I take my time when it comes to writing. I do the dishes. I read. I stare out the window at nothing in particular. I’d like to think I’m parsing out a character, or discovering something new about the world. Perhaps out there, beyond the window, will be the answer to some long sought after question. Two days ago I was convinced the story I was working on wouldn’t be right until I figured out the correct word. At work I kept asking people, “What are those wooden things forklifts use? You get them at the grocery store. They’re perfect for beach bonfires.” Half the day I did this. I couldn’t figure it out. People thought I was crazy. But it’s just this sort of thing that I often fixate on. I know I could write the story without the word. But, in my mind, somehow it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t feel right. I like everything to be in place from the beginning.
The thing is I hate revising. For the past month I’ve been revising. Like marriage, I expect everything to go smoothly. I know the story is better now, I know every day I sit down and turn out a new draft it’s getting there. But all of it is filled with these moments of self-doubt, staring out the window, doing the dishes, everything except writing, anything to avoid revision.
Today I’m clearing off the desk. It’s my half-year archaeology. I usually save it up for the time when I’m really stuck. When nothing's working and I’ve washed every dish in the pantry.
My desk is as big as a door and I work in a thin lane of available space. Six months at a time I pile all the stories and their subsequent revisions to my left. To my right I pile the incoming mail: bills, letters, literary journals. There’s a system, I often say.
What I like most about the process, about cleaning the desk, is that it reminds me where I’ve been. I’ll tell you right now, I started with almost the same grudging affection I give to revision.
I like to see results. I’m the kind of guy who threw everything in his closet as a kid and shut the door. It’s the same with the desk. I detach the keyboard, then go at it with my arms, sweeping everything up until I’m holding it against my chest. It’s heavy and more than a little awkward, but in one movement I’m looking down at an almost spotless desk.
For a moment I’m happy. Ecstatic. It’s like finding out the word was "pallet." But then I realize I’m holding onto six months of stories, some with more than ten revisions. All of it goes onto the floor. I think I’d rather be writing. But it’s too late for that now. I’ve got a pile of paper at my feet and nowhere to go with it.
This is what it’s all about. I start from the top and like a geologist, I get down into the layers. I start to see all the research that has gone into my latest story, refineries, off-shore-oil-platforms, mercenaries, and pirates. I get down into the next, a Spanish dictionary, a National Geographic article on Patagonia. Arctic explorers and Wikipedia articles on Shackelton. Earthquakes. There are notes on writing screenplays. It’s all in here, all in this pile of paper.
Of course there are other things. And these are what really gets me. These are the things that remind me it’s not all revision. It’s not all dishes and afternoon trips to Staples. I find wedding announcements for weekends I’ve already come back from. I find dinner receipts (I had the rib-eye). There are a few love notes as well, cards I’ve long forgotten about and find room for on my bulletin board. Past emails I’ve printed out from editors at The Southern Review, Hayden’s, Third Coast, and One Story. There are lists, lots of lists, camping gear, kitchen guides, groceries.
It doesn’t seem so bad. And suddenly I’ve lost that little bit of self-doubt. That little nagging feeling I had when I started this whole thing. And the desk is ready. It’s been emptied of the last six months and there is already a new printed version of the current story sitting to my left.
Urban Waite's story "Don't Look Away" was included in issue 42. In the last year his work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, Florida Review, Third Coast, and The Southern Review. His next story will appear in One Story. See more of his work online in Meridian and AGNI.