Annie Proulx on the Joyous Task of Writing

“In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.”

The above sentence is the opening of Annie Proulx’s short story “The Half-Skinned Steer,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly and later anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. It defies being skimmed or read quickly, which is how I began to read the story before forcing myself to stop, start over, and savor every word. This one sentence gives us the story’s tone, setting, span, and main character.

Annie Proulx on the work of writing, from the Paris Review interviews:

“A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say—which is where a lot of writers stop—and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story….

There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.”

6 thoughts on “Annie Proulx on the Joyous Task of Writing

  1. I love the last paragraph of this post. I’ll write something that works, but it isn’t perfect. I’ll spend time going back to it until it is just right and even though it is a pain in the arse…there is a satisfaction to the misery…

  2. As a writing instructor, I’m sure you see a lot of first drafts. I’m always amazed in Workhshop when someone says, “I just finished this piece this morning and brought it in to read. My thinking is that a writer works on something until they’ve taken it as far as they can with the skills they have. At that point they share it to determine if it hits the mark they were aiming at or….perhaps someone in the group has a tip to find ways to go deeper. Thanks for sharing Proulx’s joy in the struggle.

  3. My results aren’t as rich as those of Proulx, but I can certainly relate to worrying a sentence or a phrase for hours and even then, sometimes, I’m still not happy when I finally let it go.

  4. Andie, I know what you mean! “Satisfaction to the misery…” 🙂

    Barb, what a good point. I will admit that I often don’t push through on revisions on a piece as far as I can.

    Elle Marie, ah, yes, the feeling of being continually dissatisfied. Sigh. I guess that’s what causes us to write something else. 🙂

    Thanks so much, everyone! The interview with Proulx also mentions that she didn’t start writing short stories until middle-age (40s, I think), and her first collection of short stories wasn’t published until she was in her 50s. 😀

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this, Lisa.

    Annie’s words have become the soft cushion I sit upon as I do my own work. The steadfast encouragement to not shy away from the labor is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever read.

    • “the soft cushion I sit upon as I do my own work” – Oh, Liz, now I must thank you! What a marvelous image.

      Here’s the interesting part about the quotation and blog post. I first just wanted to share the beginning of the short story, which I’d read that day and enjoyed very much. Then I thought it would be good to include something more about Annie, and the first thing I found was that Paris Review interview. When I got to the last part and saw how it related to the opening sentence, I felt a few shivers. 🙂

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: