Review: "We Are Taking Only What We Need"

Posted by Dale Wilsey Jr. | Posted in , , , , , , , , , , , | Posted on Wednesday, August 01, 2012

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Scranton was in for a storm. An intense one, by all reports. The skies darkened their ugly, menacing grays and blacks. The rain fell at angles in sheets while trees bent against the wind, their leaves flipping up and down flashing shades of dark then light green.

Then, as soon as it began, it was over. There were no tornadoes. No fallen trees. The power hadn't even gone out. Just flickered a few times like a hiccup. The ravaging storm that the weathermen had predicted turned into a temper tantrum. It came close, but fell just a bit short.

Out I ventured. After learning of the planned open mic cancellation, I made my way to the Radisson hotel where author Stephanie Powell Watts was to read for a Pages and Places event. One Jack-and-Coke, a comfortable chair, and a few moments later, Watts took her place at the podium.

Watts read the first in her debut collection of short stories We Are Taking Only What We Need titled "Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards". Despite the chilly room and the minor microphone problems, Watts managed to engage the crowd with a great reading. Afterwards, she spoke a bit about her writing process and the completion of the collection.

Watts takes time to develop her stories and the characters within. She commented, during her reading, that "Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards", a 23-page story, took almost three years to finalize. Her process of writing is slow, by her accounts, and it's reflected within these stories in a good way. There's thought here. There's a carefully crafted image. 

Southern writer. It's a title, as Watts explains, she tries not to think about while writing. It is a title for publishers, librarians, and people like me to use when describing her work. Southern writer is a title that fits, but only superficially. Her writing goes beyond the borders of the Mason-Dixon line.

This debut collection was a PEN Hemingway Award finalist and contains the short "Unassigned Territory" which won the Pushcart Prize. Many of the stories have been featured in well-known short story anthologies. And it's no wonder why.

The stories contained within We Are Taking Only What We Need focus on a rural setting that is most certainly intimately familiar to Watts. Criss-crossing, dusty back roads dotted by houses every few miles. The hardened lives and the people who live them. These stories focus on the lost and found. Not material, but mental and emotional.

Like the storm that threatened Scranton, though, there are a few things that make We Are Taking Only What We Need fall just short of what it could have been. However, I don't believe it's much of Watts's fault as it is poor editing.

Throughout the book there are errors. Glaringly obvious errors that should have never made it past an editor. Anyone who reads knows that an awkward phrase, misspelled word, or errant punctuation can completely pull you from a story. I know it does for me. It's a shame that, because of a lackluster editor, an author's work should suffer, but it does.

I also feel that a truly good editor, or publisher, would have ordered the stories differently. This, I noticed, with the first two shorts. Both began with a character just being released from jail. It's not a bad thing to start multiple stories in a similar fashion or with similar events, but to place them one after the other in such a small collection of shorts becomes detrimental, in my opinion. It can make the writing seem redundant even when it's not the case.

Maybe it's just me, but I seem to be finding slack editing in contemporary publications more and more. Maybe it's a sign of the times. Whatever it is, I hope it stops. I hope editors begin taking their jobs seriously and realizing just how important they are when it comes to a final product.

Despite the editing problems, We Are Taking Only What We Need is an incredible read. Watts writes with beautiful description. I can see the snaking dirt roads and taste the dust. I can feel these characters' emotions. The tension and moments of clarity. Watts has a tendency, in these stories, to bring you from a wide, breathtaking view of your surroundings and focus you in tighter and tighter until the very end where she opens the chest of her characters and lets their entire being pour out.

Pick it up and read it. My hopes, for this particular collection, are for better editing in a second printing. Fix the errors. Order the stories a bit better. But, until then, you'll have to read this version. And it's worth it.

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