Chicago. June 7, 2015. In Double-Company with a Great American Writer
This past Saturday might well have been my best ever Saturday. Not only did I read from Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side to a group of thirty, a group including four former coworkers from the jail, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in downtown Chicago and answered questions facilitated by Chicago Tribune witer David Jackson, but I also felt affirmed by Edward P. Jones. Yes, Edward P. Jones, he of Lost in the City: Stories, All Aunt Haggar’s Children: Stories, and The Known World, and winner of the Pulitzer and practically every other minor and major writing prize. As if one of the festival’s mid-day sessions, “Kids Behind Bars: Mark Dostert In Conversation with David Jackson,” wasn’t enough to make a dream day for me, two hours before my event, Mr. Jones would receive the Howard Washington Literary Award in the city’s main library auditorium. For my current writing project, a short story collection set in 1990s-Chicago, Mr. Jones is a mentor, an idol really, doing something way out there in the stratosphere. His short fiction illuminates the stresses and concerns of regular people in regular life in the manner of Checkhov, Joyce, Cheever, Carver, Dubus, Beattie, Paley, Trevor, Munro, Antonya Nelson, Lahiri, Daniel Alarcon, and Yiyun Li, among others. To me, each narrative culminates in the epic of the everyday. To read a Jones story is at once to consider a portrait that while creating a singular effect, also becomes, upon second, third, and fourth glance, an assembled puzzle with the perfect number of pre-fabricated pieces, no one the same, no one extraneous, no one more necessary than the other. I’d always suspected that from masters like Jones, the stories simply flowed/happened. They sat down and wrote and there the story was. The discussion between Jones and National Book Critic Circle member Donna Seamen came to writing methodology and whether Jones’s fiction ‘just happens’ or ‘is planned.’ For the record, Mr. Jones’s stories are planned. As natural and suddenly revelatory as “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” and “An Orange Line Train to Balston” seem, Jones confessed that he doesn’t ‘let the characters take over and lead him.’ Here Jones seems a foil to Flannery O’Connor who said that she didn’t know the thief-in-Bible-salesman’s-clothing would snatch the girl’s prosthetic leg (“Good Country People”) until a few paragraphs before he did. There on stage, Jones asked: “How can you write a story if you don’t know where it’s going?” Maybe this is my fiction problem. I’m never sure where anything is going. I was enamored by O’Connor’s statement and idealized beginning with interesting enough premises, and thus something similar happening for me and my characters and their plots kidnapping me and seduce us along to something of publishable merit. My stories remain unpublished. Some I’ve been rewriting for nearly ten years. Mr. Jones went on: “Writing isn’t magical. It’s just one hard word after another.” Ms. O’Connor wielded no magic wand either and obviously fought equally as hard for all her fictive words as Jones fights for his. My seat was soft. The room’s air was perfectly cool. My mind and heart were engaged. And yes, I did feel vindicated by one of our greatest writers admitting how difficult making up a reader-worthy story can be. Granted I hadn’t made up this particular narrative, but my first draft of Up in Here required five years. Then came seven years of revision, submission, and rejection before Editor Elisabeth in Iowa City sanctioned the right 80,000 of my ‘hard’ words. Hard they were indeed. Many moments my efforts had me imagining someone huddled in a corner by himself, babbling. But now, Edward P. Jones, right here in front of me, had deemed each particle of my babbling: a “word.” Hard words, yes, but words that eventually became worthy of the readers and listeners waiting for me a couple blocks away after I left that auditorium.