Today, I wrote a story.
“Big deal,” you think. “You’re a writer. It’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Except to be honest, I’ve been struggling in recent months to come up with something that—in my humble opinion—is worth writing.
Maybe I’ve gotten pickier. Or maybe it’s that I’ve written some stories that I truly think are good, and yet they’ve have struggled to get off the starting block, and so I question my own judgment. One story has been a finalist in two different competitions and was highly praised by the organizers of one of those competitions–but as I sent it off today, I noticed that this was its seventeenth launch. It’s already awaiting judgment at three publications, but I submitted it anyway, albeit with more stoicism than optimism.
Nobody ever got rich submitting stories to literary magazines, and that wasn’t my aim. As much as anything, I was looking for a temporary pivot in my writing career. I’m working on my next novel, but when the book bores the writer, it’s a sure thing it’s going to bore the reader. I keep trying to come up with something that will actually happen, to no avail.
I never used to have this problem. Back in my fanfic era, I had story ideas galore. My biggest problem was choosing among them. Ah, those were the days.
Part of the problem, I think, may be that I took the wrong advice. (It’s so nice to blame someone else.) After I finished State v. Claus (or at least, I thought it was finished) and I was querying agents, I read an article that counseled new writers not to work on a sequel to the book they were querying, but to write something entirely different. That way, if the first book didn’t sell, you could query the second book instead of sitting with a sequel to a book you couldn’t sell. So even though State v. Claus was fresh in my mind and heart and I knew exactly what should happen next, I set it on the shelf and began work on a completely different book.
That book has never seen the light of day, except for a few excerpts I shared with writing groups. I have no idea whether I’ll ever finish it. There was a lot of the plot that needed research, and a lot more that simply needed for me to decide whether A or B. I like the idea, and I like the characters. The book probably has potential, but after repeated efforts to impose some sort of structure on a series of disconnected scenes, I set it aside with no intention of ever returning to it.
I’ve read and reread Amy Tan’s brilliant essay, “Angst and the Second Book,” where she talks about the challenges of writing her first book after The Joy Luck Club. She describes the effort of trying to write with the world effectively looking over her shoulder, commenting on her new book. She talks about starting new stories again and again, and she describes the book she ultimately published next, The Kitchen God’s Wife, as her eighth book—the second through seventh books having been discarded before they were finished.
By that standard, the book with the disconnected scenes was my second book. My novella, My Brother, Romeo, was therefore my third, although it’s sort of cheating to count it that way since I’d written the main story long ago, and all I had to do was to clean it up and edit it before publishing.
Which leaves me with my fourth(ish) book, the sequel to State v. Claus. Which is fine, except that I feel as if I know less about writing a book now than I ever have.
My weekend to-do list included writing. In an effort to be more disciplined, I have a calendar on which I note the days I’ve written a reasonable amount, which I count as either an hour or 1,000 words. (I’ve never been a hardline word count person, primarily because an hour of good editing may very well result in a negative word count.) On the calendar, I note what I’ve been writing—sequel, bio (for adoptable shelter cats), blog post.
And today, story.
I’d call it an accident, except that it wasn’t quite. Having discovered that I’d missed the submission deadline by one journal by a lousy thirty-six minutes (seriously: who sets their submission cutoff in the middle of the day?), I poked around on Duotrope to see where else I might submit. I happened upon an online journal I’d heard of. When I went to their website, it turned out they’re doing an experiment during January and February where they want submissions consisting of one sentence.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story—a complete story—consisting of a single sentence. It was fun and rambling, and I enjoyed writing it. I even sold the story for a princely $10. (Here it is.) Now, I eyed this challenge, and the tiniest spark ignited.
So I spent most of a bitterly cold afternoon at the computer, writing in the self-justifying voice of a young woman whose boyfriend cheated on her and who is telling her side of the story to a therapist to whom she’s been sent because the judge thought she had anger issues. (You be the judge.) The story runs just over 1,000 words, which would probably mean it was over limit for this particular publication if they were soliciting their usual flash fiction submissions. I don’t think for a minute that what I sent them is what they’re looking for, but I went ahead anyway, just because I liked the story and I thought they might like it, too. At the very least, it might make them smile.
Considering that I’d written another story in this vein, it maybe wasn’t the most original choice. The important part is that I didn’t overthink it. The story was comfortable, enjoyable, even easy. It didn’t need research—I already know what tools are in a typical gardening shed, because they’re also in my garage. It was simple, a fun bit of writing. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end—in other words, a complete story.
This particular publication is noted for its quick responses, so it’s likely I’ll get a response by early next week. If they take it, the honorarium is $5.00, which means I’ll have earned less than $2.00 per hour for this story. But the money isn’t even the point (although I’d gladly take more if they wanted to offer it). The point is that today, I wrote a story. An entire story, start to finish. Just like I used to.
In the legendary Steven Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, the great Mandy Patinkin sang a story that is, in its way, every artist’s story, “Finishing the Hat.” I encourage you to do more than simply listen to this amazing piece (although definitely do that). Think about the words he sings so masterfully. Think especially about the last lines: “Look, I made a hat / Where there never was a hat.”
Because this is what artists and writers and musicians and composers and dancers and choreographers and filmmakers do: we make something that wasn’t there before. It didn’t exist until we made it.
Today, I wrote a story. A story nobody ever told before, not in this precise way. Because that’s what my people—writers and storytellers—that’s what we do. Even if we don’t do it “right.” Even if nobody buys our stories, publishes them, gives them a platform. We tell stories because that’s what we do. It’s who we are. And while it’s scary as shit to plunge into a big story (a/k/a a novel) when we know people have expectations and we feel as if we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, and we know there’s a better-than-even chance we’re going to go down in flames and all the people who have been asking about the sequel will be politely disappointed (although they won’t say it because they’re so nice)—we do it anyway. One way or another, we figure out how to tell the story we mean to tell, the one we’re meant to tell.
Look, I made a story. Where there never was a story.