What Chooses Us

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I am discussing a trio of stories with a professor, and I express concern that, after reading and rereading them as a united body of work, I want nothing more than to stab my eye out. The mothers in my stories keep perishing. And what’s with all the dead or injured animals? I don’t think of myself as a particularly troubled person–I am grateful to live, by most standards, a pretty good and happy life–and so it is somewhat alarming, to see my predilections on the page. I am suspicious of myself. I worry to my professor that I only write in one mode: melancholy. When she asks what I think I should be writing, I tell her that I feel I should try writing something funny, or light. For balance. There is a thoughtful pause while she appraises me. She says, You sound a little bit like someone trying to be well-rounded for a college application.

 Oh. I recognize myself in that comment as soon as it leaves her lips. I wonder if that really is the root of my anxiety, and whether it’s just another version of the inner critic, who worries too much about what other people will think. That inner critic is so very good at casting doubt. My professor goes on to say, then, that we all have our obsessions. People are in the period they’re in, and they have to fully inhabit that period, and at some point they’ll feel like they can move on, but they don’t have to…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we gravitate towards our material: whether we choose it or whether it chooses us. And while I can’t really know how other writers work, I suspect that very few of us would claim that we are wholly in control. I’ve found that the muse has little regard for my intentions–I sit down to write this kind of story or that, but in the end they inevitably depart from such plans. As they should.

Sometimes I think that all we can do is pay attention, and to write where our energy lies.

It’s different for everyone–perhaps you walk through your life gathering the seeds of nascent stories. You might feel the heat coming most strongly off of your deepest fears. Or maybe your subjects simply appear to you, unbidden flashes of lightning. And who can say why these differences of approach, or why some things call to us and others don’t. Who can say why I return again and again to mothers and children, to animals, to magic. It is tempting to psychologize, or to try to apply reason, or balance, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe it is necessary for the mysteries of creation to remain beyond us. 

Tony Hoagland wrote of poets’ obsessions, though I think it an apt observation for any writer: “A mature poet may not know how to command obsession, but understands how to transfuse material into it and then to surrender. The obsessed psyche knows unerringly where to go, like a Geiger counter to uranium, or a dog to his master’s grave. Lucky dog, to have a master.” This idea of surrender–so hard, so true. Writing is a calling, and we come to answer a summons. What that summons sounds like or where it comes from is, perhaps, less the point than that we respond to it at all. 

We are lucky dogs, indeed. 

-Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow


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