I chose this life I’m inhabiting, the mousy isolation of a writer who distantly teaches, the husband and two small children and the house with its monthly measure of death called a mortgage. Still, I’m wary of accumulation; my impulse is to pare to the bone. We have seasonal fits of surrendering goods, giving away, editing out. When they sense a spasm coming on, my little boys have learned to hide their toys.
Here’s my hypothesis: the less mess there is, the less one has to worry about outside life, and the less outside life to worry about, the more time one has to do nothing. It seems essential that a writer have unlimited time to faff about, to think things through, to fill the days with silence and space. I support this hypothesis with the fact that the only things that are exempt from my mania for whittling are books, because a book is a dream guided by another mind. The simpler life becomes, the freer I feel to complicate my brain with dreams.
I find, in this time of relative personal smoothness, that I’m turning toward reading work that pushes against the calm of my life, the small-town softness and isolation I’ve intentionally spun around myself like a woolly cocoon. I’ve become hungry for narratives that are raw and passionate and strange. I read restlessly to find writing that subverts and explodes the expected, work that teaches one how to read it as it unrolls. This doesn’t necessarily mean formal innovation, which I often love, but which can be as rigid in its adherence to its own kind of convention as a well-crafted literary story that suggests little new. What I mean is that I’m hungry for voices that speak to me with real emotion, because real emotion is always new; I want voices that arrive at my ears through translation, voices that take breathtaking risks, voices that break as much as they build. Give me the short and the sharp, like a slap; give me the long, slow immersion in an alien sea. I am searching for work that is written with blood or bile or choler, not necessarily sweat alone.
The pleasure is mainly in the seeking, but there’s also a blip of joy when you find what you’re looking for. I thank Ploughshares for asking me to be a guest editor, a great honor and source of tremendous pleasure. And I hope every reader of this journal is in his or her own warm, quiet world seeking out the work that makes the blood hum and the heart drum, finding the writing that transfigures everyday life and makes it strange.