Channeling Thomas Wolfe’s Uncle: The Muse in Masquerade

by Stanley Dankoski

I’m a full-time writer who hasn’t written a whole lot lately.

Life throws us curveballs, tests our mettle. I’ve been dodging a lot. I’ve held out my catcher’s mitt, to show I can catch it, hold it, hold it together, hold space for whatever comes my way. Sometimes life keeps hurtling at you; even if you caught one, another one is flinging at you, and another, and another.

Who has time to write? Who has the wherewithal? Who has the audacity to keep believing that quitting his job in Boston and moving his family to Asheville to start a new life as a writer was a good idea? Especially when making that leap of faith without believing it would actually work has only gone and proven that it didn’t work as expected?

What kind of man am I? To have relinquished my power as co-provider and let it go to my wife, who started as a budding entrepreneur and has made it through various struggles to come out on top? She has a team working for her all over the world.

I’ve got a messy desk. I finally have my own office in a beautiful home recently renovated from the original house built by the uncle of author Thomas Wolfe. Apart from the sheer beauty of the place, that tidbit of Thomas Wolfe trivia, written in the landlord’s Craigslist ad, admittedly drew me here. Which is strange. It’s like I told you we were sold because it was built by Ron Rash’s uncle, or maybe Stephen King’s roofer worked here, or James Patterson wrote about it in one of his gazillion books, or maybe James Franco was involved somehow.

In other words, who cares?

It’s a mystery. By that I mean, maybe this is sacred ground. To have a connection at all to a supposedly genius writer couldn’t have been a coincidence. Maybe that’s superstition, but what the hell, why not? My mother, born in Poland, still believes someone is about to visit her every time a piece of Tupperware (or anything) falls onto the floor. And it’s always true.

The mystery of the muse. I can’t explain it.

But what I can testify to is the fact that whenever I trust in the muse, my writing is so much better than if I force it into a formula.

I’ve written many short stories. Three of them have, as of this writing, been published. The best of them, hands down, was published last year — coincidentally — in this very journal, The Great Smokies Review. My wife agrees that this story, “Graveyard Shift,” is the most powerful work I’ve written thus far, and we don’t always agree on such things.

Whether or not the story stands the test of time — I can still find things to critique in it — it nonetheless is an example of an approach to writing that I learned shortly after I moved to western North Carolina. The methodology is called Gateless Writing, founded by two-time award-winning author Suzanne Kingsbury.

I have found it difficult to pin down what exactly Gateless does for me. I’ve been to four Gateless writing retreats, taken the online Gateless Masters Academy and, this past summer, I went to the annual teacher training retreat. Throughout all of these opportunities, I couldn’t understand what worked for me and why.

But I’ve come to see that the key is the method’s simplicity and its alternative way of encouraging writing rather than critiquing it. I don’t hold an MFA in writing, but what I hear from most (but not all) people is that many writers with MFAs get downtrodden and discouraged. The critiques are tough, focusing on what doesn’t work instead of what does.

In the case of “Graveyard Shift,” the germ of that idea sprouted when I was in the online Academy. I was taking that course while simultaneously enrolled in a class in the Great Smokies Writing Program, which publishes this journal. Lucky for me, both were instrumental in getting that story to where it needed to be.

Gateless methodology focuses on generation, just getting the words out, channeling the muse (which Gateless identifies as our subconscious), making friends with the inner critic, transforming our fears and perceived faults into powerful prose.

I was listening to audio lessons while hiking our backyard mountaintop—the site of our previous home, north of Asheville-- when the idea struck that I could write the story then. My first attempt was actually years ago, back at GrubStreet in Boston, when I seriously started dabbling in creative writing. I had a fantastic instructor — Tim Horvath, who's since published an extraordinary short story collection called Understories — but I was too new at writing and the craft to have done the story idea justice.

It took the combination of the Great Smokies program and the Gateless method to pull that story through. The response to the draft I submitted to my Great Smokies class, taught by local author Vicki Lane, showed that my ending was too vague. Half my classmates understood what happened, the other half didn’t. With that story, the ending is the point. If fifty percent of my beta readers, so to speak, didn’t get it, clearly I needed to do better.

That’s where Gateless came in. I took the tools that I’d acquired and brought them to a virtual precipice — much like the mountaintop where the story started, I suppose — and jumped.

No parachute. Just faith. Faith that I could do it, that I could push myself to write the scene I was afraid to write. I was afraid that people would think I was that fictional character, that I shared his maniacal tendencies, that they wouldn’t like me anymore, that I was being too gruesome, that I was being too serious, too dark.

In truth, I was showing my power. By writing my truth. The emotional truth.

It’s like pulling teeth sometimes. But what got me through was the encouragement to do it, to push the envelope.

Maybe I’ve been so thin-skinned that I just can’t take blunt criticism. There are many other, more encouraging, ways to convey the same intent. But for some people, criticism just shuts the writer down. Why offer criticism with no mention of redeeming qualities about the piece? I’ve had stories that I believed in so much, but the inner critic won out when it sought others to corroborate its fears that the stories weren’t working.

Encouragement is much better. There is much more to Gateless than this, but if I could pick one thing, the one thing that published all three short stories, that would be it.

That, and befriending the inner critic. The one who thinks I’m worthless for not writing more frequently, too naive about the process, or now too arrogant to succeed in the face of adversity. Let that critic have its say, and let it show you where its arguments falter under your scrutiny. Then plow ahead.

The critic has its place. It can work for you. This column had nearly ten completely different iterations that the critic helped scrap. But it was because my subconscious knew they were the wrong versions. I’ll probably look back at this column a year from now and think I could have done better, and that’s OK. I’m doing the best I can right now, and right now I feel it’s infinitely better than the other versions. That’s good enough for me, and I hope it’s good enough for you.

When you’re more open to possibilities, you are open to your own muse, your subconscious (not Thomas Wolfe, after all, never mind his uncle). Your inner truth. Sometimes the story wants to be molded in its own form, not by a particular formula. That’s where the mystery lies, and that is where you need to drop an anchor and dive deep deep deep.

Stanley Dankoski has had fiction published at Literary Orphans, The Great Smokies Review, and Lime Hawk. One story landed on the 2016 Wigleaf longlist and another was a semifinalist for the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. As a literary event photographer, he has covered events such as GrubStreet’s Muse & the Marketplace, Literary Death Match, and Gateless Writing retreats. He is a Gateless certified teacher. Having spent most of his life in New England, he now writes from Asheville and is working on a novel.