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Early in her writing life, an old friend of mine bought herself an expensive and ornate hardwood desk. It had a green felt surface and smooth-sliding drawers for paper and pens and manuscripts, and she put this desk in a library of books, then bought a fine brass lamp and set it on this desk, and that is where she planted herself each morning and wrote.
This was more than thirty years ago. In those days, I could not afford a desk and lamp or a library to put them in; but even if I could, I believe I would have run from that. I preferred to travel lightly, to carry only pencils and a notebook and shadow my nascent fiction like a hunter or neurotic lover. If I were to set up shop like my friend, it would be a naked declaration that I was committing myself to writing, that I had even created a shrine to receive it, but that was where the trouble began; at a deep and not so deep level, I did not feel worthy of receiving it at all.
Who knows where this came from? My father of the same name was a master short-story writer, though, when I wrote, I rarely [End Page 22] thought about him or his work or any other writer, living or dead. I did not even feel their presence. What I was trying to feel, instead, was the presence of these half-born beings called characters.
This sense of unworthiness lasted years, and I suspect it had to do with the kind of New England working-class neighborhoods I was raised in, places where bright boys and girls hid their brightness so they would not be seen as “conceited” or “stuck-up.” It was why I hated the word author, which sounded elitist to me. The better word for me was writer, because it seemed to more directly express the honest labor of writing itself.
Maybe I believed my friend with the fancy desk was trying to look like an author every time she sat at it. But I did not even want to be an author. I just loved writing words, the true words that became true sentences that then somehow seemed to both penetrate and then become these now-living spirits called characters. I would watch as they would start to say and do things, and their stories would begin to emerge like driftwood on a beach at low tide, and I would follow them with my pencil and paper, for what I loved more than anything was this following, this half-trance that seemed to come more frequently if I did not think too much about it or force it in any way.
So I traveled light. I wrote wherever there was a flat surface on which to rest my notebooks: For my first book, a collection of short stories, I wrote at a metal library carrel I stole from a local college’s dumpster and hauled back to my apartment over a shoe store and barroom. The desk leaned to one side, and I shimmed that leg with a phone book and got to work. Another story I wrote at the cigarette-burned desk of a motel room I rented in Boulder, Colorado. Another, the first I’d ever written from the point of view of a woman, I wrote in a friend’s apartment overlooking the San Francisco Bay, but that apartment was small and held a family of five, so I’d sit on the floor of the guest bathroom and write with my notebook resting on the closed toilet seat. This felt to me like just the right place. Why? Because it was about as humble as you could get, and what I kept finding again and again, even now, all these years later, is that if the writing of fiction is anything, it is an act of humility, an act of surrendering yourself to something larger than you are.
Those rare days when I sense I might...