Sarah Layden understands tension. She knows how to make readers worry in big events. (In her novel Trip Through Your Wires, a fire-breathing old man throws his torch from the balcony, telling the young protagonist, Carey, to catch.) And she knows how to make them cringe in the little things, the small details and subtext. (Her short story “Seven Women on His Mind: The ‘Take It Easy’ Ladies Tell All,” published by McSweeney’s, focuses on day-to-day sufferings of the women involved with a polygamist Glen Frey.) For her, it’s not enough for a narrative to be unique, funny, or strange—though she does all of that. It has to keep the reader on edge.
I realized this during one of Sarah’s classes at the Indiana Writers Center. Another student, a sixty-ish man, was writing an essay about how he had infamous long hair in high school, how a group of athletes came to shear it. But the intro started pretty flat, Sarah noted. She counseled him to lead with tension. She suggested a sentence like: On graduation day they came for me. (I want to add with scissors, but think it’s combination of my own invention and misremembering.) For me, the lesson was a revelation: A writer needs the reader to be uncomfortable.
Sarah’s attention to writing craft has landed her short fiction in Boston Review, Monkeybicycle, Booth, and PANK, among others. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. And on top of being a discerning writer, she can also “see a superstar in anyone,” she says. “Like, your celebrity doppelganger. It’s true.”
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Sarah Layden: This is an interesting and difficult question. Ego or self-delusion keeps me from thinking my work is awful. It’s like a protective mechanism that keeps me moving forward, even when the work may truly be terrible, ill-conceived, early in drafting, or submitted before it’s really ready. In my first career, I worked as a journalist. I was used to writing every day and being edited every day, and getting regularly published after much back-and-forth, often on tight deadlines. It’s great training for a writer, and hard but necessary on the ego. Once I started writing fiction, I was very, very eager to start publishing my work. Unfamiliar with literary publishing, though, I expected to get stuff out in the world quickly, regularly, and with some predictability.
That’s all to say that in grad school, I tried to write an imitation of Julio Cortázar. It was a weird little piece of flash fiction that I became very attached to. I sent it everywhere, and nearly everywhere rejected it. Some comments were like, Um, this was sort of funny? We kind of get what you’re trying to do here, but kind of don’t?
Hey, guess what, Editors? Me, too.
Eventually, an online startup zine published it, and I was all kinds of excited. It was not too long after that I felt pit-of-my-stomach regrets, because somehow seeing it on a screen, on the internet, the flaws I’d been blinded to were now vividly apparent: flat character, no movement, a kind of light pencil sketch of a thing rather than rendering the thing itself.
Also, and this was more obvious at the time, I wrote an essay to try out for commencement speaker of my high school class. It was a very earnest treatise on tolerance. I quoted lyrics from 10,000 Maniacs and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I may have made reference to Michael Jackson at some point. I most certainly was pointing a pious finger at the several hundred members of my graduating class: Be more tolerant, jerks. It turns out that people don’t like to be blamed in graduation speeches. They prefer affirmation, layered metaphor, maybe even a dictionary definition of the word “commencement.” I wasn’t picked; a student on the selection committee said he’d lobbied for my essay, but others thought it was a head-scratcher. Know your audience, I guess.
But could you, possibly, have saved the speech with a little revision and a punchy delivery? After all, you’re quite the orator, as the audiobook of TTYW proves.
SL: You know, the speech was fine, and I’m certain revision could’ve made it better. But this was not that type of project; it was more contest-like. As for delivery, I got many, many hours of practice as I narrated the audiobook of Trip Through Your Wires. It was challenging and eye-opening to find lines that worked better on the page than out loud, and vice-versa. Of course, live audiences can change the way you read something, based on how they react, so the audiobook was unique in that I was performing in the moment for one producer. And the sound booth allows for do-overs.
Reading in front of an audience can be nerve-wracking, but also great fun. When I was younger, I wanted to act. I was in an acting troupe in high school, and even took a couple drama classes. So while I’d like to believe that my delivery would’ve added something to the graduation speech text, I also have to admit that I was cut from not one but two high school productions. (Musicals. And competitive! But still.)
Failure can be a great teacher: It forces you to evaluate how badly you want something. Had I practiced more, used all the tools at my disposal, quit volleyball and tried out for the fall play, and shrunk seven or eight inches so I didn’t tower over the leading men, maybe I would have gotten a part. But drama didn’t become a priority. I discovered other things I wanted to do. Height came in handy for volleyball, for example.
With the Cortázar piece, were you worried about the validation of being a published creative writer, even though you’d had news articles printed more times than you could count?
SL: Validation and number of articles printed are weirdly linked: When I was a newspaper reporter, we had a database of all the archived articles, and could search for previously written stories. As for publishing more articles than I could count, the reporters actually used the database to look up how many stories we’d published in a given time period. Rumor had it that the management was counting bylines to monitor productivity: The more you published and the more column inches you filled, the more valuable you were. Some of this was proven and some of it was assumed or extrapolated.
This caused a certain kind of anxiety and bean-counter mentality that surely carried over into my attempts to publish fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. I wanted to be published for many reasons — to get a foot in the door when I had a book, for example — but I also had become wired to produce X amount for Y value. Those variables aren’t set: I was trying to determine what they ought to be and had no standard way of measuring. But I did know that it felt very satisfying to write something and get it published; a little serotonin boost, with the added bonus of gambler’s high when sending out submissions.
So, how do you know if a story is actually ready to go out into the world?
SL: There have been times I’ve felt very clearly that a piece was finished and ready for publication, only to have doubts later. Particularly with fiction, I need lots of time to let things sit and settle. There are times I miss the adrenaline of reporting and deadlines pressure, but my favorite mode of working is when I can take time to mull and process.
That said, I keep the first couple drafts to myself. Incubating breeds great energy. Once I reach a point when I think it’s done or I’m unsure what to do next, I share with a couple trusted readers. They always give me new things to consider. New angles, plot lines, character development, nuance. Since the story makes sense in my head, the biggest thing I’m hoping to learn is this: Does it make sense to you, a person who exists outside of my head?
A writer and teacher I greatly admire, Barb Shoup, describes it as translation. A very apt metaphor. After I revise, I often show it to the same readers, if they’re willing and not yet sick of me and will accept my bribes of coffee. Sometimes I might enlist new readers for a fresher read. Getting eyes other than mine on a piece of writing is crucial to me.
If you’ve done everything you can with a piece and it’s still not top tier material but it’s done, what’s the harm in trying to publish it online?
SL: With very few exceptions, I’m happy to be published, happy that someone out in the world found some sort of connection with my work. There’s little harm in being published early and online, other than being internet haunted by your past self. It’s like having your gawky seventh grade school picture on your work ID badge. Both exist, but you wouldn’t necessarily choose the former to represent who you are now.
I think what I’m really pointing to are the times I focused more on the act of publishing rather than the work itself, and now I’m thinking far more about the work. Maybe this is because I’m getting older, and time is simultaneously speeding up and slowing down in ways I cannot explain (only partly due to my rudimentary understanding of physics). Maybe it’s because I’ve published more and that takes the pressure off of my imaginary byline count.
Younger Me simply couldn’t know what Older Me does: how satisfying it is to prioritize the work.