By Jaed Coffin
In my line of work, I spend a lot of time talking to people. A few weeks ago, I spent a day with a guy who restores BSA M20 vintage motorcycles in his garage. Last Monday, I rode a snowmobile for about 200 miles along the Canadian border with a hardcore libertarian bear hunting guide. Earlier in the winter, I spent several afternoons in an old church in Portland, talking to Reverend Jeanette Good about the role of faith in the least religious state in America (Maine).
The most interesting interview of the year: speaking Spanish with a Cuban man who makes transatlantic voyages on 600 ft. barges loaded down with shipping containers full of pregnant cows. He’d been up since 3am, had just flown in from Turkey the night before. We drank coffee, in a diner, in the easternmost town in America. In his former life, he told me that he’d been a “doctor pediatrico.” I mean, you just can’t make this shit up.
Obviously, these people all have really interesting things to say, and I love learning about their worlds, and trying to capture their voices on the page. I usually write down what they say in mini legal pads, and then go back to my office the next day and type up my notes into a document, and then look at the typed notes and think about what quotes are interesting or relevant or funny or somehow indicative of the subject I’m writing about. Then I sleep on the story for a few days, and usually within three days I try to bang out the story in a single sitting.
I often record conversations, too, but I find that the recordings are ultimately kind of useless to my process—at first. At first, I just hear all the dumb questions I asked. I hear the overzealous attempts I made to shape the story into the one I want to tell. Usually, I say to myself: “You should have talked less, because right when that person was about to explain something important, you filled the silence with some irrelevant observation or summary of the world at hand.”
And so the notes, on those little legal pads, are always my guide, my primary document, my raw material. They’ve been through the passive vetting process of my brain.
But sometimes this happens: I’ll be flipping through quotes, mulling over the big ideas that I think anchor the story, and then realize that I have no idea how to present this person to the world. I start feeling like I just keep writing the same story over and over again, about the same quirky but not that interesting person, and then my brain goes flat and I throw my pencil against the wall and swear and go into my garage and try to fix something so that I can feel like I’m worth a damn. It’s all very dramatic.
And then, since 99% of writing is the act of not quitting, I go back to my office, and that’s when the recordings come in handy. I’ll lay on the floor, close my eyes, and play the recordings over and over again at full volume—not writing anything down, but just listening. I don’t usually know what I’m listening for: some fifth element of personality, some transcendent quality of voice, some mystical quirk in speech that implies a hidden meaning.
But usually, after I’ve listened to the recording two or three times, I’ll open my eyes and the opening sentence of a story will be hanging invisibly before me like a big piece of fruit. And then I’ll write down that line, and I’ll be into the story, and an hour and 2000 or so words later, I’ll have a first draft, and I’ll feel good about the work I do, and so forth.
Jaed Coffin is the author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday. He has served as a William Sloane Fellow at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Wilson Fellow in Creative Writing at Deerfield Academy, and a Resident Fellow at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. Jaed is on the nonfiction faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA.