That Pink Light at the End of the Tunnel by Stephen Graham Jones

growing up dead in texas stephen graham jonesBy Stephen Graham Jones

Growing Up Dead in Texas took me thirteen weeks to write. My first novel took me ten months—my record. The fastest I’ve ever done it’s three days, and I guess I’ve done that twice now, though only one of them got published. Give me between six weeks and, I don’t know, four or five months, and I can kick a full-grown novel out the door. I mean, once I start writing it, once I luck onto the voice that activates the premise, once the characters start talking in my head, once I start dreaming the story, all that. Ledfeather took four months, which felt kind of like forever, like I was never going to get to write those acknowledgements, but that was zero to sixty: the publisher called, said, hey, what about a novel? I jammed through the end of the one I was already writing, made up a new playlist, and, sixteen weeks later, turned Ledfeather in. I’m writing a novel right now that’s going to tap out at about three months, I think. I jammed down a hundred pages over a couple of weeks in March, then let myself get tied up with other writing obligations—kicked out thirty or so thousand words of solicited stories—but am hunched over the keyboard again, have gone sixty or eighty or a hundred pages the last four or five days, and just today accidentally figured out the five obvious steps that are going to get me to the end. And once you get those last five steps, all it takes then’s some nerve, some caffeine, the right music.

And, yeah, I say Growing Up Dead in Texas took thirteen weeks to write, but, give it a try, you’ll see it’s one of those books that, in my case, probably took thirty-six years to write, really—or, forty, if you count till now (but I wrote it in 2008). First I had to live through it all, then let it percolate, then give myself permission to pretend I’m making it all up, then stumble on a framework, an opening line that works like a zipper on the past—that old story. People say that, because we’ve all lived through childhood, all of us are stocked with all we need for a lifetime of writing. They’re not wrong, I don’t think. But still, when people ask—and they always do—my answer for this book: Thirteen weeks, dude. But then I have my own question, just banging around in my head: Why?

For some reason fiction’s saddled with the myth that the amount of time invested in a book or story, it’s a good estimate for how much time the reader should invest. That there’s some sort of presumed contract, or that the unpacking process is directly tied to the packing process: these wine glasses are delicate, they were my grandmother’s, please handle them accordingly—handle them as I obviously did, to get them to you all unshattered. Or, maybe it’s not how much ‘time’ the reader should invest, but how ‘deeply’ or ‘earnestly’ they should read—whatever the currency, the presupposition is that Great Art is something the artist had to strain over for years, that Great Art gets that uppercase treatment specifically because the artist had to sacrifice a decade to it. That it’s all that melodramatic effort and self-important claims of difficulty that finally makes the art worthwhile.

I submit that this is faulty reasoning.

No, let me rephrase: I submit that this is completely stupid. Just because you whip the batter all day, that in no way compels your Easy-Bake oven to give you the perfect cupcake.

I mean, the easy and obvious objection is that we’ve all read terrible works that took years to complete, works that have been mulled over so compulsively that all that’s left is mush. But we’ve also read ten-year books that are untouchable, that are perfect, that are the pinnacle of what can be done with squiggly marks on a page. And of course the coin flips the other way as well: plenty of fast books feel like the writer didn’t really take this project, or your reading of it, very seriously. But then some of those fast books, they just flat-out sing. I don’t want to start listing titles, here—you’ve got your own, anyway, and pet authors besides—but . . . can you imagine a market where you pluck a book off the shelf, flip it over to the back cover, and there’s a little industry-standard timestamp? THIS WORK OF FICTION TOOK THREE YEARS FOUR MONTHS AND FIVE DAYS TO COMPLETE. Then you could bite your lip in a bit, look around, and slip this into your cart, pretty well assured that you’re about to unpack all the time the writer’s already packed in.

I submit that this is already the market.

Look at the publicity already happening, at all the writers and publishers trying to stake their work out as ‘important’ solely because it was a ‘five-year project.’ It’s the weakest, most base marketing, is so much more insulting than a writer selling copies by pretending he or she lived through this or that. Those writers, they’re at least playing fair. If we take their ‘non’-fiction at face value, if we accept it uncritically, then we’re getting what we deserve: fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either at the selling end or the buying end. But, if the marketing engines are trying to convince us that ‘five years’ is a worthy or even reasonable amount of time for a work like this, then what they’re doing is taking any judgment of the work out of our hands. They’re saying we’re not smart enough to decide if the story’s quality or not. And, sure, this is the nature of the marketing machine: if it can maybe get away with faking a ‘certified’ stamp, then it’s compelled to try. Whatever moves product, all that.* I can live with that; we all know marketing is fairly soul-less (and absolutely necessary).

The problem, though, it’s that that prejudice against novels that take a week or a month or anything under three years to write, we internalize it. To the degree where you can almost hear an ‘only’ between my that and take in that last sentence, yes?

It’s infected us all. Even me. Last summer I kicked a novel out in thirteen days, and, at the end of it, I found myself kind of looking askance at that book, like maybe I should digest it some more, like maybe I should peel through with a more critical knife. But then I read it again, with editor eyes, and again, with reader eyes, and then finally with enemy eyes, and, man, it was doing precisely what it was supposed to do. Which doesn’t at all mean it’s no-doubt good, it just kind of suggests that I couldn’t have done it any better, no matter the time frame.

What I’m worried about, though, it’s that too many writers are doing what I guess I was doing there: taking those five-year-novelists as their model, and, as a result, overwriting (see: killing) what might have been some of the most beautiful, accidental works. I’m worried that a lot of writers are out there second-guessing themselves to death instead of faking that level of bravado you need to even write a novel. I’m worried that they’re measuring quality not in resonance, but in months and years.

And please understand that I’m not arguing for the hare over the tortoise. There’s another side to this, I mean. If you’re one of those writers who are built such that it takes you ten years to kick a novel out, then, man, I can’t even begin to imagine that kind of pressure. You have no room to fail, do you? No room to learn. Because, all your friends, your family, your teachers, your fans should you be so lucky, they know what you’ve been doing all this time, and, now, finally—cue some trumpets—you’re handing over your holy manuscript that’s going to change the world, that’s going to be ‘worth’ that lost decade.

Only, maybe it’s just normal. Or not even that.

I’m not talking about no return on your investment of time here either, I’m talking about how, if you’d written it in ten days instead of ten years, then our current set of prejudices would shrug, say, Oh well, write another. You’re learning, here. This is how it goes.

No, if you’re a ten-year-novelist, then you’ve got no choice: if you don’t turn in something that absolutely sings, that makes Zeus part the clouds and lean in for a closer look, then you’re a failure, man. And that, I think, probably kills just as many beautiful novels (and novelists) as those guilty writers who don’t trust their two-week slamdowns, so make themselves go back in again and again, turn the story to mush.

People write at different paces. Stories happen in their own time. There’s no right measure of time to get it on the page and there’s no wrong measure of time. There’s simply stories that work and stories that don’t work, and when they work, it’s due to the talent and craft and luck and grit of the writer, never to how many days this story X’d out on the calendar.

So, whether Growing Up Dead in Texas took me thirteen years or thirteen weeks, my dream—and this is for all books, not just mine—it’s that people might squint different, or just unsquint, judge the book on its own merits, on whatever level of integrity it does or doesn’t have. Just because Keith Richards wakes in some lost night, picks out a lick on his guitar that makes him kind of smile, is that lick worth less than one he had to chase down all last month in the studio? No. And neither is it worth more. I would even submit that they can both be good, as crazy as that might sound. There’s wonderful, unrepeatable accidents, there’s labors of love, and then there’s the product, and all that should matter to us, it’s the product.

*Very much related: aren’t novels often judged by how long it takes us to peel through them? There’s ‘beach reads’ that fly by and there’s epic family sagas chiseled in prose that you trade a month of your life for, and we’re conditioned—or, guilted?—to give more literary weight to the sagas, just because we want our time to have been worth something, to not have been spent frivolously (as if there’s anything wrong with simple entertainment). But we’re setting ourselves up, there: padding a story out, either with density or unwarranted page-count, that’s the easiest trick there is, and is no more a guarantee of quality than ‘defending’ a book with how long it took to write.

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Stephen Graham Jones is the author of eight novels and two collections. Stephen’s been a Shirley Jackson Award finalist three times, a Bram Stoker Award finalist, a Black Quill Award finalist, an International Horror Guild finalist, a Colorado Book Award Finalist, a Texas Monthly Book Selection, and has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction and the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction. He’s also been a Texas Writers League Fellow and an NEA fellow in fiction. His short fiction has been in Cemetery Dance, Asimov’s, Weird Tales, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, etc., as well as all the journals: Open City, Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Literal Latte, Cutbank, and on and on, some hundred and thirty stories, total, through every letter of the alphabet.

Though Blackfeet, Stephen was born in 1972 in West Texas. This is often confusing, as most Blackfeet are in Montana and he grew up working from tractors and horses and in all kinds of welding and automotive shops. There was also lots of hunting and basketball and various scrapes with the law. After getting his PhD from Florida State University in a record two years, Stephen, twenty-eight then, went to work in the warehouse at Sear’s (all he ever planned), but injuries forced him into teaching. And it’s not a bad life, being a professor. Stephen made full professor at thirty-six–likely the youngest full prof in the humanities at The University of Colorado at Boulder (and maybe all of Colorado) and is into fiction, comics, film, screenwriting, and anything horror or fantasy, western or science fiction. Or, just anything that tells an interesting story in an interesting way.

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One Reply to “That Pink Light at the End of the Tunnel by Stephen Graham Jones”

  1. You have me thinking. Dangerous. Three months, four months? This is what it takes me to do a first draft. I don’t even know what my story’s about until I finish this first charge through. 3-4 months for the second draft, in which I assemble the good parts, toss the bad, and head off in a few new directions. Then 3-4 months for a final draft after a few people read the second. In other words, Stephen, it takes me a freaking year of writing every day to finish a novel. But your story has me thinking. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I’m ready for the Jack Kerouac, Stephen Graham Jones method. Maybe if I knew the story before I started …