Kevin Canty
photo of Kevin Canty   the brutal language of love  

  Blind Man's Bluff

I didn't set out to write love stories, for this new collection. I didn't set out to write anything at all. I just showed up for work every morning in the little office behind my house, the same as ever, fired up the computer and waited for something to happen. This may sound like fun to you -- and it can be, when my imaginary friends are feeling cooperative -- but most mornings it is exasperating.

The problem is that I don't know what I'm doing.

The popular misconception seems to be that the writer figures out what he or she wants to write about, devises a plot that will suit the material, sits up at his or her typewriter and churns it out. I'm sure there is a writer somewhere who works like this but I am not him. I scratch, fidget, write a sentence and then erase it, open a file, stare at the screen, check my e-mail, refill my coffee cup, check my voice mail, close the first file and open a second one -- and then, sometimes, not actually very often, a few words will come together into sentences, a few sentences will stick to each other and something will start to happen. It's like the seahorses you used to be able to order out of the back of comic books, where you would drop them into water and wait for something to happen. Nearly all of those seahorses were dead on arrival but once in a while one would come to life and start to swim around.

If you got lucky. Most of the time you spent staring at dead seahorses, trying to will them into life.

But then once in a while something does take shape and start to happen and the kernel of the story will start to grow out of it. This can be a character, a line of dialog, an image, even a sentence or two with a characteristic rhythm; really it's just a place where the story seems alive. This is the exciting part but also the disconcerting part. The story is just taking shape out of the fog of not-knowing and then you see what it's going to be and Jesus Christ -- it's a kid on his way to fat camp, or a punk girl tying plastic roses to the cross where her parents ran off the road. And the thing is, you can't second-guess these things. If it's alive, it's alive, and you have to go with it.

It's only afterward, when the thing has taken shape, when you've worked with that live thing for a while and hung around it long enough to see what happens, it's only afterward that you look at the finished outline of the story and wonder why the hell you're writing about fat kids and plastic roses.

You can only be interested in what you're interested in, though. That's the thing about writing that people tend to underestimate: it's difficult enough work that you can't fake it. You're not going to waste your time on something that doesn't mean a lot to you. Good writing -- live writing -- seems to come out of the things that matter most, the preoccupations that keep you up at three in the morning, staring at the ceiling. Certainly there are times when I wish I could pick my own subjects. Certainly my Mom wishes I had better taste in characters and situations. But in the end you can only be interested in what you're interested in, and the only way I have of finding this out is to stare and wait and pounce on any live thing that shows up and then sort it out afterward.

So: apparently I've been interested in love, desire, appetite. Apparently I've been interested in food and sex, not necessarily in that order. Apparently I've been interested in Japanese monster movies. And what happens next? I don't know. I'm not going to know. I'm just going to go on feeling my way through the fog, the same as ever, and hope that somewhere I can find two words to stick together, two sentences, the start of something that will, when it is done, surprise me. That's all I ask. But it's a lot to hope for.

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