Writing About Writing Before Really Writing

I liken all my long-term projects to moving a sand dune with nothing but a spoon. It’s not impossible as long as I keep spooning grains in the right direction. So it goes with the short story collection I’m building. Three pieces are close to completion, plus there are three solid works-in-progress, and then there are four empty slots with characters loitering at the gate. Every once in a while, a gust of wind comes along and I have to trade the spoon for a broom. But that’s all in a week’s work.

Fifteen months ago, I hadn’t written even one thing that I considered to be a complete story. Ever. I don’t count the one Mom reminded me of recently, the one-off that earned me an “A” over twenty years ago as a college sophomore. My mother swears it was wonderful despite the fact that I broke the teacher’s recommendation not to let any of the characters commit suicide. All I remember of that piece was that there was a pink flamingo in it. Not a living one, a lawn ornament. That and the main character was based on a woman in the dorms who annoyed the hell out of me for being so bold.

I remember seeing her bare feet under the partition of the toilet stall and marveling at the way she allowed the cuffs of her jeans to press against the dirty tiles below her heels. Not only was she barefoot in the bathroom, she let the fabric of her pants touch the floor. Didn’t she know she was going to end up with urine in the denim? I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to her that day if she hadn’t already made herself known. She was the one who ruined Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You” for every resident of Queen Anne’s Hall by blasting it at full volume repeatedly several consecutive hours most days and nights. “Since you been gone . . . ” Way to poison a pretty song, pee pants. I didn’t tell her that, though. I just scrunched up my toes further back on the cork of my Birkenstocks–safe from bathroom contaminates–and set about writing her into a story.

That was a pivotal moment for me, seeing her heels on the grimy bathroom tiles. I realized two things:

  1. Fiction comes from details like that.
  2. Fiction comes from imagining what it’s like inside the heads of people who let their jeans hang down in urine.

Unfortunately, fiction comes from roughly ninety thousand more things, as well.

A few weeks ago on the phone when Mom reminded me of that piece I wrote in college and I dismissed her idea to revive it, she brought up one I’d written even earlier–in Junior High School.

“The one about the cheapskate who wrote the check for three dollars and fifteen cents–it was so funny!”

“Mother,” I said. “I’m writing new work. I got this.”

Except when I don’t.

And when I don’t, I turn to pages like this for help. There’s nothing better than a list of free resources curated by an incredible teacher.

Being in a major city also helps. This weekend I had the valuable experience of attending a three hour workshop led by author Bret Anthony Johnston. The next evening, I joined no less than ten of my classmates to see actors perform excerpts from author Colette Sartor’s collection Once Removed and Other Stories. It’s invigorating being surrounded by people who take writing seriously, people who want to learn about the craft on a Saturday morning and savor the beauty of it on a Sunday night. People who will wake up the following Monday and get to work putting one word in front of the next.

Which is what I need to do now.

Incidentally, the Ah-Ha-Moment du jour related to my problematic draft-at-hand is this: it needs stronger causality. Rather than writing about it, I’ll pick up my spoon and get to work.

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