what I was doing with my life. The first draft of that novel starred an angry young man who hated working at a UPS Store. The whole thing was people smoking cigarettes in parked cars. If the draft was the next step from “The Last of the Bohemians,” it moved laterally. I joined a writing group of retirees, and I showed parts of the novel, and they responded more generously than the writing deserved. But quality was beside the point. I wrote because it carved in my days a few hours or pages, which quickly became interchangeable units of measurement, a space pliant enough to accommodate both shelter and escape. I remember that as a confusing time, a frightening time when I couldn’t see more than a step or two into the future, and however poorly conceived and written, I followed that novel and it guided me.
In my college application essay I said that I wanted to study fiction because the hour I spent writing each evening was the most exciting hour of the day, and when I was accepted and went to college, I continued working on the novel. I added a murder mystery subplot. The angry young man shrank into a secondary, then minor character, and then disappeared from the novel altogether. The murder mystery soon followed. What began as a thinly veiled diatribe directed at the commercial shipping industry, among the other boogeymen of my late adolescence, grew into a tottering, ungainly thing set in 1981 Belfast against the backdrop of the prison hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands. Settings, scenes, and stories swapped in and out until not one survived from the first draft. By that point the novel was like a house, dilapidated and rebuilt so many times the front door was on the roof and the parlor windows looked into the basement and one had to crawl through a chimney jutting from the first floor to leave. But I kept living there because that was safer than moving out. Abandoning the novel would mean abandoning two, three, four, five, and finally six years of work. It would mean abandoning the characters that in those early years did more for me than I could for them. It would mean admitting the failure whose mass grew each time I added a room, or put up a wall, or built another door that led nowhere. When I applied to MFA programs, I sent a chapter from the novel. When I arrived to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the following autumn, I was prepared to keep working on it because that was much easier than giving it up.
My first workshop was with Ethan Canin, who asked that we not submit novel excerpts. I decided I would set it aside until December and focus on shorter fiction for the first time in years. To my surprise that did more to improve my writing than would any number of new drafts. I wrote with a sense of possibility I hadn’t felt in a long time. The hurdles of plot and structure, with which I had only experience at a length of five hundred pages, were surmountable at the more manageable increments of twenty and twenty-five pages. Where I repeatedly couldn’t in the novel, I could in short stories.
While I wouldn’t advise anyone to give up on their book, it was probably the best thing to happen to my writing at Iowa. When December of my first year came I planned to return to the novel, but after writing the first forty pages of what would have been the tenth or eleventh draft, I no longer needed the legitimization it once provided. I was at the famed Writers’ Workshop, surrounded by brilliant students and instructors who inspired me beyond the confines of the one novel within which I had always worked. People like Ethan, Allan Gurganus, Sam Chang, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth McCracken, Michelle Huneven and Peter Orner, in their particular ways, each taught me that the writer who writes safely, comfortably, and without risking failure is no writer at all. I began to suspect that my novel was that safe and comfortable place where I would never risk failure because I would never leave. Perseverance suddenly seemed a more cowardly inclination than surrender. The ceilings I had for six years built and lived beneath and tore down and rebuilt began to feel too low, the corridors too narrow, the rooms too small. The time had come to crawl out the chimney and move on.
This post is part of The 75th Project, a series of essays by graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.