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GIVEAWAY: Today’s guest will be offering a giveaway of her debut to one randomly chosen commenter based in the U.S. or Canada. Winner will be chosen in two days. Good luck!

Therese here. Please welcome debut author Sarah Gerkensmeyer to Writer Unboxed. Sarah’s prize-winning book, a collection of short stories called What You Are Now Enjoying, released just yesterday. Sarah, who is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, has received numerous writing scholarships for her work. Her acclaimed stories have appeared in a plethora of publications, including The New Guard Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She currently teaches creative writing at SUNY-Fredonia, where she also co-directs the Mary Louise White Visiting Writers Series.

Sarah wrote to us a while back to say:

I’ve written a short essay…in which I try to grapple with why so many of us write sad stories. This is a common complaint of my creative writing students–that I only assign sad stories for our reading. I began to get hung up on why so many of my own stories are sad. As an emerging writer, I’m very self conscious about what my stories–a very personal part of myself–might reveal about myself to complete strangers. Are these stories a direct part of me and my own experiences? Why do writers return to these sad stories over and over again? For me, I strive to find a sense of hope in that obsession.”

I read and adored her essay, and I think you will as well. Enjoy!

Casualties of Grace

My creative writing students often complain that I only assign sad stories for our reading. And, for the most part, I have to agree. With stories like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” and Junot Diaz’s “Nilda” and Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water,” it is a sad lot. Stillborn babies, deceased siblings, love gone south… At times I do worry that I’m a stormy cloud in the classroom, forcing my students into stories of melancholy and heartache and loss. But then I began to challenge my students’ complaints. “Take a look at what you turn in to me each week,” I said. “Your stories are sad, too” “Oh,” they said. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.” And of course I started thinking about my own stories. I began to take stock, cataloging the suffering souls and the bitter pessimists. “So,” I ask my students now, “Where does this leave us?”

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot now during the gray, cold period of the post-holiday blues. The gift giving is done. The family gatherings have long since dispersed. New Year’s resolutions are already fading. And here I am, about to release my first book. I feel exposed and vulnerable. My stories are almost out there. And the characters in my stories—well, they’re sad.

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Sometimes my students and I end up discussing John Keats and his theory of Negative Capability. How it seems that he believed that a good writer (for him, someone like Shakespeare) is able to drop clean off the page and allow his characters to live on their own and fend for themselves without the burden of too much authorial scrutiny or judgment. When uncertainty and mystery enter the scene, we should be able to back away from the story slowly, our hands in the air, and leave those characters to their own devices. And isn’t this a nice thought, that none of it is our own doing, especially for those of us who look over our work and realize how sad it all is? Such a relief to think that our characters are the ones at fault. They are the ones who pursued the jilted man with the drinking problem and the dying dog (A story that I haven’t written yet. But it seems that it must be told).

In an interview in The Paris Review, John Irving said, “I can’t say I have fun writing. My stories are sad to me, and comic too, but largely unhappy. I feel badly for the characters…. Writing a novel is actually searching for victims. As I write, I keep looking for casualties.” As a writer, I have a hard time believing that the casualties in my stories aren’t pieces of myself. Another character is dropped onto the page, blinking up at me, wanting something, feeling sad. I blink back, wondering.

The smart, funky, well-turned stories in What You Are Now Enjoying keep the reader not just guessing and leaning forward but in a perpetual state of wonder. Sarah Gerkensmeyer is an original, a sneaky sorceress of a storyteller.” –Stewart O Nan

Now that I’ve gathered some of my stories in a book and tried to step back a bit, I see the same skin of longing and loss over and over again. I see characters stuck within a familiar inertia of quiet panic. And I see myself, trying to do something about it. I like to allow my characters to get upset, to stomp their feet, to ignore their mothers’ advice and make a scene, as Charles Baxter suggests in his wonderful book of essays The Art of Subtext. I poke around and try to push my characters out of that state of inertia and stasis. I let things happen. I give them a shove and hope that, whether or not they end up feeling that shove, something shifts—perhaps into a moment of what Flannery O’Connor called grace. I want to give my characters that chance, whether they recognize it or not.

I’ve just started a two-week stay at the Vermont Studio Center, folded up in the snowy Green Mountains. I’m among the first group of residents of the new year. We’re all working hard. We’re all tucked in our studios, trying to make something. And when we walk out into the glare of noontime, ready for lunch, I see that there is uncertainty and anxiety among all of us. But we are here together. And maybe that’s what I need to start telling my writing students next semester. When that common complaint arises again, that all we read are sad stories and that this seems to be all that we write, I guess I need to tell them who cares. I guess I need to tell them that this is right. That this is a story each one of us is telling, over and over again. Together. Hunting for the next casualty. Trying to do it, I hope, with something like grace.

Readers, you can learn more about Sarah and her short story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, on her website, and by following her on Twitter.

And don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of What You Are Now Enjoying. Write on!