Chris Offutt’s writing advice resonates as America regroups.
Cast a cold Eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by.—tombstone of W.B. Yeats
When Chris Offutt was ten, growing up in an Appalachian backwater, he asked a librarian for a book on baseball. She gave him J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Its writing was a revelation, “personal, told in an intimate way, about family issues of supreme importance.” He never read another book for juveniles, and he became a writer of short stories, novels, screenplays, and multiple memoirs. Back in May, I read Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.
This powerful story concerns his brilliant, driven, awful father. In part, My Father, the Pornographer is a portrait of Appalachian Kentucky. Offutt’s town had a toxic charcoal briquette factory and that was it. He was the smartest kid in school, sometimes beaten by teachers who resented him for that and for his quiet defiance of authority. His Kentuckian father, from a farm in the western part of the state, had picked the tiny company town in eastern Kentucky to be a big-fish insurance salesman. He was that, and increasingly a terrifying tyrant to his children. Especially when he quit his lucrative office work to become a freelance writer. As his oldest child, Offutt got the job when he died of archiving the man’s published and unpublished science fiction, fantasy, and pornography. Literally a ton of novels, stories, and comics. Offutt pere could write a novel in three to seven days.
His secret, parallel 50-year project was the creation of extremely sadistic comics. Sometimes he wrote them for patrons, wealthy collectors. Other than a brief description of these comics, the memoir is not unduly graphic. But it’s sad and disquieting. What Offutt endured from his father and this environment turned him toward literature. Even so, he grew up with the permanent wound of feeling unloved. Part of the book’s brilliance, saturating its deft syntax, content, and structure, is that it escapes self-pity while making you feel for Chris’s experiences and what seems his ongoing burden. The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt.Offutt writes about his long, bruising writing apprenticeship in an essay, “The Eleventh Draft,” collected in a book by that title, edited by Frank Conroy, and which I found online as a pdf. In it, he tells the story of the librarian handing him Catcher in the Rye. After leaving Kentucky, he worked part-time jobs around the country for almost a decade, and wrote an average of 30 pages a day in his journal. He explains:
Writing is the most difficult task I’ve ever undertaken, which is perhaps why I do it. For much of my life, I cared about little except the act of writing. Writing taught me to trust myself, which enabled me to trust others. This resulted in marriage, and within a year my wife convinced me to apply to an MFA program. I did so reluctantly and with no alternative. We’d moved back to Kentucky, where we were living without benefit of plumbing, heat, or jobs. The summer I turned thirty, we borrowed a thousand dollars and headed for Iowa. This decision literally changed my life.
“The Eleventh Draft” takes us through his process, including his learning to love revision. Today, his average short story takes ten or eleven drafts over two years; one took 35 versions over eight years:
The move to revision became so complete that I no longer cared about the story as a product. What mattered was the evolution of the act of creating. I spent many joyful hours merely shifting material from one narrative to another, gauging the success of the integration, attempting greater risks on the page. Plot was a loose form I could rely on in the same way that poets might utilize a sonnet or a villanelle. . . .
The only way I can create anything worthwhile is to concern myself solely with the moment, to maintain as much freedom as possible during the interaction between my mind and a narrative. This has led me to write what I need to write, instead of what I want to write. My work, both fiction and nonfiction, is about my current emotional state, my past behavior, and my recent thoughts.
Offutt’s essay is one of the best accounts of learning to write, and what writing teaches, that I’ve ever read. It affirms that, as for me, writing is hard. Especially when I lose faith in the process. Or receive a painful rejection, as I did last week. But as Offutt reminds us—and as anyone knows who has written anything worth reading, whether an office memo or an epic poem—writing takes recursive effort. Maybe it takes caffeine and chocolate too. It sure did for me today, along with bowls of pinto beans simmered with smoked ham hocks—Mom’s proven answer: life goes better with soul food.
Then, back to work. And try to be wise about victories and setbacks. The work may weary you, its outcome disappoint you, its reception pain you. But only action, not brooding, will lift you from the hole you’re in. If quitting is your answer, did you truly believe, which is to say love, in the first place? At base, worthy belief arises from love. That must come first. And, if it began there, that’s where it must continue. That’s my hope for myself and my work and for our nation and its work.