Monday, April 9, 2007

Work in Progress: Justin Nicholes

I will be away from the blog until April 19ish.

In the meantime, I am delighted to present this essay written by Justin Nicholes, an almost-graduate of the Wichita State University MFA program. I was the visiting writer at WSU for a month in 2005, which is when I met Justin. I knew we’d hit it off because one of the first things he told me was that he had already read all of John Gardner’s writing books, which are among my favorites. Not only that, he held the writing books in such high esteem that he had decided to read all of Gardner’s novels, too. Such single-mindedness bodes well for the beginning novelist, it seems to me. (And apparently seems to Gardner himself: “After verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, and a measure of the special intelligence of the story teller, what the writer probably needs most is an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” [On Becoming a Novelist]) Indeed, I read one of Justin’s short stories while at WSU; after our discussion about the piece, he continued to work on it and revise it, and now it’s about to be published!

So it was no surprise to see Justin’s essay open like this:

John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist aims, as his chief goal, to help beginning novelists answer the questions, “Can I do it and, if so, how?” One “how” question we usually have concerns where to write. According to Gardner, it doesn’t matter. We should forget about where we’re sitting and typing, or scribbling on paper, because forgetting about self allows us to slip into the story’s dreamworld.

But can we completely disappear when writing? What if, say, we’re writing about Cleveland, Ohio on a beach of Majuro in the Marshall Islands? Will sand never, ever, dust the storyscape’s walkways?

Having finally finished, with the help of the three-year MFA program at Wichita State, a polished draft of my novel, I find myself remembering where it began. The writing started in February of 2004 while I was teaching English as a foreign language in Dresden, Germany. On the campus of Technische Universit├Ąt Dresden, in Dresden’s Old Town, I lived on the fourteenth floor of one of three buildings where international students dwelled. The Russians had built these edifices as apartment buildings, but then the structures became dorms after Reunification. Out my balcony hulked a church that had survived the February 13th/14th, 1945 firebombing, though little else had.

Dresden is a bone yard. Vonnegut says so in Slaughterhouse Five, and a little imagination makes it easy to see why. The entire city was in flames, and everyone burned. Even now, bones riddle the ground all around campus, on either side of the Elbe River, for acres and acres, even if no one can see them anymore.

And like blasted cities, final drafts of novels, too, hide dead forms.

My novel’s title, now, is Weary Travel’s End, but when I began the novel in 2004, it was called God’s Funeral. I remember that early, early draft involving a character, whom I later had to kill, secretly having an abortion. She was the sister of the character who’s now the polished draft’s protagonist, but all that is gone, now, at least from sight.

Although writing is partly play, I’ve realized novel writing requires mercy killing. We not only kill unnecessary characters and, well, some years. We also discard used up versions of ourselves because they turned out to be no good anymore or created flawed visions: ultimately, we’re supposed to mature through this process that demands compassionate embodiment of others. Writing a novel, which began in Dresden and ended in Wichita, changed me (unless I’m fooling myself) into a person who’s more mature, more capable of deep feeling, and of course more mesmerized than ever—confused, really—by the complexity of human nature.

I think, then, that writing in Dresden reminded me not only of human sacrifice but also of the inevitability of the human heart resurrecting itself. Perhaps it’s this kind of reminder that helps us strive to write about characters overcoming personal crises, which forms the material of the only type of fiction worth writing (at least according to Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech). Faulkner beseeches us to write about the conflicts of the human heart because, in every case, such literature features characters overcoming personal and external crises. For me, this fundamental reminder happened because I’d written in a place whose history fascinated me with its newness.

Yet any place will do. The entire U.S., after all, is a burial ground. ~~Justin Nicholes

About Justin Nicholes: Concluding his final semester at Wichita State’s MFA program, Justin serves as fiction editor of his university’s arts and literature journal, Mikrokosmos, as well as fiction reader with the journal Our Stories. A story of his will appear this spring in Karamu, and he has recently finished a polished draft of his first novel, which is about a marine back from Baghdad who seeks out a half-brother in Mexico and struggles to understand the boundaries of family. He can be reached at justin.nicholes AT


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.