Matt Sumell's novel-in-stories Making Nice is one of the funniest (and best) books of the year, featuring the self-destructive but well-meaning Alby--a "loser," according to his sister. Here, Sumell talks about the agonizing process of writing, pushing through the pain, and why it still remains necessary.
OK so—while I’m truly grateful for any and all interest in my book—I’m not sure I even know how to answer the question of how autobiographical it is. 53% in this story? 26% in that one? Kinda? Very? The book is a fiction regardless of what details I’ve taken from “real life.” I’ve selected things to include, which means I’ve also selected things not to include—it’s not the whole truth but a distortion of it, a deliberate misrepresentation to suit the needs of the story. And that’s not even taking into account all the stuff I made up.
That said, I can’t and won’t deny that parts of it are deeply personal, that it was emotionally expensive for me to write. I also cannot deny that when people call the book’s narrator, Alby, “despicable,” or “a raging idiot loser,” or “totally unlikeable,” or “a turd” (and I could go on but why bother) I feel a tinge of defensiveness shoot through me, and it’s sometimes difficult to separate which vulnerable character that tinge of defensiveness is for: Alby or myself. There are certainly things we share, most especially a heightened sensitivity. Like halogens—those light-em-ups of the periodic table—we’re both highly reactive. (Unlike halogens, no one calls us noble.) But with the idea that bad choices make for good stories, I’ve given Alby license to follow those baser impulses and do and say things I never did or would.
I could go on about all this autobiography vs. fiction stuff—pull Michael Herr’s masterwork Dispatches into the fray, or Exley’s “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes, or quote you Hemingway, even—but all I’m really trying to get at here is that, as a writer who sometimes uses personal experience as a way into a story, it can and often does get complicated. Even just thinking about what to write about can start me looping on the past—or present, or future, or never-was or will-be—and like a centrifuge, I’ll spin out parts of myself, magnify and obsess about them. And just like anything else you take apart and study, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the complexity of it all when you try to sense-make it back together; to panic, spout expletives, blame my parents, maybe throw some proximate objects. Usually I deep breathe for a while, exit the area. Maybe I’ll go for a walk, or to the gym, or jerk off, or have a drink, or all of it…whatever I can do to calm myself down a little before attempting to put it back together again. Sometimes I can, other times I can’t, because putting things back together is difficult and I’m not a mechanic and an even worse headshrinker—I’m a writer.
That certainly doesn’t help the problem, and in some cases might cause it. Because with writing there’s no formula that makes sense to me, no recipe to follow, no map—at least no map I know how to read—to help me navigate. Every story is different, and every story comes with its own specific difficulties, so every story also comes with its own specific anxiety and panic until it’s done. Only—as they say—it’s never done, just abandoned. Cycle through that for a few years, a couple decades, and maybe you’ll develop a base level of frustration. Maybe you’ll get depressed. Maybe you’ll chuck a chair, or a candle, or punch a wall. If you’re like me, maybe you’ll punch a wall and then get mad at your pants when your swollen hand doesn’t slip into the pocket easily. Maybe your brain—like my brain—might start to function like an autoimmune disease: one thought attacks another. That sentence is shit. It’s got to be better. You asshole. For some of us, and I’d argue a lot of us, writing fosters self-aggression. And if not self-aggression at least there’s a lot of self-doubt.
So, not that I like making points or anything—because I really don’t—but my point, you guys, is that I think writers can be prone to this kind of circular, obsessive, unhealthy thinking. That it’s a hazard of the job. And you don’t even have to take it from me. There are innumerable writers I can point to, and not just all the suicides, alcoholics, and drug addicts. There’s a lot of pain in the process, in art across the board. Look to the greats and they’ll probably tell you some version of the same, whether that’s Hemingway’s “The first draft of anything is shit," Hawthorne’s “Easy reading is damned hard writing,” or Thompson’s take: “I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs.”
But for my purposes here, let me point to just one more, Geoffrey Wolff’s introduction of Edward Hoagland (who if you’re not familiar with, may I direct you to his The Courage of Turtles):
“Hoagland began his writing life as a ‘bleeder.’ He said that he gave about an hour of work to every ten words published in his novels, working ‘like a dog,’ writing ‘two full-length novels in iambic meter and a firehouse style.’ Now he works differently, essaying a truly rough first draft, learning as he goes where he means to end up. The looping, almost loopy design mapped on some of his pieces remains through the final draft, and the most radical quality of his architecture—especially in his most recent work—is the detour.”
Sounds familiar. I almost dropped out of UC Irvine’s MFA Program, multiple times. It seemed that people there had an ease with the language that I just didn’t—that I still don’t—and while they were turning in thirty plus pages of pretty polished stuff, I was struggling to put together five or six, and worse, those five or six weren’t any good.
But whatever I lacked in ability I made up for with a stubbornness that borders on diagnosable. So relentless was I about revision, so determined was I to get it right—whatever it and right means—that words like “fucking” and “crazy” come into play. But maybe that’s part of my learning curve: that the process of eking it out, of editing as I went, was simply too painful and inefficient to be sustainable. After a certain amount of time, of pages, of effort, of stress, of panic—something finally gave. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe exhaustion comes into play. Or laziness. Or age. Whatever the reason, I started going a little easier on the first drafts. Make a mess. Clean it up later. It’s fine.
It’s like I became a better friend to myself. And who are your favorite friends? The ones who harass you, who give you a hard time? No, those are your spouses. Your favorite friends are the ones who, no matter what, tell you everything’s going to be OK; who make you laugh about how much trouble you’re in; who understand and commiserate; who—after you confess that you threw a chair in a restaurant again—shake their heads, ask if you hit anybody, then make fun of your aim. “Maybe I should try that,” they’ll say. “I’m running out of footballs to stab.” Something like that.
It’s no coincidence that a lot of my earlier stories are the shorter ones. “If P, Then Q” weighs in at two pages; same goes for “Bugs”; “Making Nice”-- four; “Inheritance”-- three; “American Ninja 2” -- a fat six. And then—clear as the K-T boundary—there’s a line. The last three stories I wrote are by far the longest: “All Lateral” -- twenty pages; “OK” – twenty-seven; “Rape in the Animal Kingdom” – twenty-three. Why? Because I gave myself permission to suck along the way. I didn’t obsessively edit as I went.
So—if I can just hope-sling a little bit here—my advice to you bleeders out there is that you try to be a little kinder to yourselves. That you make a serious effort to shake the self-aggression, the self-doubt, the panic. Because—while I still struggle with those things, every day—when I finally relaxed a little what happened is this: I wrote a bunch of awful stories. And they’re all in the book. And some of them were published in places like the Paris Review, and Esquire, and Electric Literature, and One Story. Because I worked, for years, at making them better. And eventually they got better. Find a way to keep at it long enough and yours will, too.