Monday, June 18, 2012

My First Time: Pauls Toutonghi

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Pauls Toutonghi, author of the forthcoming novel Evel Knievel Days.  His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Boston Review, Five Chapters, One Story, Sports Illustrated, Book Magazine, and numerous other periodicals.  He received a Pushcart Prize for his short story, Regeneration, which appeared in The Boston Review in 2000.  His first novel, Red Weather, came out from Random House in 2006.  After receiving his PhD in English Literature from Cornell University, Toutonghi moved from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon, where he now teaches at Lewis & Clark College.  You can visit his website here to learn more about Evel Knievel Days, a novel that moves from Butte, Montana (Knievel's hometown) to Cairo, Egypt, as a young man searches for his family's roots.  Garth Stein (author of The Art of Racing in the Rain) called it “A funny, heart-warming, compulsively readable novel about the unbreakable bonds of family — and baklava.”

My First Early Success

I wrote my first short story at the age of 23.  It took me about 48 hours.  I wrote most of it in one sitting, and then tinkered with a few things--including the ending--the next day.  I was excited to try short fiction after eight years of writing poems.  I didn't see that there was much distinction between poetry and fiction; after all, words were words.  Language was language.

I put the short story in a manila envelope and sent it, along with a reading fee, to The Boston Review's short story competition.  And then I forgot about it.  A few months passed.  I moved from Seattle to the suburbs of Washington, DC, where I lived in a gargantuan tract apartment complex in Annandale, Virginia.  There was a McDonalds on the corner, and two Korean massage parlors.  Nobody walked anywhere, ever.  It was perhaps the ugliest city in America.

One day, my phone rang.  It was Jodi Daynard, the fiction editor of The Boston Review.  I'd won the contest, she informed me.  Congratulations!  Would I come to Boston to read from the story in the Spring?

I was, of course, astonished.  And I was astonished again when, a few months later, the story won a Pushcart Prize.  That was one damn good story, I realized.  Who knew?

The problem with this, of course, is that it was just too easy.  It was too much success, too soon.  It changed my perception of what writing was.  I developed an overconfident, sloppy attitude toward things.  I would never write a second draft, I told my friends (who must have loathed me, quietly).  Anything more was a burden on the joyous fervor of the creative process.  I mean, hadn't Kerouac himeself once said, "First thought, best thought"?  Or Wordsworth: "Fill your pages with the breathings of your heart."

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

What I discovered over the next decade was that no, in fact, it wouldn't work like this every time.  As I revised and revised and revised--and revised and revised (and revised)--my second novel, Evel Knievel Days, I became painfully aware of the other side of things.  Sometimes, work takes forever.  Or seems to, anyway.  And there's nothing you can do about it.  Just show up, pound your forehead on the page, and repeat.

I have one short story that I've been working on now for five years and it's probably another five from being done.  I used to think writers were lying when they said things like: "I worked on that story for decades."  Now I know, from personal experience, they are telling the brutal, unexaggerated truth.

I still don't know what alchemy occurred when I sat down to write "Regeneration."  Any explanation (and I've written drafts of a few, here, already) seems wrong.  Maybe I'll get lucky and it will happen again.  Maybe it won't.  But the lessons that I've learned from revising--from the careful, painstaking construction of a solid story--have been much more valuable, all in all.

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