Nick Petrie received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington and won a Hopwood Award for short fiction while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. His story “At the Laundromat” won the 2006 Short Story Contest in The Seattle Review, a national literary journal.
I’ve done a lot of interviews in the last six years, and nobody has ever asked that question before. I wasn’t terribly proud of my answer, that’s for sure. I said something about how I was proud that I could write a book a year – although even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t coming out right.
I have wanted to be a writer since high school. I spent more than twenty-five years learning how to tell stories, accumulating three unpublished novels and countless short stories along the way. All this while running a small business, having a family, trying to have a life.
Writing is hard work. It’s fun, for sure, but it’s also difficult, especially when your writing life, which, for me, was a precious unpaid preoccupation for twenty-five years, becomes the thing that pays your mortgage. You spend eight hours a day, for months at a time, alone in a small dark room staring at a screen and trying to be creative, goddamnit.
I was a carpenter and home renovation contractor for fifteen years, so I don’t want to equate the challenges of skilled physical labor, with all the attendant risk to life and limb, to sitting at my desk and typing. Compared to working three stories up on a steep-pitched Victorian, teetering on narrow planks as we tear off four ancient layers of shingles with pitchforks and lay down a new roof during the hot, humid heights of August? Sitting at my desk and typing is a breeze.
But writing isn’t typing. Writing, for me, is about digging deep into myself to find the hearts of my characters and to put their emotions – which are my emotions, because all my characters come from someplace inside of me – on the page for all to see. Which means that writing entails a different kind of risk than demolishing a building or raising a roof, but it is risk nonetheless. The risk of exposing my own flawed heart to the world.
Another challenge to the work involves the fact that it’s really hard to know how well you’re doing, from paragraph to paragraph, scene to scene, chapter to chapter. Do the words do what I want them to do? Does the reader feel the emotion I’m trying to convey? Does the action telegraph in a way that makes it vivid? Is the whole thing just a cliché already done better by someone else?
It takes me the better part of a year to write a novel, and most of that time is also spent trying to stay afloat in the quicksand of my own self-doubt.
So, back to Kim Howe’s original question. What I’m proudest of, to be utterly honest, is that I manage to keep writing, despite everything. Despite my own self-doubts, despite a quarter-century of failures and near-misses, despite the uncertainties of how my agent and editor and readers will receive what I’ve written. Even now that I’m an award-winning, bestselling author – I still feel those doubts, and I still write every day anyway.
In the late 90’s, I went to a talk by Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and Nobel laureate. Someone in the audience asked him: What’s the hardest thing about writing poetry? He gave her a gentle smile and said, “Getting started, keeping going, and getting started again.”
Implicit in Heaney’s tiny impromptu poem, of course, is the recurrence of failure, and the power of perseverance.
I can’t tell you how much that sly comment has meant to this writer over the decades.