The kind of writer I am just does not think of projects being started and stopped.
I heard someplace that Steve Jobs designed the “off/on” button on his devices to be difficult to use. Once the computer was “on,” he wanted it to stay “on.” “Sleep,” maybe, but never turned off. I think, I think, that is the way I think of my various projects. Once they are switched “on,” they stay up and running in some fashion. Or to remain with the computer model, I open a new window, and it stays open. Right now on this computer down in the docking bar are several “opened” windows and documents just waiting for me to click on them again so they can expand. Tabs, too. Running, running, running, always running on the top part of the screen. I am all fragments, not finished sentences.
I suppose I think of my writing this way because that is just the way I am: always more interested in the process than the project. But the basic choices I have made as a writer are also a big part of it. First, I am a fiction writer, not a storyteller. A storyteller wants beginnings, middles, and ends. One starts, and then one finishes. I am more of a lyrical writer. I work in collage form a lot. Mosaics. Starts and stops by design. I work through accretion. Spread. I think of my projects more like a coral reef. Never really finished or set aside. The living part of them depending upon the dead and dying part for support and continuity. Things deepen. They don’t end.
My book (and as a “short” fiction writer, I have never written a novel, and yet I have written a dozen books of fictions) Michael Martone is a compilation of over 40 “contributor’s notes” about a character named Michael Martone. All of them were originally published in contributors’ notes sections of magazines before they were collected. Sometimes the contributor’s notes were the only things published in the magazine, and at other times, the contributor’s note was a contributor’s note, and I published another fiction from some other ongoing project in the front of the magazine. I began doing that in the early ’80s. The book was published in 2005. Even after the book was published, still to this day, I am writing and publishing new contributor’s notes. So that project didn’t end with the book. It might result in another book or might not. In a way, I think of the whole thing – the publishing in magazines and the book – as one project that is still ongoing, open-ended, and intertwined with other such projects I am working on. The same can be said of The Blue Guide to Indiana, a fake travel guide, a form that can just take more and more entries. I continue to add more entries to the one that Baedeker published in 1999.
Since I am a writer who is more blot than plot, I am constantly constant.
A collage writer, or a writer who works in fragments, is never not working on something that may be added here or added to there. Inflated or deflated, but never extinguished.
I like to say that I am like carbon. I have four hands. And all my projects are one big project. I build organic chains, polymers, and esters. I hate to say it at this moment, but I used to think that the way I worked was virally, spreading and expanding. Nothing is ever set aside. Everything is used and reused, replicated and reproduced.
If one is a collagist working in sections or crots, one’s main problem is bringing the project or piece to an end. So, one often imposes a usually arbitrary order, cartilage instead of a true skeleton, on the piece. I have used the number four or the 12 months of the year, 24 hours of the day, seven days of the week to give a sense of an ending, a heft and finish. Not enough? Too many? If one is a collagist, as I am, one does not have the benefit of narrative structure to map out on any level of narrative a beginning, middle, and end.
I don’t regard my work in terms of distinct, contained, individual units. I create collections of things but don’t create the things in the collections as stand-alone things, if that makes sense.
I think it was Donald Barthelme who said he wanted to be on the leading edge of the junk phenomenon. Exactly; I work in the nominative and not the predicate. For me, juxtaposition is all. It is about arranging and then rearranging. Or, one last metaphor, I look at my work as a living room already filled with furniture that I am constantly arranging. I am not so much interested in the project that demands I carpenter together a new chair or table or cadenza. I live in my living room. I can’t sit in every chair at once, but I get around to sitting in them all over and over again.
I lied; one last way of thinking about this.
I am strategic with my projects, not tactical. I think that it is all about the long game and not the short one (even though I am a short fiction writer). I don’t think in terms of the “next!” but more in terms of the “what now?” and “now what?”
I work slant and sideways. The smear and the swerve, in both time and the line in fiction.
—Michael Martone’s newest book is The Complete Writings of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone, published by BOA Editions, Ltd. He lives in Tuscaloosa.