Fiction writer Vanessa Blakeslee‘s “Hospice of the Au Pair,” from our Fall 2010 issue, introduces a powerful new voice in fiction. Here is the rare early writer who knows how to build compelling narrative, whose stories hit the ground running — driven forth always by characters in motion rather than the sort of conspicuous craft and propping-up that stilts so much current fiction. The language bristles with comic wit and energy yet never feels precious or, god help us, writerly; it is powered instead by story itself, hence the authority we feel in the language. This is the generous, intelligent style of Saul Bellow, Paula Fox, Ron Carlson. How remarkable, then, to find this in a writer so early in her career, and how lucky.
Why I Write
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to spend an entire month in Paris. I was taking French classes at La Sorbonne because I had always loved the sound of the language; if angels had been sent to earth with the task of inventing the most beautiful human speech, what they’d come up with would be French. Or so it had seemed to me.
I was enrolled in an MFA program at the time, one which had no language requirement. Small wonder that when I announced I was going to take French classes abroad, I was met with looks of puzzlement. “But why are you taking French?” people asked. “Are you moving to France? Dating someone French?” and from writer friends, “Are you planning to translate?”
No, no, and no. I was simply taking French because I liked how the language sounded, and I wanted to learn how to speak those strange, intoxicating words, too.
When faced with the question, why do I write, the answers are very much parallel to the reasons I sought to study French. Simply put, from the age I learned to write sentences—first grade, I think—and the mysterious code behind the nursery rhyme books my mother had been reading to me ever since I could remember was finally revealed, I began to string those words together and create story in the most basic sense: One day Dog met Bear to play. But Dog left Bear to play with Rabbit. Bear went to the woods and was sad. Etc. Recently I spent an afternoon sifting through boxes of these earliest stories at my parents’ house, and was astounded to see the lines of simple conflict in every premise, no more than several notebook pages each. Of course, if you had mentioned the words plot or conflict to me at the age of six, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what you meant. But I’m fascinated by the innate sense of conflict apparent in these stories, that from an early age I understood fiction involved something going wrong: trouble, obstacles. Sadness.
Something about the process was intensely satisfying too. More so than riding up and down the driveway on my bike, or playing house, other fleeting pursuits. In the act of writing on paper, it was like I could reach out, grab the tail of my imagination, and make something permanent. One could either then forget about the story, or return to it later, the way I did my most-loved books, relive those worlds again and again. The more I did this, the more I saw and heard stories in the everyday talk of my parents, their customers and employees, our neighbors and relatives, my school friends; the scenarios made pictures in my mind, characters, voices, and if I didn’t set them down, more pictures and dialogue would inevitably build, until my head felt so crowded and my mood would turn so crabby, I had to write them down.
Nothing about this part of the process has changed for me, since I first began to write. It remains as simple as the desire to learn French, or to dance, or to do anything. What the creator yearns for is the experience of doing, and afterwards, the emotional release.
What has changed, of course, is the evolution of my craft, the intellectual challenges of working with form and content, borrowing from genres as different as historical fiction and dystopic, undertaking required research. All of those things eventually arise with the territory and are immensely rewarding, but none would exist if not for the root impulse to set down the teeming pictures in my imagination, the thrill of the chase to see where they may lead me. There is no real goal when I’m completely immersed in this process, but the reward is creating my own surprise. In a way, the reader in me has to be satisfied before the writer can say, it’s done. Stumbling upon surprise requires that I push long and hard through the darkness, but when I find it and capture it effectively on paper, there’s no better feeling on earth.
Writing literature depends, therefore, just as much on knowing as not-knowing. My mind’s eye can only take me so far. Then faith kicks in, and I utilize various techniques and tricks to push the narrative forward to an exciting place I could never have imagined. This is the spiritual path of writing, the dharma—the ultimate reason why any of us must write.
During that month I spent in Paris, I didn’t write, unless you counted the grammar exercises in my lesson books. Instead I spent my free hours drifting through museums—the D’Orsay, the Picasso, the Rodin—drinking up everything I could. In one of the museum shops, I picked up a postcard which I now keep on the bulletin board in my office. It features a picture of Picasso staring at the camera, and the quote, “If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?” I don’t know if this is an actual quote from Picasso or not; with the abundance of fake attributions floating around the Internet these days, I’m skeptical. But the quote applies nonetheless. Writing, and why one does it, defies easy answers simply because it is art. Art favors questions, beauty, and wonderment, and the allure of child-like chase.