WE START OFF OUR STORIES WITH VAGUE NOTIONS. We think things like, I’d like to set a story right before WWI in a German training camp. Or something like, I remember my mother crawling into bed with me and crying after she had a fight with my father. The trailer at the movie theater reminds me of the last time I saw my sister alive. That’s usually how it starts. A vague notion where you decide that the way you see the world means something. We all do this. I don’t care whether you have your MFA or you’ve never written a story before. We all capture moments in our lives that we believe are significant, that a we believe—for one reason or another—that there is a story behind what we saw in our mind’s eye.
For some reason, us descendants of Sisyphus; the writers of poetry and prose, decided that writing things down would be where we got our kicks. Other people become stand up comedians, others become painters, or musicians, sculptors—you catch my drift, all of us artist types are telling stories. However, the true laborers (in my opinion) are the writers, the ones that metaphorically put pen to paper, hands to the keyboard, index finger to the iPhone—drift caught. We set off, deciding with sure-fire audacity, “I’m going to write that down.” And just like that we're spun arond three times fast, dizzy and confused and start off. With a bandana rolled over our eyes we strike out with a heavy stick to knock the piñata down. To nail that damn story with our big stick so that we can be rid of it.
The truth is when we start writing—be honest here, folks—when we start writing we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We start imagining things that include the setting and try to picture the world these characters we’re trying to sketch out. We use our senses and try to sniff things out, we reach our hands into the grass and feel, we’re served some deep dish and taste what the story has to serve us. We are truly lost. All we have is the vague notion that the story is out there, somewhere. So we lurch forward, taking our wild swings at a story, trying fitfully to get at what is encased inside that stupid flimsy paper mache so that we can have it spill all over the page.
What I notice is that often (with us emerging writers) is that we make choices that can corrupt the process of telling the story. We make really bad choices through no fault of our own we do this. And when I say us I include me in the process, I know I do this. Show of hands, who does this—see that’s a lot of people out there! The reason we do this merits an essay by itself but simply put: we make bad choices because we believe the artistic process should not be “messed with”. First thought, best thought, drift thrown again and drift caught? It’s like we believe that the original idea for our story is this perfect little ET alien that we gotta let sit in our closet and not talk about. Ignore it and it'll be cool. I mean, just let that weird dookie looking thing chill and let us tell the story in whatever way we want, cause homie, if you mess with it too much it’ll just disappear, get sick and stuff. The story will die if I talk about it! I am here to tell you the following: bullshit. You have to look at what choices you make in telling your story, you have to have a moment in your creative process where that pencil pusher devil on your left shoulder gets a chance to add some things up. You gotta do the math for a second and see if it totals out. Because, folks, hear me out already, if you don’t take a moment and reflect you will have wasted your talents on a story that is DOA: Dead On Arrival. I know that’s cold. I know. I know. But I’m giving it to you straight. Let me give you some examples that I recently saw. The details have been changed to protect the author’s original idea.
I read a brilliant short story this quarter about a kindergartner who takes her homework and burns it in a bathroom. It was hilarious at every turn but since the story was told from a first person present (from the 5 year old’s voice) it was entirely incoherent for me to understand what was actually happening. Next, I read a very compelling story about three cowboys who were stuck in the middle of the desert surrounded by coyotes. The trouble with this story is that the story was told by a third person narrator that sounded so academic that I thought I was in Cambridge and not in the Mojave. And finally, if my point is still not clear, I read a story about a woman who had attempted suicide but since the story was told in the first person past tense it became boring, since I knew she was alive and well, reciting the manuscript.
Now, with that being said, I am not saying that these can’t be done. Seriously, it can all be done—it’s just that if you start off on the wrong ways you have to write to a level that is sheer brilliance. So, for example, about the suicide attempt, there is the potential that the story can be amazing. However, the writer has to make the voice of the character so interesting, so incredibly beautiful that we are horrified that they would ever want to take their life. It’s always possible to tell that story but it takes, I’d say, 10 times the work. In the end, take a breather instead.
Now, the very hard part of the job as editor at Our Stories is reading these stories that are brilliant, smart, and hilarious—yet—have an enormous logic flaw inside of them. There is literally no worse news I can give a writer when this occurs. The only thing the writer can do is revise from the very foundation. Not good. This is not the sort of feedback I relish in giving. In fact, I almost wish I did not see it at all and I could just tell them that their plot needed “work”. If only other journals gave that little, right comrades? I digress.
Let me get to my point. Here’s the deal, Power Rangers, when you first start writing your story—somewhere after you get that brilliant epiphany that gave you the idea of your story and before you write the second page of what you believe is the “the best story you’ve ever written.” you need to pause. Take a breather. Get up out of your chair and stretch. Go outside. Have a smoke. Have two smokes while no one is looking. Then, before you walk back inside to your computer ask yourself whether you’re handling the story in the right way. Think about whether if you changed the story to a past tense whether it’d be better. Decide whether the voice of your 1st person narrator is someone who your audience would like to spend the fifteen pages with. Analyze whether your 3rd person narrationo is up to snuff. And if you have doubts then it’s not too late. You haven’t taken too much time out of your life to look back at that point.
I think before the second page is the perfect time to question these things. At that point you can still write the story in two, three different ways. I remember Richard Bausch would tell us examples of novelists that would write hundreds of pages in one or two ways and then decide which they liked better. You can at least take a couple pages and work this out. I know it’s a lot like asking a bull to stop bucking, like a bird to stop flapping, like a duck to stop . . . drift caught again, bing! What I’m saying is to just take a moment before you make a mistake that ends up throwing all of these roadblocks in front of you where they’re not needed. You owe it to yourself to open up the closest, spank that dookie headed ET and see what they say—don’t worry, you can throw them back in the closet when you’re done getting what you need.
Okay. That’s it for now. Enjoy the Fall 2010 issue, I love all of the stories we published this quarter, they all show us something beautiful. We’ll be back when there’s snow on the ground and we’ve found our third annual Richard Bausch Short Story prize. For those of you applying to MFA programs good luck. Write well.