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…
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.