I never wanted to be anything, really.
I grew up in front of the TV, made decent grades and got into college—all without ever giving my life a moment of consideration. While friends went on about their futures—their goals and the paths they’d follow to attain them—I sat back and forced myself to believe everything would work out just fine, that one day life would simply fall into place. After all, I was middle-class, white, and soon to be armed with a bachelor’s degree. The world, I figured, was mine. And if the struggle to forge my own path proved too tough, I could always do what my father did and become a lawyer. That was my plan, and it afforded me a sense of dumb comfort, an assurance I could take like a drug while I continued to live without thinking. And, for a long time, that’s exactly what I did.
Then I was twenty. College was halfway gone, and my idea of what I wanted to be was as abstract as ever. I’d majored in English from the get-go, but I wouldn’t call any of the work I’d done inspired. I liked the lively little classroom chats on poetry and plays and novels, but my enjoyment didn’t stem from any real passion for literary analysis. Far from it. In truth, my choice to study literature was motivated by the same lack of ambition that had dominated my first two decades. Pointing out symbols and motifs and writing essays came naturally to me and required a lot less work than, say, an actual mastery of accounting or macroeconomics. To put it plainly: being an English major was easy, and even if it didn’t thrill me, it was the only subject at which I could excel without suffering. And so it seemed my only real option. But how, I wondered, could I ever turn an English degree into a paying job? I had zero interest in the masturbatory pursuit of a master’s degree, and the guerilla warfare of teaching high school sounded more than a little grim. The more I thought about it, the more law school seemed the only way out.
With no better plans in mind, I figured I should actually call my dad and see what it meant to be a lawyer. And so I parked myself at a bench in LSU’s quad and dialed him up. I remember the whole scene like it was yesterday—the way a strange feeling welled within my chest the moment the phone began to ring, as if this talk alone was somehow the first step in my journey toward manhood, toward a life of respectability and hard work. My father, more than happy to hear I might follow in his Cole-Haan footsteps, launched full-tilt into a sketch of his daily routine: the briefs and the filings, the long days in court. I sat there and rocked myself as I listened, waiting all the while for him to say that one sentence that’d make me believe this was the life I wanted. But the words never came. I thanked him and hung up and gazed out at the quad, at all the backpack-toting students, all of them off to class with a sure sense of purpose, of what they were doing and where they were headed. I sat alone on that bench and pictured the rest of my days spilling out before me in an awful puddle of suits and meetings and paperwork. And as I saw decades of job-hating—an existence without existing—I understood for the first time it was possible to screw up, to choose something that made you unhappy. I saw that a man could waste his life.
Thankfully, that semester I’d signed up for a class called Short Fiction. Unlike my survey courses, this class afforded me the invaluable benefit of a narrow focus. Each week, we dissected a handful of stories and thumbed our way through a veritable highlight reel of the genre’s virtuosos. The class’s reading list introduced me to writers like James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, William Maxwell, Richard Ford, and Raymond Carver. At times, such exposure to so much great prose was almost overwhelming. But, really, I felt enlivened and engrossed. Literature had very suddenly become strikingly more accessible. For my entire life as a student, the characters I’d come across—in novels and plays—had always seemed separate from my reality. They were distant, realistic but not real, cogs in an allegorical machine. But the stories in my Norton Anthology were different. Here were portraits of everyday people, the very men and women I saw rambling up and down Chimes Street or drunk at one of the Tigerland bars. The stories siphoned me out of my bedroom and into a strange world, one where misfits shot pleading grandmas, and drunks and blind men got high and drew churches.
But Short Fiction did more than make me an excited reader; it challenged me and made me curious in a way that no other course had. Short stories were outwardly simple but extremely complex. They were weird but very real. And unlike novels, which are granted space for digressions and asides, short stories are airtight—sealed more securely, a teacher of mine once said, than a Samsonite suitcase. The more I read, the more I wanted to understand what made them work. More so: I was beginning to think maybe I should try to write one myself.
It’s hard for me to nail down the moment I realized my want to write short fiction, but if that class offered up a single story that sent me over the edge, it was Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation.” Set in Ireland amid the Irish War of Independence, the narrative concerns two pairs of soldiers: Irish captors housing English prisoners in the Irish countryside. Thanks to their remove from the dangers of battle, these enemies grow comfortable and end up something just short of friends. They joke around with one another. They pass their days with card games and good-natured banter. It’s a pleasant arrangement that persists until the narrator, a young Irishman named Bonaparte, receives a dispatch from a distant command post. A pair of Irish prisoners, it reads, have just been executed behind enemy lines. He is to kill the Englishmen at once.
Here, O’Connor engineers a moment that embodies short fiction at its best: he presents readers with a narrative turn that’s unthinkably tragic and yet entirely possible. It’s the surprise you knew you were waiting for, and yet when it comes, it’s still a surprise. His characters are forced to weigh the value of human relationships against the call of duty. Heartbroken at the inescapability of their wartime roles, the men resign themselves to stoicism and the orders are carried out. At story’s close, Bonaparte stands on the porch where the four men used to gather. Alone, he stares toward the bog where the Englishmen lay dead:
[I]t was as if the patch of bog… were a million miles away… and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.
I’ll never forget the first time I read that paragraph. I was in the loft bedroom of my little apartment in Baton Rouge. I read it once and then again and again. My pulse thudded; my arms and legs stung with what I can only think to call shooting pains. O’Connor’s ending—so naked, so filled with loss—had somehow managed to stir within me emotions that were absolutely real, and I saw then that there exists perhaps nothing more powerful than a short story. In thirty pages or less, an author crafts a character and puts him through a series of events that leave him fundamentally changed. In a single sitting, in the time it takes to bake a loaf of bread or shower and shave, a reader floats over that character’s shoulder and enjoys full access into their thoughts and emotions—into their entire world. That day marked the first time I was ever moved by literature, and, like Bonaparte in O’Connor’s story, I never felt the same about it ever again.
Soon thereafter, I declared a major in fiction writing and set out to tell a story that would affect readers in the way O’Connor’s had affected me. And though such a task was (and still is) impossible, its loftiness forced me to enter my first workshop with a level of seriousness well beyond those of my under-read peers. Whereas my classmates, good-natured kids from Lafayette and Lake Charles, turned in painfully predictable stories that affirmed the fun of summer camp or the hardships of babysitting, I submitted pieces about a minister getting shocked to death in a baptism gone awry, and an emasculated teen who accidentally punches his ex-girlfriend in the face.
Of course, each of my submissions fell well short of O’Connor’s masterpiece. But my professors’ regular praise gave me a sense of above-average failure, which proved vital to my growth. From early on, I appreciated that writing would never be easy, nor would it be something I’d be any good at any time soon. It was going to take lots of time and practice. And so I put forth real effort in my workshops (or at least more effort than your average college student). I was dead-set on only submitting stories that were “polished” and “ready,” knowing full well that my classmates wouldn’t give them a serious reading, but that my teachers just might. And as time went on, and I learned that my professors were themselves published writers, their kind words on my stories grew exponentially more important. Their approval became more than encouragement; it became an endorsement.
In the span of a few semesters, writing went from a required assignment to an ambition I desperately sought to achieve. Perhaps more accurately: writing evocative fiction had shifted from an activity that was both fun and challenging into a desire that I knew, even then, might be hard enough to break me. But that didn’t matter; for the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted to do. I had a goal, and it was a hell of a lot more important than becoming a lawyer.
If college was where my dreams of becoming a writer were born, then grad school is where they endured their difficult and sometimes painful adolescence. I can say with certainty that I entered an MFA program lacking even a basic knowledge of what made fiction work. I was young and far from serious. I could write, but I hadn’t the slightest idea how hard it was to write well—how much endless, soul-crushing work it took—and I spent the brunt of my first three semesters taking solace in callow fantasies of literary fame and descending into pits of neurotic self-doubt. I wrote often, but I wrote without a plan and thus abandoned dozens of stories after only a few pages. I felt creatively blocked and spent more time fretting about writing—dreading it, really—than I did actually writing. Halfway through grad school, I’d finished only one useable story, and I worried I’d made the wrong move. I worried I wasn’t really cut out to be an artist at all.
I might’ve fallen prey to such negativity were it not for my roommate, John. Four-and-a-half years my senior, and roughly a light-year more determined and mature, John taught me to succeed simply by modeling a habit of productivity. Each weekday morning, as I screwed around our apartment, smoking too many Camel Filters and drinking insane amounts of coffee, there would be a precise moment when Johnny would excuse himself from the living room and head either to his bedroom or the second floor of Georgia College’s library. There, he would work on his thesis for three hours without interruption. He rarely missed a day, and if something else came up, he’d go out of his way to prevent a conflict. John’s clockwork nature, born largely of his years of isolation as a Peace Corps volunteer, might’ve at times seemed a bit much and been easy to poke fun at it, but it was also the reason he was able to compose a book-length draft of his memoir over the course of a single summer in Maine. The next fall, when he returned to Georgia and informed me of his progress, I noted my comparatively meager headway and felt such shame that I wanted to shout or cry. What’s his secret, I wondered. How can a person so steadily produce? But over time I learned, in the absurdly slow manner in which I tend to learn, that I’d feel much better if I stopped fretting over John’s productivity and instead forced myself to copy his routine. And copy I did. Like John, I carved out three hours a day, five days a week. On some mornings I produced a lot; on others next to nothing. But no matter what, each day I sat there and produced something. And in my last year of grad school, I managed to write seven of the eight stories in my thesis. Writing, I’d finally come to understand, wasn’t a magic trick, nor was it predicated on finding yourself atop some pleasant cloud of inspiration. On the contrary, writing, like painting a house or mowing a lawn, is work. In the end, you need only a plan and the time with which to put it into action. When it comes right down to it, that’s all there is to say.
This doesn’t change the fact that writing is painful. You spend hours and weeks and months working on a piece, and then you mail it off just so some half-assed grad student can respond with a form letter rejection. Then you spend years getting nice notes from editors, little scribbles that let you know yours was a special kind of failure. Or maybe you put your writing up on a website and marvel—simply marvel—at the lack of a response it garners. And even on the rare days when something good does happen: you get a story in a nice magazine, say, and your old teachers and friends send you emails of congrats. Even then, in your less than hopeful moments, you can’t help but see it all for what it is: a pissing contest, a few pages in a magazine that very few people will read. And then, of course, there are the numbers. Shall I even bother to talk about those? My God. At AWP Chicago, in 2009, I found myself in the company of over 6,000 fellow writers, all of whom were anxious to make a big name for themselves, perhaps less than fifty of whom that had.
So then why try to become a writer?
My answer is simple: when I was twenty, I read a story by a man from a different time and a different country. Though the writer was famous, I knew nothing of his work, and had no concept of his importance. The experiences he’d written about were not ones I could claim for myself, nor could I relate to them directly. But by the time I reached the last page of his piece, my arms and legs were abuzz with shooting pains, and I found myself saying by reflex the words, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Frank O’Connor wrote his story because he wanted to relate something truthful about life and human emotion. He worked hard at it, I’m sure. And there were probably days when it frustrated him so that he even considered quitting. But in the end he didn’t. And in the end he did such a fine job that, fifty years later, a boy in an apartment in Baton Rouge could read it and feel a burst of emotions so new and so profound that he saw, then and there, that if he too could craft a story like that just once in his life, then his life would not be wasted.
Every time I sit down to write—in my office, in the library, at home in boxer briefs—“Guests of the Nation” remains at the forefront of my mind. And while nothing I’ve written lives up to the merits of O’Connor’s work, when I consider how much better I am at failing to live up to those merits now than I was even a year ago, I feel nothing if not hopeful. No matter what happens, I will continue to fail and suffer at writing for the rest of my life. I will continue to write until I’ve made a story that gets closer. And then I guess I’ll write some more.
William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | firstname.lastname@example.org.