Writer's Notes - Tim Fredrick
Writer's Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. Author Tim Fredrick discusses his short story collection We Regret to Inform You, and his approach to writing and collecting his own personal stories.
Like many writers, I first started writing stories when I was a teenager, eager to find escape from my fighting parents and solace from the confusion of being a gay kid in the Rust Belt during the 1990s. Those stories and my memory of them got lost in the mounds of flannel and Doc Martens, and while I don’t remember what they were about, I’m sure they never touched on the subjects that were close to my developing psyche—why my family was so messed up and why I felt so differently from the other boys. I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe and Dean R. Koontz, so I’m sure my own stories touched on the mysterious and fantastic, common subjects through which to escape a difficult adolescence.
As I matured—and as I physically escaped my family and came to terms with my sexuality—my writing turned to dealing straight on with those issues that concerned me. In my early 20s, I started taking classes at the New York-based Writers Studio, where I learned the importance of craft and technique, particularly when dealing with emotionally-resonant material. Weekly exercises helped me create persona narrators and other writerly conceits that created distance between me and “the material.” After a break from the Writers Studio, I began taking classes there again in my mid-30s, one long-term relationship and two graduate degrees behind me. The exercises I completed were the genesis of the stories in my collection We Regret to Inform You, which will be published this spring, and as I’ve put those stories together in the past six months, I realized the ongoing emotional journey in which I’ve been engaged in my life up until now. Part of that journey was consciously tackled in my writing, using what I learned from the Writers Studio. The rest of that journey only became clear to me as I decided which stories to include and played with various sequences of the story, seeing how stories, characters, and themes butted up against one another.
For the stories in We Regret to Inform You, I consciously tackled themes close to my heart. I constructed my stories in such a way as to place a barrier between “me” and “the story,” so that while I was writing about myself, I wasn’t writing sentimental drivel. A good example of this is the story “My Father the Statue,” which tells the story of a boy experiencing his father’s new-found disease causing his tissues to turn to stone. This story’s genesis is from my own experience. My father, the classic mid-twentieth century stoic man, was a humorous man, yet was unskilled at sharing emotion. One of my strongest memories of my father was when an uncle died; I ran to my father for comfort, and when I hugged him, he did not move. The scene of a boy hugging his stiff father is included in the story, but the science fiction element of a disease turning the character’s father to literal stone provided a type of “cover” that created distance between a painful childhood memory and an effective story.
I used the same technique for my story “A Tale of Five Thousand Erections,” a coming-of-age/coming-out story. In this story, which is the most autobiographical in the collection, I created two artifices to create distance. First, to avoid writing the typical coming-of-age/coming-out story, I used the conceit of charting the character’s life through his erections. The story starts, “Your first erection comes as a surprise, age 12,” and continues with numbered erections (for example, “By the time you go to college you are on erection 4174. It should be said that you apply and are accepted to a college far from your Rust Belt suburban home, in part, because you’ve had enough of forcing yourself to ejaculate while thinking about a woman.”). Second, as is clear in these examples, the story is told with the second person “you.” I had been reading in literary journals widely and remarked on how writers have been experimenting with second person narrators. In looking for the right material to use second person—material that really warranted its use—I decided my coming-of-age/coming-out story could both provide me with narrative distance and create the emotional experience I desired in the reader.
Several other stories in the collection have their origin in this kind of work. In “Plaything,” I anthropomorphize a catnip toy to explore getting out of an oppressive relationship. In “Dusting,” I bring two-dimensional pictures alive to confront the narrator about never coming out to his father. These craft techniques have provided me with the opportunity to tackle themes important to me as a person in a way that separates my experience from the story on the page.
All of these stories were conceived and written in isolation from one another, so when I put them together, experimenting with this order or that, I began to see more themes than I intended come from the work. In these stories, the main characters are often trying—and sadly, failing—to connect with one another. They are dealing with depression—theirs and of those around them. In the narrators, I saw myself; in the characters, I saw my family and childhood friends. I saw humor—the humor my father instilled in me and the humor that has helped me fare the dark times and get to the good. In these stories, I also saw my developing sense of what it means to be a man, struggling with reconciling how society constructed my sexuality and masculinity versus what they really were and what I wanted them to be. When I looked at the collection, I saw the problems, lessons, and triumphs of the first half of my life.
Writing the stories and then collecting and sequencing them into We Regret to Inform You gave me not only the opportunity to practice various craft techniques, but also insight into myself. The writing I did as a frustrated, confused adolescent helped me escape a difficult time; the writing I’ve done as an adult has led me to a deeper understanding of myself and has helped me become a better artist.