Some years ago now, my daughter found a possum skull partly buried in the woods behind our house. She was sixteen. She dislodged the skull from the earth with her fingers, washed it with a hose, then left it on a retaining wall by the back driveway. I could see the skull from my office window while I was working at my desk, could see it when I was mowing the grass, waiting there without comment or judgment. The skull remained on the property for several days before, mysteriously — perhaps a neighborhood dog wandered by — it was gone forever from our lives.
The incident proved to be a surprising wellspring for my creative efforts. It’s hard to understand why. I have found it a wise practice in recent years to accept a certain level of unknowing with the creative process, to cultivate a belief that we aren’t making choices about what we write, but are chosen. One of my books of poetry is entitled Possum Nocturne and contains at least a half dozen poems arising directly from my daughter’s discovery of the skull. She found it just off the path that winds back into the woods toward a tiny cabin where I sometimes write, where old limbs or entire trees have the habit of falling toward the earth, sometimes leaning against each other for support, other times resting on the ground, hollowing at their centers, turning slowly to wood dust. Behind the trees, waiting past a wire fence, is farmland that sometimes appears barren and other times is tall with corn or yellow with soybeans.
The skull inspired a short story that marked my return — after many decades — to the writing of fiction. My original aspiration, beginning in eighth grade, was to become a writer, and to that end I received an MFA in fiction-writing from the University of California at Irvine. For a brief period in my early twenties, I found myself with the good fortune to have a short story in Seventeen, a few others stories placed in journals, and a literary agent peddling a novel. Surely I was on my way. Surely a long career waited before me. And, then, nothing. The novel didn’t sell. Short stories made their rounds and were returned to me without fanfare, arriving home to my mailbox in disgrace. And my days at the writing desk began going poorly. Words stuck to my tongue or to my fingers, refusing to make it to the page. My mind wandered off to whatever I saw out the window. And the same thoughts kept recurring. Whatever made me think that I could write? Whatever made me imagine I could do it? I struggled to produce a page or two before giving up in despair. Nothing I wrote was worth reading, after all. Nothing I wrote arrived at the quality of the novels and short stories I loved and longed to emulate. I would read William Styron or Doris Lessing or Bernard Malamud and decide I was simply wasting my time. How could I ever hope to compete with that?
Eventually I wrote myself into silence. Decades passed. Other parts of my life demanded their attention and their due. My wife and I became migrant academics, taking jobs in Texas, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, and finally Ohio. Now and then I took a stab at a short story or a novel, but the limitation was always there, built in, insurmountable. After a page or two the work would be abandoned. Then, in 2004, at the age of 50, I was sitting in my office one evening, looking down at another failed attempt at a short story, and a thought occurred to me: if I switched to poetry, couldn’t I complete that page or two and say I was done?
And so I began to write again. It was strange to be back after the passage of so many years, after so long a time of assuming I wasn’t cut out for it, not me. This time, though, I was determined to approach the task with a different state of mind. I wrote quickly, revised quickly, submitted poems quickly. I planned nothing, tricked myself with writing prompts and exercises, calling every new file I opened on the computer a “generating file.” I wasn’t writing poems, I imagined, but simply playing. I gave myself over to the voices in my head, questioning nothing that they told me. They dictated: my sole job was to write down what I heard.
That made all the difference. It still seems odd for me to imagine that hundreds of my poems have now been published in magazines and journals — including in such venues as Slate, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review — and that my fourth full-length book of poetry, Original Bodies, is due out soon from Southern Indiana Review Press. How could such a small change in my approach make such a significant difference in the outcome? It seems, in retrospect, utterly foolish that I let so many years pass while I was getting in my own way, while I was tripping over my own feet, as it were. And I suspect I’m not alone in that foolishness. Writers, I am guessing, are as a group particularly skilled at finding ways to block their own paths.
For myself, I have begun over the past few years to return slowly, nervously to fiction. It is a more difficult challenge for me. The years of writer’s block have left me with so many habits of distrust. The moment I sit down to write a story, the old uncertainty makes its presence known. I do my best to combat it, but there it is, whispering that each word I write isn’t worth it, that any story I complete will surely sink at once into oblivion. One way I combat this discouragement — as with poetry — is by taking on fictional voices that I would never, not for instant, imagine as arising from my own. My first short story I attempted with this approach was inspired by the possum my daughter uncovered with her fingers from the mud of the woods. I wrote from the point of view of a young boy who finds a possum skull in the woods behind his own yard, washes it with a hose, then brings it into the house with him as his only friend. Later we learn (and by “we” I mean me as well, for I made an effort in the writing to know nothing at all of where the story was headed, to write blindly, as it were, to listen to the voice of the child and do nothing to interfere with it) that the boy’s father is recovering from a suicide attempt. And later after that, a boy from school takes the possum skull from the narrator and refuses to return it. The boy is desperate to have it back, of course. How could he not be?
Thus began a series of short fiction pieces that my wife refers to as my “demented kid” stories. One lost child after another put in a request to speak aloud on the page, and what earthly reason might I have to deny them? Certainly my hope is that the stories form an interesting fissure between what the narrator believes and what the reader understands, but the real distance I was searching for in the writing, that I am always searching for in the writing, is the distance between me and the narrator. If I’m not the one composing, after all, then my writer’s block is beside the point. The children are writing; it’s on them.
Stone Garden, the short story published (thank you) by The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, arose from a conscious attempt on my part to write at least one piece of fiction god-damn-it that didn’t have a warped child at its center. To be honest, though, I didn’t vary the pattern by much. I went — instead of for a demented child — for a demented adult, a woman who can’t seem to appreciate that abducting a sister’s young son is considered inappropriate by many. I can’t say that I plotted out the distortions of perceptions before I wrote or even during the writing process. The woman was in charge. She wanted to tell the story, and she seemed in a hurry to get it all down. My job, as always, was the easy one: I was the amanuensis.
Not a single fat possum waddles out from the woods in the story, and no possum skull is buried anywhere in the earth. It is possible, of course, that at one point as Rachel rides south to Pensacola on the bus, rides with little Cole in her lap — moving past towns like Vermillion, Newcomb, Mansfield, Olney, and Pennville, and crossing the Tennessee River — she spies a fat possum on its back along the roadside, its legs upright in death, the stilled face the color of a midnight moon. Rachel never mentions if that happened, but in any case that’s still where the story arose. When I first moved with my family into the house by the woods, when my daughter was in high school, when I was in the earliest stages of freeing myself from the constraints of being unable to write anything at all, I saw for a period of about a year a living possum waddling in and out of the yard, up and down the worn dirt path, never in a hurry, wearing always its advanced years in the slowness of its gait. I suspect that the possum simply lay down eventually to rest, to look up at the canopy of leaves or maybe at the distant clouds drifting past on their conveyer belt, then gave itself over to the earth.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is forthcoming by Southern Indiana Review Press.