Archive for July, 2014

Revising the Past

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Short Story, Writing Mechanics

In a short story I wrote about the last night I lived in my parents’ house before moving to Clemson, I described an encounter with a guy. He is recognizable to almost anyone who was there that night but those people don’t read my work.

Most of them don’t anyway.

He almost became more. He almost became someone significant. Either a significant mistake or a significant investment. Either way, the word “almost” is what matters.

Because he didn’t.

The words used to describe him include “boyish” and “narrow.” I remember him, vividly, in fact a grown-up version of him sat near me in the Washington D.C. airport the other day.

He was a hipster before they were called that. A new hippie. A post-grunge artist-type.

There was a problem with the story, it was twice rejected, and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Then my cousin Preston read it and nailed it:

The narrator is sometimes the 37-year-old-Kasie and sometimes the 18-year-old-Kasie.

So there were some lessons learned during revision.

Write Your Stories.

I always say “write your stories,” but it’s not my advice. It’s every writer from Stephen King to Julia Cameron to Anne Lamott. Your stories are the ones you know, the ones you own, the ones whose parameters you get to define.

But not every story you have makes for a good story.

So once your story is on paper, you have to shape it. Revise it. Make it a story.

In my shaping of the story of the last night before I went to college, I had committed to the device of predicting each of the character’s futures.

She would drop out of college and end up stripping in Myrtle Beach; which Justin and Ty defended despite my insisting that it proved she was a whore.

and

Whenever she brought her boyfriend they left before we got really wasted. Eight years later he would be killed in action as a Marine in Afghanistan. He was better than the rest of us. At least that’s what we said about him later.

I liked the device because part of my unburdening myself of this story is placing these people into their dismal futures as a contrast for how delightfully naïve and optimistic we were.

But that was clearly the 37-year-old me and that narrator did not need to be almost-fucking the twenty-year-old hipster described as “boyish.”

The fix:

  • Change anything in the action sequences to reflect the 18-year-old’s perspective: people are hot, fun, cool, not boyish, silly, or ridiculous.
  • The moments described by the 18-year-old must have the weight of minor-things-turned-major.
  • The stakes must be raised as well. The drama belongs to the teenager, not to the older woman looking back.
  • The older narrator’s editorializing is okay, but should be limited to only the passages where things the 18-year-old couldn’t know are said.

With some word choice changes and some re-paragraphing, the story found balance between the two narrators.

The 18-year-old gets to be the one seduced. Which, truthfully, wasn’t what I wanted when I wrote the story. I wanted to remember that night and write my favorite version of it and live it again knowing what I know now.

I guess there are limitations to how far our imaginations will let us revise the past.
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