I spent the morning reading through proofs of a story I wrote awhile back for a Fiction River volume that’s due to be published soon. It’s a novelette titled “The Spy Who Walked Into the Cold,” the pretense of which I suppose you’ll just have to wait awhile to read about. (I’ve seen the cover…it’s very cool, but I don’t think I can release it, yet, so I’ll have to keep you waiting on that, too … sorry).
For my purposes it’s enough to say this story has an importance to me that’s hard to quantify. Its subject matter is something I’ve been struggling with. It stretched my skills—and in fact wouldn’t even have been completed if Kris Rusch, the editor, hadn’t seen what I was trying to do and pointed out that I was missing what I now consider to be the most important scene in the entire bit. (Picture me hitting my head against the wall).
I know writers who say they never read their own work, and others who say they do it for various reasons that range from pure enjoyment to reminding themselves that they can do this.
I do a fair amount of it, but for me it’s because reading my own work takes me back to when I wrote it and lets me touch on the feelings I had at those times. Oftentimes I can remember where I was and what was going on around me. Sometimes I have visceral memories of research I was doing or even something as specific as selecting words and phrases at certain places in the manuscript. I find this interesting because, as I’ve evolved as a writer, I’ve let myself become a bit more vulnerable and the things my work touches inside me are more personal. So, for me, reading my own work is a test.
Does it still feel true? Does what I was thinking about still matter to me?
Today’s reading of “The Spy Who Walked Into the Cold” was like that.
Usually when I tell Lisa that proof has come in she just acknowledges it and we move on, but to give you an idea of how the writing of this story went, this time she paused with an expression that meant something and said “You worked on that one a long time.” And I did. Not so much the creation of words, really—the story is a longer work, but creating the words themselves didn’t take a huge amount of time. A few days for the first draft, a few more for the second and final. What took the time, though, was finding the mental place I needed to be in so that I could transfer the ideas in my brain down to the page.
This is a story set in Chicago of the late 1960s.
I love Chicago, and everything it stands for. I have a hard relationship with the sixties because, while I was alive in that period, I was just a kid. So I start from a limited lens. There’s so much I don’t understand.
And it was important to me to get this story right. Not just historically, but at its soul. The heart of this story had to be in the right place. So I found myself feeling apprehension as I began to read it again.
What if I discover I’ve screwed up?
What if it’s clumsy?
So, you ask? How did it go?
I’m happy. Reading “The Spy Who Walked Into the Cold” reminded me of why I wrote it in the first place, and why I took the time I did for the research and the pure soul-steeping it took me to create it.
Will that translate to readers? Will they feel the same things I felt? Will they react the same way? How can I tell? I expect the story will make its point and that people who read it will walk away with emotions that are as varied as there are people. But at this point I don’t really get a say about it. Once a piece of art goes to the public it is what it is, and the public will respond as it will (usually with a resounding silence, but that’s life, eh?).
But today I’m pleased. Today I think I made a difference, even if that difference was only within myself.
You’ve got to start somewhere, right?