Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sarah Harris Wallman writes about Senseless Women, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction from University of Massachusetts Press.
The Cookies of Senseless Women
I write in coffee shops. Cliché, right? Not to mention easy pickins for chatty types who see a girl (even a middle-aged one) slouching over a notebook and want her attention for themselves. There’s always a theoretical book up their sleeves (if they only had the time to indulge!). They’d love to pick my brain, know my secrets.
Well, I finally have a book. So here are some secrets.
Order the largest black tea. If you catch them putting two tea bags in it, ask for one on the side. Put it in your purse for later. No one needs more than one bag to brew.
Biscotti is best; less fat than a muffin. So little fat that it is honestly pretty dry. You can dip it in your tea.
Write in a paper notebook, the black and white composition kind, with a good pen, so you can viciously obliterate the false starts without reverting to a blank page.
Now you look legit, especially if you pause your scribbling to frown into space.
Looking legit will not stop the interrupters; it may even attract them.
It’s always been difficult for me to separate looking like a writer from being a writer. I’m still not sure the two can be pried apart and made to dance with enough room between them for the Holy Spirit. A parallel struggle: having an identity independent of one’s female body.
When I’m not in coffee shops writing, I try not to eat cookies. I’m often on a diet (another cliché I’ll reluctantly admit to you), so the cookie I eat while writing is a little transgressive, a sacrifice of one version of myself to another.
The oldest story in this collection is “One Car Hooks to the Next and Pulls.” I wrote the first draft when I was 23, bumming around Europe. I had a fellowship (not a fancy one and not for writing, so don’t feel jealous) that included a flat in Glastonbury, UK. The relevant cookies here are flapjacks and digestive biscuits. The coffee shops are sometimes pubs. Any chance I could, I travelled by train so I could seek cafe tables in cliché bohemia (Paris, Prague) and beyond (Krakow, Vilnius, Riga). I had this long skinny coat of burgundy leather and I really looked like a writer. In two years, I produced nothing of worth, including this story.
When I went to grad school in Pittsburgh, my mentor Chuck Kinder charged us with bringing an old, “embarrassing” story to the first workshop. Something written long ago. Chuck, I should say, was famous for looking like a writer, so much so that he is most widely known as Michael Chabon’s one-time professor and model for his character Grady Tripp, that literary wash-out with the great parties, student crushes, and unpublishable 2000-page manuscript.
Chuck did throw decadent, legendary parties. Grad students felt the exuberance of success and kinship as we dug elbow-to-elbow with the faculty in the trough of shrimp cocktail. We drank too much and held the fuck forth. This is not a defense of superficiality. Sometimes you need a party. It feeds you. Writing, though solitary, is really the impulse to reach the others.
Anyway, I brought the “One Car” draft to workshop and realized I did have something non-worthless to say about one girl’s compulsion to have anonymous sex on European trains.
I trust you to differentiate between me and my characters.
It was a story about categories of people, about appearances, about the opposing desires to stand out and blend in.
And, it turned out, it was also about glasses. In 2013, Prada put out a call for short stories; they were launching a literary magazine alongside a line of eyewear. I revised the train story again (I literally just added glasses, but damn if they didn’t take on metaphorical resonance) and, voila: behold me in the Prada store in New York. My words scrolling across giant digital displays at a big champagney party. I’m posing with Gary Shteyngart and Jay McInerney. I looked not only like a writer, but like a successful one. I’ve got the pictures in Italian Vogue to prove it. The waiters kept circling back to me with their trays of dime-sized pavlovas, each topped with a single raspberry, because I was clearly one of the few people there who felt I deserved to eat.
“The Dead Girls Show” also has its roots in a coffee shop, this time the one where my New Haven writers group met. The vegan lemon bars were great and the group members were mean in just the right way. Then one year, one of our writers produced a string of stories about murdering his ex-wife. I’m a big girl, capable of separating narrators from authors, but after the fifth murder (all of them bulling their plotless way toward lady-death), I felt a righteous itch. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you scratch a righteous itch and a story comes out— an angry one where a resurrected suicide must perform her pain over and over for the prurient audience. Where a deceased anorexic dances on a stage. All the clichés of feminine vulnerability that get us munching our popcorn. When I cannot be cool, I am brutal.
When the next retired guy in a coffee shop asks me what my book is about, any description I give will sound like women’s fiction. I suppose it is. Categories and preferences are the little plate of cookies we leave on the datascape, so that the things we need (and sometimes the people) can find us. I wish he would read my work the way I’ve read Hemingway, but he likely doesn’t read short stories, if he reads books at all.
Let’s switch from tea to wine (yes, white. I’ve given you so many signifiers I’ll be shocked if you haven’t found a box for me yet). “Birth Stories” is the last piece in the collection and most recently written. It refers to a time in my life when I was sustained by potlucks. I have devoured my friends to make this story, and they are the ones I most long to share it with. When we gathered with our babies and burdens, we ate more desserts than you can imagine. My life, and my writing, was composed of small pieces, whatever I could cobble together and bring to the table. Those empty calories were the most nourishing I’ve ever had.
So the coffee shop where I do not drink coffee is as important to me as Hemingway’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Place” where the lonely can attain oblivion with dignity. There is something sacramental about tea and a cookie in a coffee shop with just the right hum.
If that’s too woo-woo, call it behaviorism. Pavlov’s writer: in this environment you will begin to salivate, begin to imagine.
If you’d rather a literary example, how about Proust and that damn madeleine?
Writing comes from your obsessions: what you seek, what you tally, what you must restrict for your own good. Some appetites, when you feed them, will settle at your side, the most loyal of companions.