The Jungle

I interviewed Mary Guterson last week, having been warned ahead of time that she was quite funny. The warnings were accurate. After the camera stopped rolling Mary confessed to me that it had taken her about ten years to find her voice. How odd, I thought, because as soon as I met her I found that she sounded exactly like her books, which is to say, yes, she was funny and then some, but also capable of saying anything at anytime. Her internal editor, it seemed, had been downsized long ago.

This habit, she admitted to me, had gotten her fired more than once, but what made her somewhat of a liability as an employee helped her eventually with her writing—better for a novelist to have too much to say than not enough. Yet if I had had to guess, I would not have thought someone like Mary would need ten years to find her voice. She was such an irrepressible talker, surely her voice merely spilled onto the page when she summoned it.

No. And it was precisely her humor that had gotten in her way. That is, she’s a smart woman, she’s a reflective woman, and so she naturally wanted to be taken seriously by other smart, reflective people. As luck would have it, who she is eventually won out over who she thought she should be, and the world is only a better place for it.

Mary’s story is hardly an unusual one, and not just because she wanted to be taken seriously. Rather, it was that she wandered for ten years in some literary jungle only to wind up more or less where she started. This is so often the journey of the writer. You look down at what you have and think, “This will never do,” and so off you go to find something better. If you are lucky, all the classes and books and seminars and writing groups and rough drafts will teach you that what you’ve always needed, you’ve always had. What we call skill and craft are merely tools and tricks to point you toward yourself, and all that we call bad writing is just some debris that’s accumulated between where you’ve drifted and where your self stands waiting for your return.

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