the worlds in our heads, the worlds at the end of the pen

I was a very little girl when I first started to wonder about the people who wrote books. I was told from that young age that it wasn’t something that a person did to make money; in fact, I was even told by one adult that you couldn’t learn how to write books in college, that college was for learning how to do hard things. Finding an “About the Author” page in a book made me so happy. This was a real person, someone who wrote the story that wound up on the pages in my hands. I always found it magical, even when the work of my degree should have beaten that joy out of me.

At this point, I’ve listened to a lot of interviews and presentations by writers, and read many more. Listeners ask questions about writers’ processes, how they do what they do, always hoping for a different answer than “I sit at my desk for X hours a day (where X=more than you want to hear) and write until the first draft is done. Then I write Y more drafts (where Y=way more than you want to hear). Then I start the next book and wait Z years while the publisher does their thing for the first one.” That stuff is practical stuff, and if you get a different answer from a writer, you’re getting a lie. And really, if you have to ask, that’s the answer you deserve to get.

But if you listen closely, you will hear the magic. The magic was there at the first session we went to at IFOA, a round table called Fictional Truths: Ideas on Time, Memory, and Place. All four of the writers at this one had something to say that prompted deeper thinking about my own work, which takes place in two time threads and has a fair amount to do with the differences between how people remember the same events. Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer this year for his debut work, Tinkers, reminded me of this when he said that it means a lot, what you remember and what stories you make up for yourself. He’s right—humans do have agency in what they share about themselves to new people, how they explain their past, how they choose their own Why. In the end, we choose a Why we can live with, and if that Why doesn’t exactly encompass all the facts, well… that’s how we live in our own stories, which surround us like bubbles and keep us protected from what we choose not to remember.

And we all have memories we choose to forget. Sometimes, though, they come back with all the force of a flying pair of scissors. Myla Goldberg, whose book The False Friend is one of my favorites of the year, spoke of herself as a very gentle person as an adult, who is so uncomfortable with violence that she couldn’t even fence. One day, she was taken by surprise with a sudden memory of herself as a child throwing a pair of scissors at another person, and was astonished by what was inside her at that time. A similar sudden memory is the inciting event of The False Friend, and it dovetails with conflicting memories from other people who were there at the time. Coming to terms with the uglier parts of who we have been—especially when we have changed so much in the intervening years—is a sweeping part of our own stories, a time when we feel we might well be living with an instrumental score illuminating every moment.

I’ve already gone on for longer than I meant to, but I also wanted to paraphrase a couple of notes from the other speakers that night: Eshkol Nevo, speaking about his book Homesick, spoke about memory and place regarding the place that is The Place for all of us, our home. What is home for someone who has moved a lot? I’ve lived in twelve places by now, and no one from my family lives in the house where I grew up. I believe houses keep memories, and one of my favorite places was a ramshackle farmhouse in New Mexico that was the oldest residence I lived in… but I only got to live there for a little over half a year. Dylan Horrocks, in contrast with the MFA instructors in the room *g*, cautioned against drawing instruction for living from works of fiction, and talked in depth about the difference between truth and fact. Fiction explores them both, he said, but it’s important to separate works of fiction from what we live when we open our eyes. Imagination is powerful, but it is its own world, a personal, portable one that we can manipulate, and make sense of when the waking world can sometimes make so little. Dylan was the only graphic novelist on the panel, and his Hicksville adds an exponential level of imagination to the finished product—the visual art that communicates along with the written story to immerse the reader even more fully into the imaginary world.

I came away from the evening so energized, so grateful to have witnessed such a disparate group of writers talking about the nebulous concepts at hand. Myron and I went to the signing room and had a field day. The IFOA recorded all the sessions for podcasts, and when those are available I’ll update this post with a link to the conversation. In the meantime, here are four writers whose work is worth investigating. Next time—David Mitchell and William Gibson.


I came home from Toronto with a number of signed books, but I bought an extra one to give away here on the blog later this month. Yep, it’s our first giveaway! More info coming soon.