Mar 22
Stephanie Wilbur Ash quote

Fail Better: Thinking critically with novelist Stephanie Wilbur Ash

The Annie Year, Stephanie Wilbur Ash’s debut novel, begins with this epigraph from Winesburg, Ohio: “Out of her defeats has been born a new quality in woman. I have a name for it. I call it ‘Tandy.’” And Tandy Caide CPA, the protagonist of Ash’s novel, lives up to the namesake. Tall and sturdily built, she crashes through her northern Iowa hometown like a tornado after meeting Kenny, the new vocational agriculture teacher with a ponytail and beaded belt. Tandy’s defeats are many—her inability to fix her marriage, to live up to her father’s standards, to make amends with her best friend, even to maintain a steamy affair with the Vo-Ag teacher. But by facing them, she is born anew by the book’s end.

It’s interesting to note that Sherwood Anderson was unable to accept failure. He claimed most Winesburg stories materialized in a flash of inspiration, not one word altered. Even though he revised stories between publication in literary magazines and the final book, Anderson peddled “the fantasy of the uninitiated,” as Anne Lamott calls it. That is, the idea that writers “take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” To Anderson failure revealed incompetence, not possibility.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash holds no such illusions. When I interviewed her for the local newspaper, she explained how The Annie Year started as a dirty joke for storytelling events in bars, was rejected as a short story, and after a decade of trial and error, evolved into the finished novel—a 2017 Minnesota Book Award finalist, no less. Stephanie labored over the novel while completing her MFA from Hamline University in the Twin Cities. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor of Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, and is currently Gustavus Adolphus College’s editorial director. When we spoke, she’d barely returned from interviewing Gustavus alumni in Washington, D.C. But we’ll get to that.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

Minnesota author Stephanie Wilbur Ash

Stephanie Wilbur Ash, author of The Annie Year.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash: So, I wrote an essay about how awful it was to be home with my children. I was going through a really depressive time. I was a frustrated stay-at-home mom, I was in a bad marriage, and I felt very alone. I am so regretful about that piece of writing, not necessarily because it was bad—though it was bad. I was trying to make raw emotions you might put in your journal into a wonderful personal essay. The bits and pieces I remember are so self-involved.

What I’ve taken from that, as I have evolved as a writer, is that no one really wants to read about you. They want to read about the world or about themselves. They want to read a story that either confirms their worldview or challenges it, although a lot of people don’t want to read anything that challenges their worldview anymore. (Those are the real assholes in the world.) That’s what literature does: It puts you in a morally ambiguous space where you’re going to be challenged.

So somewhere at the back of a file cabinet in a manilla envelope is this piece of writing, and I am afraid to look at it. Talking about it makes me uncomfortable. Even six months after I wrote it, I was embarrassed. My then-husband, now my ex-husband, brought it to a therapy session and read it out loud to a therapist. I can’t even tell you how awful that was. But it was an awfulness I made. It was born out of solipsism.

You said it was like something you would put in your journal, but when you write an essay you need time for reflection. Do you think that was one of the main problems with it?

SWA: There was no reflection. There was no perspective outside of myself. There was no empathy for anyone but me. There was no awareness of my personal position in the world. There was no checking of my own privilege. There was nothing that the reader could look at and say, “You know, this writer knows something beyond herself.” There was no context. Nothing. There was only emotion and criticism and doom—and a few jokes.

So how do we as writers recognize if a piece has the ability to transcend that self-centeredness?

SWA: It’s very dangerous to write from a space of anger. It’s okay to write from injustice. But you can only feel injustice if you have a picture of how the world works that’s larger than your emotions. Anger is blind. So I would say one thing you can do is stay out of blind anger. I’m not saying you can’t have anger. But it’s not a great writing space.

A really good technique is to write from the perspective of the other people. I should have worked on writing empathy for the people around me, and in doing so, I might have found some kindness or a larger sense of what was happening.

Also, making a list of the privileges you as a character have. I had the ability to be a stay at home mom, I had two healthy children, I had a husband who made a very good living, I had two degrees. It doesn’t mean you can’t have these feelings. It’s just basic critical thinking. You really have to check yourself. Check yourself before you wreck yourself, as the saying goes.

The Annie Year novelWas it easier to analyze those things about Tandy Caide and the other characters in The Annie Year?

SWA: I find it much easier to write fiction. Tandy Caide, even though there are aspects of her that I can channel, is not me. I can become her on the page and still retain my self. It’s the same with all the characters. Like Kenny, he does some really bad shit, but I’ve also felt like: I’m going to come in and save this place. These people are doing it wrong, and I’m going to be their hero. And I have felt like an angry high school girl who’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, that angry existential absurdism that Hope operates in. I can personify those emotions, but they aren’t representative of me as a whole.

You don’t want your characters to be a loosely veiled autobiography, but there is that value in figuring out what you have in common and what’s different, too.

SWA: And that’s what takes a really long time when you’re writing a novel. You have to write almost to the end before you see what the character is faced with and what they do that is different from what you would do because the world you’ve created is different from the world you live in.

Imagine you’re going hang gliding, and you’re running with the hang glider on the ground. You’re running, and you’re running, and you’re running. And you have to run for a long time, but at some point you’re going to get liftoff. Then the hang glider is the one that really has the kinetic energy in the air, but when you’re on the ground it’s you. Tandy Caide was more me when I started than when I ended. At some point, she gained liftoff.

The Annie Year was once the setup for a joke and then a rejected short story. So how important is being honest when you’ve missed the mark in the writing process?

SWA: You need to be honest about your failure, but you can’t dwell there. You have to move forward quickly and see that knowledge as an opportunity. You have to let your feelings go and be scientific about it. When I visited Washington, D.C., I was hanging out with a woman who is a huge policy writer on all things science, and she said that a negative result is still a result in science. You don’t feel bad about a negative result. It’s just a result.

We’re very emotionally connected to our work because we’re doing emotional work. We’re trying to move people. But if your emotions are so tied up in your work that you can’t fail, then you need some distance. Then, use the information you get to move forward. I like to say, Everything you do is preparation for the next thing you do. If you’re afraid to fail, you’re not going to do shit.

To learn more about Stephanie’s book, The Annie Year, and other recent writings, check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

About The Author

James Figy is a writer from Indianapolis and MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He has two cats, two rabbits, and an amateurish collection of Duke Ellington LPs. His creative work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Punchnel’s, and the anthology Bad Jobs & Bullshit. Follow him @JAFigy.