Writing and Squirming (by W. Edward Blain)

W. Edward Blain is the author of two novels, the Edgar Allan Poe Award nominated Passion Play and Love Cools. At EQMM, we’re more apt to think of him as a nearly thirty-year veteran of the mystery short story; his work has been appearing in our pages since 1995. The latest of his stories, “The Secret Sharer,” is forthcoming in our July/August issue (on sale June 14). It’s set at a boarding school during the pandemic, when students were forced to stay at home and all classes had to be conducted by Zoom. Like his central character in that story, the author was, at the time it was written, still a teacher of high school English at such an institution. He retired in 2020, after 44 years teaching English, and now writes full time. In this post, he talks about the scary part of writing fiction. —Janet Hutchings

Decades ago a friend of mine, just out of college and uninsured, made what he thought was a mutually beneficial arrangement with a nearby medical school: he would get free health care in exchange for allowing any interested medical students to observe his examinations and treatments. All went well for a while, but then he developed a stubborn skin rash. The dermatology professor asked him to remove all his clothes and stand on a table in the center of an examination room. He complied, and soon he was stark naked, elevated well above the floor, when the door opened to admit a dozen or so medical students, male and female, who circled him and stared while he stood like a blushing Greek statue and his physician used a pointer to discuss his condition. When I heard that story, I immediately thought that it was a perfect metaphor for being a writer: You have to stand on the table and take off all your clothes.

That is, if you’re going to be a writer, you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable, perhaps even distressed, as you share the truth of both story and storyteller with your readers. Those readers expect you to take them to places where they’d never have access without you as their escort. When the Wizard of Oz orders Dorothy and her companions to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, they ignore him because behind the curtain is the most interesting place to look. Readers enjoy touring backstage, slipping behind the velvet rope, entering the private areas off limits to tourists; such reading pleasures are easy enough for us writers to provide if we are discussing familiar locales. But sometimes a piece of writing calls for the kind of revelation that makes us squirm.

When I was teaching high school English, every writing assignment came with the same mantra:  Write something only you can write. As an example we’d look at the speech delivered at the University of North Carolina in 1996 by Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, who told the story of how, as a schoolboy, he dutifully wrote an essay called “A Day at the Beach,” which featured a colorful toy bucket and the miniature spade he used to scoop sand into it. Only later did he confess the truth:

[My mother] desperately wanted to do something for us, so off she went to a hardware store and bought not the conventional seaside gear that we desired but a consignment of down-to-earth farm equipment which she could utilize when she went home: instead of bucket and spade, she brought us a plain tin milkcan and a couple of wooden spoons, durable items indeed, useful enough in their own way, but wooden spoons for God’s sakes, totally destructive of all glamour and all magic. I hope it will be obvious why I tell you this: I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom.

Only as an adult did Heaney understand the depth of his dishonesty in that essay. He had not simply invented a toy bucket, but because he had been a self-conscious child who had feared humiliation, he had concealed the very essence of a lovely, heartbreaking story about an impoverished mother who wanted to give her children a day at the shore but who couldn’t waste her scant income on toys. There, he realized, was his essay, and he had betrayed it.

If you believe that writers of fiction need not observe this level of honesty in their works of the imagination, then you are quite mistaken. Fiction can be dishonest in many ways. It can force characters into improbable, illogical behavior for the sake of a plot twist demanded by the author. (People have been arguing since 1885 whether Mark Twain is guilty of such an infraction during the final “Evasion” sequence of Huckleberry Finn.) It can sell out for glib sentimentality rather than follow its way to tragic inevitability. (Compare O. Henry to, say, Flannery O’Connor.) It can pose as fact or autobiography. (Remember James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?). It can pander to an audience for the sake of a sale or a vote. (See any transcript of a political speech.) When we write honest fiction, we struggle to present characters who are true—true to human behavior, true to their own personal histories, true to what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” When we write honest fiction, we must be willing to allow our characters to go where they want and to do as they must, even if we feel queasy at their decisions, even if we reveal ourselves to be ruthless. I still feel guilty over the fate of poor Penn Conrad, a character in a story I wrote ages ago, a character I liked a lot, but a character who ended up mortified and humiliated because that was how the story had to end.

Consider James Kestrel’s Five Decembers, the recent and greatly deserving winner of the Edgar Award for best novel of 2021. In this magisterial tale we readers accompany Joe McGrady, a detective attempting to solve a brutal double homicide, as he embarks on a harrowing adventure during World War II. Kestrel, the pseudonymous author, is far too young to have experienced that war, but every word in his novel rings true. Why? Partly because he did his homework with extensive research, but primarily because he allowed McGrady to be McGrady. It’s clear that Kestrel loves McGrady, a good, decent man trying to do right. But Kestrel puts this character through devastating experiences. The character feels the pain, and the reader feels the pain, and in order to render it so effectively, Kestrel had to feel the pain as well. I don’t know much about this writer, not even his real name.  But his novel reveals a creator with a profound sensibility, a writer of empathy who isn’t afraid to explore the dark places or to test his characters in fire.

Thomas Mann famously defined a writer as someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. And of course he’s so right. If you’re a writer, you care desperately about getting exactly the proper word into exactly the correct spot. You strive to cut and to polish and to clarify. But you also struggle to discover the true version of your story. You explore numerous dead ends before you find the right passage to your destination. For the sake of the story, for the sake of connection, you unlock your secret garden and invite readers to roam there. And if you sense that you really are onto something, if your characters have heartbeats and want to set out on a path that you already know is going to be disastrous for them, you gulp and sigh and then, in preparation for the journey, you stand up on the table and begin to unbutton your shirt.

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