I finished writing two books this winter, a memoir called Undocumented: A Different Story and a novel called Nunatak. The nub of the novel came to me ten years ago. The memoir has been in the works for twelve years. So five or six years a book. This raises some questions. Lifetime earnings from writing? Don’t go there. How many more books can I hope to write, assuming I live to a ripe and alert old age? Can I write faster? Spend less time making a living?

Not so fast. Are they really finished? Already an agent who might be interested in the memoir indicated cutting would be in order. I didn’t think, ‘No, every word is necessary.’ It was more like looking down and seeing a soup stain on your shirt. The outfit looked fine in the mirror at home. Good enough, anyway. But out here, the light is different. I mean, she could be wrong. It could be perfect. But I’m remembering cutting 40,000 words from the first book I got published. It was a better book by the end.

So it’s not finished. But it needs to be. It’s about living illegally in the US for twenty-two years then deciding to move to Canada. That was in 2006. Suddenly the undocumented are a hot topic. But Trump won’t be president for ever. (Or if he is, I’ll have bigger problems to fret about.) I need to get it published. A good editor would lick it into shape. But years of reading acknowledgements pages suggests that, these days, only authors with multi-book contracts have editors to thank. There are exceptions, I know, but my own non-bestseller writing experience bears this out. No editor in sight for my second book and only the publisher’s suggestion for the first: Cut a lot. 125,000 word maximum.

I’ve been rereading George Saunder’s lovely essay in the Guardian, What writers really do when they write.

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she has already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. He describes revision as a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference […] The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

I love this description. It is exactly what I do. But the optometrist doesn’t keep you in the chair for years. When is enough, enough? What is good enough? When I read the last page of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I thought, there’s not a single word I would change. But what did she think when she put down her pen? (She didn’t save her file one last time. The book came out in 1980.) Perfect? Or good enough? As good as I can get it right now?

Has word processing made it too easy to keep revising? Often with painters – I’m thinking specifically of an exhibition of Berthe Morisot’s work – I love the sketches. I admire the finished painting but the sketches have a looseness and life that gets lost. In the course of revising one can sand down the grain of the writing.

Somehow you have to keep faith with the life of the story. It didn’t ask to be born to make you look good. It wants to become itself. In this version, revision is removing one’s pretensions. One’s vanities. How often I’ve thought, ‘Now that’s a nice sentence.’ I think it every time I read it until the day I see that the sentence stands out because it doesn’t belong.

Murder your darlings, Grace Paley advised. Yes, but what about wholesale slaughter? 40,000 out of 170,000? Perhaps I have to believe the book is finished. Only then, the umbilical cord severed, and after a proper interval, can I turn, look, think, ‘It’s alive. But what is all that goop? The poor thing can hardly breathe. Somebody, clean it up.’

This writing life

This writing life

Stories saved my life. They go on saving my life. As a gay teenager obsessed with suicide, the stories in books saved me, though only just. Booze saved me too, though later it would start to kill me. Then the stories told by other addicts saved me. Terrible, tragic, funny stories, stories that make you laugh inordinately at inappropriate moments. The sort of laughter that makes people think you’re crazy or drunk. The sort of stories where you find yourself even though you have nothing at all in common with the teller except your souls.

I grew up telling lies. It was a family tradition. It got harder and harder to keep track of what was true and what wasn’t. After a while I couldn’t tell. That’s a lie. I wanted not to be able to tell. But my body knew. So I lived in my head. My head was good at writing papers and taking tests. The rest of me was good at getting drunk.

One day, in a moment of unaccountable clarity, I knew that what I wanted most in all the world was to write stories. I couldn’t write those stories with my head. I tore up my PhD applications and became a carpenter. In New York City. I took a writing class with Gloria Anzaldúa. We meditated and then we wrote. Stories came out whole. As if they’d been waiting in some other part of the house for me to open the door. I understood there was a life inside me I knew nothing about. I understood that nothing mattered to me as much as writing those stories. Except, possibly, getting drunk.

One day I wrote a story about rational me heading down a street in Little Italy. All I wanted was to get to the bar at the end of the street but a mad, poet, child voice in a doorway intercepted me. I had to make sense of the fragments she chanted. Slowly the story came together. We came together. I read the story, very drunk, at the W.O.W. café in the East Village. Afterwards we went back to a friend’s apartment and somehow my friend’s lover and I got to talking about sexual abuse. How you could never tell if it had happened to you because people forget. As far as I knew, nothing like that had ever happened to me. The friend’s lover told a story about a woman who had never come to terms with the incest she experienced when she was six or seven. Until one day she walked past a churchyard full of children that same age and she stopped and she looked at them and she said, ‘Oh my God, it wasn’t my fault.’ When I heard those words, it was as if I had been electrocuted. All the hairs on my body stood up. I opened my mouth and I said, “I’m an alcoholic and I can’t stop drinking.” I listened to those words. It wasn’t anything I’d intended to say. After another moment I said.  “Perhaps I’m just being dramatic.”
“Do you say that kind of thing often?”
“No.” I didn’t want to seem like some drama queen lush.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that day and I’ve gone on writing. The first book I wrote came to me when I had the chance to write every day for two months. I was at an artist’s colony in Cummington, Massachusetts. I thought I would write all day every day but I found out I write best in the mornings and I need a couple of days off a week. Then the colony hired me to manage the buildings and grounds. They could only afford to pay me for two days a week in the winter so that began a pattern I follow to this day: I write five mornings a week from the end of November till the middle of April. Being self-employed, first as a carpenter then designing and planting gardens for people, made this possible.

I’ve had two books published, Where Bones Dance, a novel set in Nigeria, and a memoir published under a pseudonym for legal reasons. I spent years on a novel I finally abandoned. Recently I finished two books I’m happy with. One is a novel, Nunatak, set in Alberta, the other a memoir, Undocumented:A Different Story, about the twenty-two years I lived illegally in the US and the decision my wife and I made to move to Canada. Now to find a publisher…