Allan Gurganus thinks fiction writers NEED to take things personally.

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I change my mind about what a short story is nearly every day. So, then: a short story is that junkyard magnet. The form itself attracts. All the pieces of a short story — characters and lines of dialogue, events and images, setting, wild ideas — have been forged separately. Now they’re here, clinging to the one thing they have in common. In the junkyard itself, they mean nothing, a jumble. They are refuse. But once the magnet passes over they jump up and hang together, hub cap to hub cap to old pipe to wrenched-off refrigerator door. You see how they fit together, how they make a shape different from any other collection of scraps. Some of them don’t even touch the magnet: the current runs through the whole assemblage and holds it together. That story your parents always told about the early days of their marriage; the insult that ruined one of your oldest friendships; the morning news of 1962; other people’s writing; your worst memory of fourth grade. Turn on a magnet and watch them fly together. Today, anyhow, that’s what I think.
— Elizabeth McCracken, "I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either"

Elizabeth McCracken helped me through the writing doldrums today with her essay, “I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either”, in Electric Literature. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?

Apart from her prompts and reassurances, McCracken also linked to a wonderful craft essay by Allan Gurganus that covers the gamut from community gardens to historical complicity as well as the AIDS crisis. I sat outside my daughter’s ballet class laughing, holding my notebook close to my chest, that stupid smile of relief patched over my not-here-to-mom-chat face.

Published in a 1989 issue of Iowa Review, while Gurganus was taking a year off from teaching to write, ’ “Garden Sermon” (properly titled, “Garden Sermon: Being the History of a History, Notes from a Journal about How to Keep a Long Long Project Alive. Or: What I Did with My Summer Vacation”) is beautiful and encouraging. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?

A few excerpts:

“What starts a romance is rarely what sustains a marriage. My novel is called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I consider my relation to the oldest living confederate widow my life's longest monogamous connection. What starts a young writer is not what keeps a geezer coming back for more. You begin with the sound of one voice that goes forward into nowhere and, after years and trials enough, begins to come back with an echo, dividend.”

“We are often urged not to take things personally. A sales clerk yells at me and, shaken up by it, I tell a friend and my friend says back, "My God, you take everything so personally.” Maybe that belongs on the artist’s coat of arms. The agreement is: when you cease to take the world personally, you relinquish your credentials and your moral hold and your subject matter, and it's then that they issue you a gold card and they tell you that life is hard but that you should relax and then they send you on your way and you are utterly utterly lost—but it's okay because hey it's nothing personal. Just your life.

I want to keep it personal. I want the horrors of the daily New York Times to shake me up. This year, let's make a vow to each other—let's promise to take every thing personally. Let's help each other not be numb. "Deliver us from evil and lead us not into numbness." When I stop feeling embarrassment and rage, please take me out into the garden and bury me where Spot, and Muffy and the hundred family goldfish rest under crossed sticks. “