I sent page proofs for It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories back to the University of Nebraska Press late last week. Everyone at the press has been amazing to work with and I feel so lucky they like my work.
It was fun reading over stories I’d forgotten I’d revised in certain ways and thinking, well, that’s better than I remembered. One story in particular I struggled with for years, and only under the threat of publication, do I think I finally got the ending right. There’s that great moment in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” when the grandmother, fearing for her life, finally sees things clearly and shows some compassion. The misfit says later, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every moment of her life.” Sometimes I feel that way about writing: I could have been a much better writer if there had been someone threatening to read my crap every moment of my life.
Rereading through the story to find the Misfit’s exact quote I saw again that the grandmother’s cat was named Pitty Sing. Pitty Sing! What a freaking great name for a cat. I might have to get another one.
Also from Sarah Stone’s essay “Self-Awareness and Self-Deception: Beyond the Unreliable Narrator” published in A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Thier Craft:
“The most painful part of publication and reviews can be the revelation of whatever the author hasn’t understood about the work or its characters. Worst of all is when an author thought a character was behaving reasonably but readers find the person appalling. And if writing (and worse, reading over what one has written) is so often agonizing, how much more painful is it to learn one’s failures of perception in public?”
I’m of course excited about my new collection coming out in fall, but along with that is the realization people are going to read it. When I first began sending out short stories, I could only do so by convincing myself that no one would accept them, and when editors started accepting them, I had to convince myself no one read literary journals (evidence to the contrary, since I did). When my first book came out, I would lie awake at night writing the bad reviews in my head: Flanagan makes “the usual mistakes” of first time authors was a favorite opening.
But Stone is right that sometimes we can’t see the flaws in our own work until they’re pointed out to us, and the longer I’ve written, the more I’ve accepted this as a truth I can’t do anything about, ie, I make mistakes, but they’re not the ones I understand. I remember Ted Kooser telling me one time in graduate school that if I look back on what I wrote five years ago and I’m not a little embarrassed, that means I’m not growing enough as a writer. I try to make every story the best I can, and what I’ve realized looking back over older work isn’t that I could have made the story better, but that I could have written a better story. What I see as flaws in my work usually aren’t as as simple as “I could have made that scene stronger” but something larger about the story itself: it should have been richer, more complicated, a larger thing in every word. I try to explain this to beginning writers, that sometimes the story is as good as it’s going to get, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good story. Write another; make it more complicated.
For the record, here are the nightmare reviews I’m working on for my second collection: These stories of Flanagan’s won’t kill you, but you’ll wish they would. If any reviewer writes that, I’m totally going to nail them for being so obvious.