Monday, August 8th 2011
I’m in New York for a couple of weeks, and for a few hours each day I occupy a desk on the 8th floor of the Centre for Fiction, on 47th Street between 5th Avenue and Madison. New York writers can apply for a ‘work space’—the use of a desk, a printer, free wi-fi, the run of an extensive library and reading room, coffee making and shower room facilities and a key to come and go late on weekdays and at weekends. The building is old and quite grand—at street level there’s an ‘indie’ bookshop. I mailed them a few weeks ago. They don’t normally take visitors in their writers’ space but August is a quiet month.
There are about eight desks set along a wall and in corners at each end of the long skylit room. Japanese type screens provide privacy between desks, and there is one separate office space. The elegant conference room at the end can be used too. Usually it’s full, Kristin, the programs director, told me. There are four or five writers here today. The ubiquitous water bottle sits on every desk. Everyone works in silence, with an occasional smile as someone passes by to make coffee. One girl comes over when the others leave at lunch time and introduces herself briefly and then leaves saying, as she points to my laptop—‘Make it happen!’
The Centre for Fiction, formally known as The Mercantile Library, is a non-profit-making organization which promotes and celebrates fiction and fiction writers. As well as the writing space it provides grants to NY writers, runs literature classes, readings, launches and public interviews, spotlights new talent, etc. I had come across it a couple of years ago and continued to follow events and read The Literarian, their online magazine. There’s a section called The Model Story where a well known writer chooses a story he/she regards as model and explains why. Richard Ford’s ‘Sweethearts’ was chosen recently.
This summer I finished work, for now, on a collection of short stories to be published by The Stinging Fly Press in 2012. In the days and weeks following their handover to Declan there were times I wanted to pull them back again. The tweaking had gone on for months, would still continue, had he not advised ‘Forget about them now.’ Paul Valéry said a poem is never finished, only abandoned. The slight euphoria felt on the night I printed out the final story was swiftly replaced by a chronic anxiety. In the days following their relinquishment I would pick a book from the shelf and read a story and sink in despair and fear at the prospect of my own stories appearing before the public. Nothing could be worse in those moments. Except, of course, not being published at all.
There is a novel written and awaiting a rewrite. Another novel is pressing to be written. In the meantime more stories push forward, as stories do, forever germinating, forever fermenting. I cannot do the two at the same time—short and long fiction—or shift from one form to another. Each story takes up the whole of my head.
Here in New York, in this space, I have a sense of being a writer, admitting tentatively to being a writer. On the first of September, for the first time in years, I will not be returning to my teaching job. All I ever wanted to be was a writer. In America people refuse to fail. I want to stay. I want to be one who refuses to fail too.