My writing process consists mostly of looking at people who seem out of place. The woman who spends the day at the coffee shop with a science experiment in front of her. The man who is hiding from his employer at the back of a cafe, holding a to-go cup that he emptied an hour ago. There is something naive about my process, and daring at the same time. Because watching, paying attention to strangers, is an act only acceptable for small children, the people who are still allowed to approach each excursion with a sense of wonder. As I build my pieces around observations of the people I encounter, I have to determine limits. How long can I really spend in the aisles of the health food store only to see how long it takes the eccentric woman to finish gathering her honey from the tub?
I choose characters for my short stories who seem to represent an extreme of human behavior, who put their idiosyncrasies on public display. In a sense, the actions that attract me to these “characters” aren’t so far from actions of my own. Only, I apologize often. And there isn’t a single person I have written about who would apologize for themselves, for not complying with social norms, for keeping someone too long at the counter, the cashier who wants to proselytize or who wants to share her latest discovery from watching Animal Planet while she folds clothing at the coin-op.
In fiction we hope to find people who say and do precisely what we won’t allow ourselves to do, or admit to doing. Many of us try to find the author’s life in the stories we read. Perhaps this is out of a concern for the author (and, by extension, ourselves): We wonder if this sad life is part of the writer’s life. Take Lydia Davis’s early piece “Sketches for a Life of Wassilly.”
The story opens with a description of a man who is of “many parts,” fickle, but desperate to find a routine for himself: “Not a man of habit, though he wished to be, tried to cultivate habits, was overjoyed when he found something that truly, for a time, seemed necessary to him and that had possibilities of becoming a habit.” He tries smoking a pipe after dinner, and then switches to taking a stroll. But this, he finds, only gives him a stomach ache. He stages a game around doing crosswords. This leads him to a kind of habit: keeping a notebook of new words: “In this way he persuaded himself that he was learning something even from the puzzles, and for a few wonderful hours he saw the conjunctions of his baser inclinations and his higher ambitions.” This brief chapter ends: “His effect on the world was potentially astonishing.” In Chapter Two we learn that in fact what Wassily really does for a living is write. This does not bring about the habits he seeks, however. Instead of finishing a project with a sense of hope for the next, “He felt only a frightening emptiness ahead of him, a vacancy where there should have been plans, and all his work grew out of impulses.”
Wassily’s lack of self confidence leads, unsurprisingly, to a set of severe social problems. Davis writes that “even the soft eyes of this dog made him blush with embarrassment…” His feeling of inadequacy with regard to his writing spills over into his basic speech patterns so that, for instance, when attending a dinner party, he thanks the hostess over and over again, hoping “to achieve through the effect of accumulation what one speech alone could not accomplish.” He becomes so starved for social interaction that he harbors anger for the woman at the grocery: “At home, he sometimes worked himself into a rage against her and made cutting remarks to her out loud.”
Chapter Five returns to the topic of Wassily’s writing. Why does he do it if he gains nothing from it and, as we learn early on in the story, if he lives off an allowance from his father? Davis writes, “Wassilly sometimes suspected that he worked on his articles only because he enjoyed writing with a fountain pen and black ink.” He certainly couldn’t write with a ballpoint pen, she adds. What Wassilly likes to do is to make lists, to keep score, to study languages. He likes to make plans (even if they are not plans to write). When his pursuit of perfection becomes so paralyzing that he can only watch the sunlight move across the wall, he shifts his focus to his health and his own intake of sunlight, a way to fill time neutrally, with little at stake, since “The key to everything, he decided, was to relax.” In a story that is all about immobility, Davis adds a curious parenthetical introduction to the ninth chapter: “(Wassilly’s immobility):” Perhaps this last immobility matters more because his task is to clean up the apartment of his dead brother. He tries more than once, gathering some medicine and a picture of his grandfather, only to delegate the job to his sister. The story ends with not one job unfinished, but two, as Wassilly’s dog finishes his meal after he dozes off to sleep.
Wassilly is a sad but lovable character, another writer who, like many others, struggles to find a habit, to go on. It is not the act of writing that troubles Wassily, but the act of publishing. For at this stage, Davis writes, “Once he had done it, it was out of his hands: it lay in a no-man’s land. It was neutral.” Yet, it seems that this level of detachment from one’s creative work is precisely what is needed to avoid immobility, to let go one’s words.