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The Untimely Collaborators by Sara Davis


“The Untimely Collaborators” by Sara Davis is one of two pieces selected as Editors’ Choice in the 2020 inaugural CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award. Our editors chose pieces that showcase the range of forms and styles in creative nonfiction.


“There was once a very young woman who wrote a very famous book. I say young, but at half my age she had endured stillbirth and war and a ravaged continent showered by volcanic ash.” In her braided nonfiction flash “The Untimely Collaborators,” Sara Davis deftly intertwines Mary Shelley’s famous book and marriage to a famous writer with her own writing and relationship to a writer (addressed as “you”). Looking at the oversized manuscript pages of Frankenstein, on loan to the museum where she works, she reacts to what Percy Shelley interpolated and crossed out. “I can feel the young woman’s hand and then her husband’s hand pressed against the paper, the tension of their timely collaboration.” In her author’s note, Davis comments on the difficulty of both of the “galvanizing and undermining creative partnerships at the heart of the story.” Sometimes writers cannot “nourish one another and remain themselves.” By leaving Mary Shelley unnamed in the flash, Davis highlights larger questions: should the female writer compose as a collaborator, according to the “thoughts and intentions of the male writer,” or should she “write him out,” thereby writing “herself into existence”? The “you” character” disappears from the story, and the writer-narrator starts over, alone. After her husband’s death, Mary started over as well, republishing Frankenstein without his revisions.  —CRAFT


 

There are mornings we just manage it. We rise in the weak gray light and take our coffee with our notebooks open. A sliver of meditative silence.

Are you writing about me? you ask.

No, I lie. Are you writing about me?

No, you say.

I believe you. We kiss and I leave for work. I write for a jewel box museum of few charms save its library of rare books and papers. I write descriptions of its precious objects. I write to living scholars and artists and ask them to share their knowledge. I write to rich people and ask them to share their riches. Then I come home and cook dinner.

Life is long, I think, but days are short—and all my days seem to slip away like pages from an unspiraling wire.

There was once a very young woman who wrote a very famous book. I say young, but at half my age she had endured stillbirth and war and a ravaged continent showered by volcanic ash. She wrote the famous book two hundred years ago on pages that now belong to a grand library, and they have been carefully packed to travel overseas. The little museum has promised to keep them in a dim, dry room behind walls of precisely measured glass. We await the pages she wrote.

Whenever I write, I cut. Once, from three hundred pages and the many years it took to write them, I bound one hundred and fifty pages into a volume so thin it disappeared into my bookshelf in an instant.

We are always writing against time. You say that life is short; you rush into love, into plans; you are always, always late. I do not agree. Yet here we both are, running late.

When they arrive, the pages are enormous—each leaf twice the size as my notebook. On them, the young woman’s handwriting is large and girlish, looped and generously flourished as though she did not imagine running out of either paper or time. Some of her words have been crossed out with revisions written above and below them in tight pointed letters, generally understood to belong to her husband. When her book became famous, many readers thought he had written it.

Sometimes when I am reading the work of a male writer, even a writer I love, the hairs stand up on my neck and I feel as though I am being watched. I can’t quite put a finger on this feeling. No, that’s not entirely true—it’s just the wrong metaphor.

If I write an email, I delete half of it before sending. If I write for twenty minutes, I keep one piece of what I have written and see if it will grow in new soil, like the cutting of a plant. What becomes of the rest, I never know.

In the dim, dry room where we place the borrowed pages, the low light and protective sheen of glass make it hard to see precisely what the young woman wrote. Yet it seems that I can feel the young woman’s hand and then her husband’s hand pressed against the paper, the tension of their timely collaboration, the movement of ink tracing figures on the page that are shaped nothing like thoughts and yet contain everything between them.

I do not wish to hate you, she wrote. He crossed it out.

I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee, he wrote.

A male writer looks at the curve of a beautiful woman’s mouth, the arch of her brows, and mistakes the movement of his eye for the movement of her thoughts. He mistakes his attraction for her intention. He thinks he knows her. No, that’s not entirely true—he thinks her beauty is a form of knowledge. He may even categorize his knowledge of her beauty with his knowledge of philosophy and art, making an abstraction of her in his admiration. He could do worse; don’t think I don’t know it.

It is evening now and I am home again, opening the door to you. Tonight, you bring pasta, which we eat with bright green drops of pesto. We fall asleep talking of the work we mean to do, just as soon as we have time.

When the young woman’s husband died, she stayed with her infant son—the only infant who lived—while his friends went to identify the corpse where it lay, beached and bloated with saltwater after a storm. They burned his body where they found it. It is said that one of these companions slipped a slim volume of poetry out of the dead husband’s shirt pocket and another reached into the fire itself to scoop out his heart, hard and brittle as basalt. It is said that they gifted these relics to the young woman, who kept them in her writing desk until her own death.

You may well ask whether any of us will leave behind such a legacy when we die, although like anything else, it did crumble.

A female writer has a choice. She could write the thoughts and intentions of the male writer; maybe she makes herself his collaborator this way. She could write him the same way he writes her—all surface—or she could write him out. She could write a world of women in which she can work: her thoughts, her intentions only. Maybe she writes herself into existence this way.

When the young woman’s husband died, she republished her famous book with his revisions omitted. Many readers who read the famous book today don’t know which version they hold.

What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man? she wrote.

Morning waxes silver-gray and I turn a page, alone. I begin again. I write myself into existence.

 


SARA DAVIS (@LiterarySara) is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia with two elderly cats. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She has recently published flash in Cleaver Magazine and Toho Journal, and currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.

 

Featured image by Michal Jarmoluk courtesy of Pixabay

 

Author’s Note

I have a habit of writing myself small. I’m a marketing writer by day, and outside of work I still tend to write into containers: I like headers, sections, a punchline if possible. Revision means whittling and winnowing until the writing is not just concise but smooth as glass. In marketing, you want to reduce friction.

When I started writing creative nonfiction, though, I realized I was nearly writing myself out of the frame.

“The Untimely Collaborators” started as an assignment for an adult creative writing workshop. We read Distracted by Jalal Toufic, a book of aphoristic nonfiction that inspired the title. I highlighted passages that impressed me and wrote six little self-contained, individually titled vignettes in response. As a revision exercise, the instructor asked me to break up my vignettes into paragraphs and reorganize them with the first paragraph of each section on one page, the second paragraph of each section on the next page, and so on. Trust that your voice will still be there, he said. This sounded unhinged to me, but I tried it.

Dismantling my glib short stories was like taking apart an instrument to see how it works. I saw that there were persistent themes, parallel characters, and recurring images buried in the fragments; if I brought those preoccupations forward, they told a story about writing against the clock, stealing time to write before the inevitable interruptions of work, of self-effacement, of one’s own heart seeking what looks like sustenance but maybe isn’t. When I reorganized the paragraphs again, I left some seams showing instead of smoothing them all out. And then I put the story away for awhile.

By the time I looked at the piece again, I had spent half a year working at home alone during the pandemic. I had more time to revise without interruption, and also had cause to reconsider the galvanizing and undermining creative partnerships at the heart of the story. Mary Shelley, writing for herself as much as one does, but implicitly also writing to me and a multitude of others—her future collaborators. My narrator, writing back. Mary and Percy Shelley, writing for one another yet writing over one another. You and me, wondering how creative people can nourish one another and remain themselves.

Sometimes they can’t. And so, the “you” character wrote himself out of my story, and I made a promise to write myself back in.


SARA DAVIS (@LiterarySara) is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia with two elderly cats. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She has recently published flash in Cleaver Magazine and Toho Journal, and currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.