Matt Batt is the Minnesota Author in the Spotlight here on Book Snob during the frightful month of October. He has written a guest post on how he started writing his memoir, Sugarhouse, and he shares what he was going on in his life at the time he bought his house. It is fascinating to me, how someone begins to write a book and how the first sentence meets the page. Matt talks in his guest post about the art of writing.
So without further adieu I would like to welcome Matt to BookSnob. Please read on.
Matt Batt's Guest Post
Work on my book, Sugarhouse, a memoir about renovating a crack house and my life along with it, began very modestly—almost accidentally. I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, studying creative writing and English, and was enrolled in a creative nonfiction class with Robin Hemley at the same time my wife and I were fixing up this house we had bought. The place was a real disaster. I mean, it was a former crack house. I suppose I don’t need to say much more than that. Our home-owning and rehabilitating experience was, suffice it to say, zero. We couldn’t change a light bulb without having to consult our landlord or an electrician or both, and all of a sudden, there we were with this house hanging over our head. We knew it was going to take a lot of work, but we had a whole month, I thought blithely, before school was starting up again. All we had to do was all of the floors, walls, countertops, cabinets, shore up the foundation, replace the heating and air conditioning system, and paint. In a month.
Well, as any home owner or DIYer would testify, nothing went according to plan. School started back up and being the eager beaver that I had always been, I signed up to turn in something to Hemley’s class for everyone to read or “workshop” as we call it, and in what seemed like an instant the deadline was upon me and I had no idea whatsoever to write about. My grandmother had died just a few months prior, but you don’t have to be a very avid reader of essays to realize that well over half of them are about, in fact, the death of a grandmother. But, it had really leveled me emotionally and had been a hugely motivating factor in why we bought the house, and so I wondered if there was a way I could write about it, but, as Emily Dickinson says of the truth, write it slant.
I didn’t know what that meant, but I was literally twenty hours away from the deadline and I didn’t have any choice but to, as Guy de Maupassant says, get black on white. Write. So, I sat down at my desk and shoved aside the scraps of wood, paint samples, and power tools that had been littered upon every surface of our new home and thought, Well, I suppose I could write about this.
Just the day before I had attended a massively demoralizing and emasculating hardwood floor refinishing workshop at one of those big box home improvement stores, and before I overthought it, started there. Unbeknownst to me, what ended up being the first line of my essay was a riff off of a Billy Joel song, “The Piano Man.” “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday,” I wrote, and from there I was off to the races, writing for, what seemed to me for the duration of the experience, my life.
I know it sounds hyperbolic and over-the-top, but that’s how it felt. We were so over our heads in home improvement bafflement and the grief and confusion of my grandmother’s death, writing a book ended up being the only way I could make sense of it all.
I don’t recommend that necessarily as a writing or research strategy, but at the same time, I find very few things as motivating as 1. A deadline, and 2. Being truly flummoxed. I think we can all sense it when a writer is being self-indulgent or trying to show off how smart he is. For me, anyway, the worst thing I can think about when I start something is what it means or where it’s going to end. It’s not an efficient strategy, but it is one that at least allows me to preserve that pure essayistic spirit of endeavoring. That is, after all, what the word “essay” means. It’s not a proof or a boast or an argument or a speech. It’s an endeavor. An attempt. A try.
Most of the book I wrote in spurts, and I tried as best I could to crank out each chapter in as close to one or two sittings as possible so as to preserve the continuity of voice and pacing and all around urgency. Some chapters cooperated with that, others not so much. But I found interestingly that the ones I worked the hardest at were often the ones that didn’t end up making the cut. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t tons of revision involved. Far from it. I think all told I went through the entire manuscript about 25 times after I reached the end the first time. But what I loved about the project and what I believe I have come to love about writing books is that each one is a universe unto itself. Henry James called novels—but I think all books answer to this—those “baggy monsters.” There’s something so intimidating about them, but also wonderfully appealing about getting to create and then, most importantly, trying to figure out how to teach and train something with a hundred thousand moving parts.
If you would like to win a copy of Matt's book Sugarhouse please enter here: Sugarhouse Giveaway