Thursday, August 7, 2008

Guest in Progress: Dana Cann

This introduction will be short because nothing I can say will improve upon this piece. Dana Cann was a student (and wonderful writer!) in one of my novel workshops at the Writer’s Center, and at our final meeting, he told us a shorter version of the following. The room was silent: we were in awe, totally inspired. No more complaining about “not having time” to write, we all vowed. Now, when I'm feeling lazy, I think of Dana and sit my butt in the chair and get to work.

“200 Words and a Cloud of Dust”

So says the banner taped to the base of my computer screen. I typed it up years ago, and printed it in one of the largest-point fonts in the MS Word arsenal. I use the phrase as one of those motivators writers rely on to keep the faith and stay on task. I imagine its creation also allowed me to procrastinate one night when I should have been writing but didn’t think I could. Disgusted with myself, I acted, and spent the evening typing, formatting and cutting and pasting (in the physical sense, with actual scissors and tape) seven words, one-hundred-ninety-three short of what was to be my supposed daily minimum. Still, a productive night, considering those seven words became my mantra, and have carried me forward since.

I came to fiction late. I was supposed to be a rock star. I played guitar and wrote songs. When I turned thirty and I wasn’t a rock star (or anywhere close to being one), I stopped writing songs and started writing stories. I was still single. I could write most nights after work. I carved out two-hour blocks, from seven-thirty to nine-thirty. After I wrote, I went for a run. Aside from my day job, my writing situation was ideal.

Then I got married. We bought a house. We had kids. Each of these additions, though essential to me, claimed more of my time. The two-hour nighttime chunks became unworkable.

I was flummoxed, blocked. Was it possible to accomplish anything in under two hours? I stared at my blank screen in my few free minutes, squeezed by the bookends of responsibility.

And then I realized: my goal wasn’t time; my goal was words.

Woody Hayes was the head football coach for Ohio State in the fifties, sixties and seventies. He was extremely successful, if a bit of an asshole, but what successful football coach isn’t a bit of an asshole? Woody’s conservative offense, a monotonous grind of up-the-middle runs and an occasional short pass, became known as “three yards and a cloud of dust,” meaning it was effective for the Buckeyes, though unspectacular, even boring, for their fans. The description was pejorative, yet it also defined a path to success, and I co-opted it for my own creative purposes, when I replaced “three yards” with “two hundred words” and voila: a new offensive scheme to employ for my writing.

Sometimes I write two hundred words in fifteen minutes. Hopefully, on those days, I drive on, and write another hundred or two hundred words. But I won’t beat myself up if I don’t. Writing is hard work. There are good days and bad days. The point is that there are days (or nights or pre-dawn mornings) where something—even if it’s only a couple hundred messy words—gets done. It’s amazing how even small stacks of words pile up, their clouds of dust settle, and, after days or weeks or months of gaining and building, pruning and molding, they come to form something stunning and strong. ~~Dana Cann

About: Dana Cann’s stories have appeared in The Sun, The Florida Review and Blackbird, among other journals, and are forthcoming from The Gettysburg Review and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Awards include fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He’s currently at work on a novel.

You can see an example of what can be accomplished by 200 words a day here, by reading Dana’s short story “The Bridge,” published by Blackbird.

Personal note: I’m a Big Ten football fan so am compelled to note that this message in no way should be construed as my endorsement of Ohio State. Go Cats! Go Hawkeyes!


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