I got humble, and I got to work. That was the day I became a writer.
Bryan Furuness is the author of the novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, available in February 2013. His stories have appeared in Ninth Letter, Southeast Review, Freight Stories, and elsewhere, including the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading and New Stories from the Midwest. He teaches at Butler University, where he edits for Booth and is the Editor in Chief for the small press, Pressgang.
Web site: http://bryanfuruness.com
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How Bryan Furuness Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Bryan for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I grew up in the Eighties in a town where the only bookstore was a tiny shop in the mall (a Crown Books from which I once stole a Garfield bookmark, but that’s another story), but by nine-years old I learned how to work the inter-library loan system to get just about any book I wanted. And I wanted a lot of books. I was omnivorous and voracious—a real tiger shark of a reader. I wish I could still read so much so fast.
Anyway, I knew that somebody, somewhere was writing these things, but I never met an author, so I imagined them as these glamorous, semi-mythical creatures. I saw pencil mustaches, velvety loafers, throaty laughs, long cigarettes, an audience hanging on every word. Their natural habitat was a cafe—another place I had never seen, but imagined. That’s where they smoked their cigarettes through ivory holders and drank their absinthe. The writer was rich, semi-dissipated (which took the form of an unknotted bow tie and a forelock dangling over his eyes, devil may care!), and drove an awesome low-slung MG.
The weird thing is, I never imagined a writer at a desk. I always imagined them at a cafe, or speeding through town in an open convertible, or occasionally on safari. In my daydreams, the writers had always just mailed their manuscript off to their editors and were free, free, free.
Yes, I am now aware that these visions have absolutely no relation to reality.
These visions persisted through college, where I often thought, “I want to be a writer,” or sometimes, in my bolder moments, “I will be a writer,” all of which kicked the prospect squarely into the future, allowing me to focus my present energies on playing Sink the Bismarck, a game in which the loser has to drink an entire bucket of beer, without any pesky interruptions of writing.
I was not very good at Sink the Bismarck. I got very good at drinking buckets of beer.
After I (somehow) graduated, my fiance bought me a present: Hemingway’s collected stories. His bio mentioned that he’d published his first story at age 22. I felt a sharp pang in the area of my liver. I was twenty-two. I hadn’t ever actually finished a story, much less published one. Holy crap, I thought. I better get on the stick. Also, I better stop saying things like “Holy crap.” That’s not very writerly.
That’s when I started writing. Like most things in my life, it took a long period of daydreamy aspiration before I got to work, and the catalyst was the feeling of inferiority, being “behind.” So, you know, superhealthy.
I didn’t write a lot at first, or even steadily, but over several years I worked up to a consistent daily habit. It got to the point where if I missed a writing session, I’d feel weird and “off” the whole day, like I’d forgotten to brush my teeth. Over time I realized that you could write things like Holy Crap, because that was how some people (read: this guy) really thought and talked, and so was true to one facet of the human experience. And I realized not only how silly my early daydreams about “being a writer” were, but also how very white and dude-ly they were, too. In a large sense, these were the years in which I found out how wrong I’d been about so many things, and how I had a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. Again, I felt behind. Again, it propelled me.
Another weird thing that happened during these years. The more dedicated I became to the act of writing, the less interested I became in “being a writer.” In fact, I privately scorned people who wanted to “be a writer”—especially if they weren’t actually writing—conveniently forgetting that was how I started, too. I forgot that things like desire and belief can precede action, which is a pretty dumb thing for a writer to forget. And I had yet to learn anything about literary citizenship, or even that there was such a thing as a literary community.
It’s only recently that I’ve been able to reconcile “writing” and “being a writer.” The two aren’t opposed, I see now, but provide balance for one another. Writing is solitary; being a writer is wrapped up in community. Writing is action; being a writer is a kind of reflection. Balance.
Plus, being a writer is pretty excellent. It’s not the cafe life of smoking jackets and absinthe that I imagined, and I’ve never been able to grow that sexy forelock, but any job whose main requirements are daydreaming and telling stories is a pretty freaking good one.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
At the turn of the century, I was working for the Indianapolis Star as an advertising guy. It was an okay job, but I hated it. Hated it. I was beyond unhappy; I was angry about working there. It had almost nothing to do with the job itself, which paid me pretty well and gave me a decent amount of freedom, and everything to do with identity. I didn’t want to be a salesperson; I wanted to be a writer. I was writing a little in the evenings, but what I did with the majority of my hours didn’t match up with my idea of myself, and that dissonance was making me crazy. I think I was afraid of losing the idea of myself as a writer for good.
So in late January of 2000, I began looking into MFA programs in creative writing, only to realize that I had just missed the deadline for 95% of them. Then I stumbled upon Purdue. Which had a February deadline. They were a new-ish program back then, and Purdue wasn’t exactly known for its prowess in arts and humanities—all of which is to say that I wasn’t real hot to go to Purdue to study creative writing. But what the hell, I thought. It would get me out of sales. So I shot off an application to Purdue, with the vague idea that they would clap their hands excitedly when they saw that I had decided to grace them with my presence.
Over the course of my writing life, I have received many rejections, but none have ever come back so fast as that one from Purdue. I’m pretty sure it was in my mailbox the next day, leading me to believe that someone at the university had grabbed my packet out of the postal worker’s hands, pulled my story out of the envelope just far enough to read the first few lines, then thrust it back into the postal worker’s bag, saying, “No, no. Don’t leave this flaming pile of shit on my doorstep.”
Reading that form rejection, I was stung. Shocked. I remember standing at my mailbox, trying to swallow, but my throat wouldn’t work.
That was the day I realized that I might not be as awesome at writing as I thought. That was the day when I could have given up and become an angry salesman, but instead I started writing more. Reading more, too, a lot more. Taking graduate non-degree classes at Butler and IUPUI, eventually going on to get my MFA at Warren Wilson. I got humble, and I got to work. That was the day I became a writer.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Oh, so many people helped me. You know that quote by Obama that got so much play at the end of the summer, the one about how, if you built a business, you didn’t build it by yourself? Well, I am not a self-made writer. Robert Rebein at IUPUI taught me how to revise by having me work on (and re-work and re-work…) a single story over the course of a semester. Debra Spark taught me how to read like a writer. Erin McGraw not only taught me eight million things about writing, she modeled how to teach, how to be a writer, and how to be fierce. My agent pushed me to make big changes to my book, then advocated for me and sold the thing.
That book—it’s built from other books, too. Lightning Song by Lewis Nordan was a model for the book, as was Girl Talk by Julianna Baggott. I learned how to thread a secondary character through a book from Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker, and Dan Chaon, unbeknownst to him, taught me more than a few ways to build backstory.
All of which makes for another good reason to “be a writer”—so I can give back to the community, and help a few writers at least a tenth as much as other writers have helped me.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I distinctly remember the first time I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders. My burgundy Lay-Z-Boy, the upstairs room, afternoon sun slanting across the carpet. His stories were magical and gross and so, so funny, but more than anything, I was stunned by the fact that his characters sounded like guys I had grown up with. They sounded like the voice in my head. I remember looking up again and again, thinking, You can do this? You’re allowed to write like this? And that’s when I realized that my writing voice didn’t have to sound like a neutered British person with a thesaurus fetish.
I know: that lesson is probably totally obvious to everyone else. I’m a slow learner. But then I found out I wasn’t the only one. Saunders himself spent several years writing a failed novel in which he was trying to sound like Hemingway. It took him a while, too, to give himself permission to use his own voice, his own sensibility, to make his own noise.
You remember earlier when I said that writers used to seem like mythical creatures? The fact that Saunders’s voice sounded familiar made him real to me. The fact that his background didn’t include prep school and backpacking through Europe, but instead a working class childhood in Chicagoland (like me!) and a series of weird jobs after college (like me!) made it seem like maybe I could be a writer, too. Which makes me love him even more.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
The most important thing is to make space for writing in your life. A physical space is helpful, but a temporal space is essential. Protect that space. Be a dick about it. Your biggest supporters—the people who love you, the ones who tell you, “Chase your dreams, dude!”—will also be the ones who will undermine you hardcore. They’re not doing it because they want you to fail; they’re doing it because they love you and want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you’re shutting yourself up in a room and shouting NOT NOW and JESUS, WILL YOU PLEASE STOP KNOCKING at them.
At first it will be hard and you will feel like the worst person in the world, but the good news is that, over time, these people will learn to expect and respect your writing time. And when you try to violate it and hang out with them instead of working on that hard scene, they’ll say, Why aren’t you writing? Go back to the room. Later we’ll order Aurelio’s, and Dustin will see how many straws he can wedge into his nostrils, but for now, get out of here. Quit whining, put your fingers on the keyboard, and see what happens.