Penn State

Thomas W. Noyes - associate professor of English and creative writing, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

Book Title: Our Secret's Out

Author: Darrell Spencer

Book Description:

I sweated out the summer of 1997 in a single-wide trailer in Southeastern Ohio’s Wayne National Forest. I was trying to write my first book, a story collection, but I spent most of the time arguing with myself, worried I didn’t know what I was doing. I had “ideas,” but instead of energizing me, these ideas paralyzed me. I was afraid I didn’t have the chops to do them justice. Or maybe I was afraid that, if I did somehow manage to get them on paper, I’d realize they were less impressive than I’d led myself to believe. It wasn’t writer’s block I was going through as much as it was a bona fide existential crisis. If I couldn’t get myself to believe in my stories, who else was going to?

One night, after another day of defeats at the writing desk, I cracked open Darrell Spencer’s collection. Darrell had just been hired to join the faculty of the creative writing program where I’d enrolled, but I couldn’t wait until fall. I needed help immediately. I was a writer in crisis, and writers in crises turn to books.

Just because the title intrigued me, I first read the collection’s final story, “Let Me Tell You What Ward DiPino Tells Me at Work.” After that, I went back to the beginning of the book and read it through in one sitting. When I finished, I was flabbergasted, awestruck, joyful, worried and a bit queasy. On the one hand, I knew I’d just discovered something crucial about the potential of stories; on the other hand, I’d also just been instructed in the inadequacy of my own writerly attempts. In my own writing, words felt like opponents, but Spencer seemed to be friends with them. His characters and narrators didn’t talk like “real people”; rather, they talked like how I wished real people talked. In terms of plot, I was especially haunted by the stories’ endings. In lieu of clean closure and easy answers, they left me face-to-face with ferocious questions and resonant ambiguities. These stories weren’t out to affirm or comfort me; rather, they aimed to take me by the collar and rough me up. When I finally fell asleep that night, I was exhausted.

Lightning did not strike the next day at my writing desk. I did not hear a Voice nor feel a Presence. No. It was still just me hacking away, as tentative and unsure as before. But Spencer’s book had taught me something. I knew that if I was going to become a writer, if writing stories is what I was going to spend my years doing, I essentially was going to have to start over. From scratch. And I was going to have to keep starting over. Every day. For the rest of my life.

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