Filed under stories

“An Outsider”: The Story Behind the Story

This is another story which has been kicking around for a while before it finally was published, Back in the ‘90s, I submitted this to Story, received a hand-written rejection letter and didn’t realize that was a sign I was onto something and didn’t do anything more with the piece for years.

This story has gone through more rounds of revision than anything else I’ve written (other than my ill-fated and now-trunked  novel). For a while it began with a dodgeball game, the count of players in which I was never able to get right despite my best efforts. Then one workshop participant pointed out that the story really began a bit later and that “I don’t know how the story about the witch began” would make for an awesome opening line.

I was on the verge of putting this story aside one more time when the call for Dear America came in my e-mail and I decided I’d toss this one out to see if maybe with such a specialized call it might find an audience and it finally did.

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“Bartholomew L. Bartholomew”: The Story Behind the Story

“IImage result for headphones once held the position of Technical Lead…” this part of the story is autobiography. The rest, modulo the occasional detail that I borrowed from my years’ experience in tech, is fiction. The obvious inspiration is Melville (the short title I used for filenames and the like for the story was “Bart LB” and I had this short title before much of anything else).

So many of my employers let process and bureaucracy drive things while I found myself repeatedly having to affirm that things like “story points” have no objective meaning and exist to serve us rather than the other way around until, it would seem, that the only reasonable reaction would be to declare, “I prefer not.”

The first version of this story was workshopped at my third MFA residency with Terese Svoboda, Christina Del Rio, Tiffany Knowles, Chelsea Wait and David Weissblatt. At AWP2016, I won a manuscript critique from Slush Pile Magazine, so I gave them this and got a handful of ideas I liked and a handful I didn’t.

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“Girls”: The Story behind the Story

I think “Girls” will win the prize for the longest gestation period of any story I’ve ever written. The opening sentence is exactly as I wrote it in 1984 as part of my autobiography for Mr Caravello’s sophomore English class. Mr NewImageCaravello liked that so much he had me read it out loud to the class.

I’ve toyed with ideas of what to do with that sentence since then. I tried submitting it on its own as a bit of microfiction and it achieved my first tiered rejection from Fence. I tried turning this voice into a young adult novel, but wasn’t able to make it through the first chapter. 

So I decided to return to the original autobiography. In that piece, the first “chapter” was an absurdist bit about a tractor accident in the farm in my family’s backyard and then I decided that as a dateless sophomore, I would recount my most humiliating rejections. I took as much of that as I could remember and rewrote it and began interpolating some additional nerdy stuff (the π section came to me one morning in the shower as I was thinking about the piece). Not all of the piece is autobiography, but enough is to make it recognizable to a few people. In one instance, I sent the story to a writer friend to get her feedback forgetting that she was one of the girls in the story. Oops.

The piece has a long history of close-but-not-quite responses from various publications, the most notable of which was from The Atlantic (perhaps my most treasured rejection). It was actually accepted by another publication earlier this year, but they wanted edits that I couldn’t agree with including moving the opening sentence away from the opening and rearranging things so that the π section was no longer section 3 which misses half the joke.

Useful feedback along the way came from Josip Novakovich, Resa Alboher, Kerri Allen, Travis Kiger, Kevin McFadden and Benjamin Tier.

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“Our Lady of the Freeway”: The Story Behind the Story

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You can purchase a copy of Headland Journal No. 6 here to read “Our Lady of the Freeway.”

This is a story I’ve been trying to write for almost thirty years. Preparing to write this post, I spent a bunch of time digging through my notebook covering 1988–1991 but didn’t find any trace of this, although I can remember working on an early version of the story set in Germany with a lot of details copped from the Hotel Grillparzer sections of The World According to Garp. I’m sure if I dug through my notebooks and scraps of hard drive from days gone by, I might turn up some of those early attempts. Later, I read John Biguenet’s “The Vile Soul” in Granta and found myself despairing because Biguenet succeeded in doing what I wanted to do with my story and much better than I was capable of doing that.

During my MFA, I needed to generate some new material for workshop during my second residency and I decided to resurrect this idea and see where it led me. I chose to re-set the story in Los Angeles as it’s a city that I know well (all the locations in the story are real). I had a rough idea of the story having attempted to write it before, but this time, I had a second character appear besides the narrator and with his appearance, the story developed new life beyond the question of the apparitions at the center of the story.

I tend to choose character names with some indirect significance if only to help me keep them straight in my mind In this instance, the two main characters, Henry and Arthur derive their names from the unused first names of the English Catholic novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, respectively, The characters take their attitude toward Catholicism loosely on the personalities of those two writers as well.

Before its eventual acceptance, this story received 26 rejections including nine “encouraging” rejections. On the final round of submissions, one journal accepted it on the day it was sent. I’m not sure how they ended up in my submission list, but I think it was a case of the journal doing a follow-unfollow on Twitter in hopes of dredging up followers. I decided to decline the acceptance, figuring that I’d rather have it go some place with high enough standards to spend more than a day to accept a piece and that if the story was so good that it’d merit a one-day acceptance, it would be accepted elsewhere as well. It was.

The workshop group who gave me input on the earlier draft of this story was composed of Tibor Fischer, Kat Grilli, Steven Paul Lanski, Kossiwa Logan and Ryan McConkey,

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“Le Pont des Arts”: The Story Behind the Story

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I wrote the first draft of this story while staying in the same apartment building in Paris where Katherine Mansfield wrote “Feuille d’Album.” The apartment was located on Ile de la Cité a short distance from Pont de l’Archevêché which has become a popular spot for tourists to attach locks declaring their eternal love as described in this story. Le Pont des Arts, a bit further downstream is the original “lock bridge” of the story, which I didn’t actually visit during the course of this trip to Paris.

I made a quick run over to Pont de l’Archevêché while working on this story to get good non-stereotypical-yet-still-French names for my characters. While looking over the locks I found that the vast majority were placed there by foreign tourists. Perhaps more amusing were the large number of apparent same-sex couples represented and a few locks which had three names on them (although my wife pointed out that these were likely parents and child and not, as I had assumed, the locks of a ménage-à-trois).

This piece was read by Terese Svoboda in an early draft and later by Jennifer Vanderbes, Carolyn Eichorn, Connor Holmes, Kate Sanger and Chelsea Wait.

Photo via wikimedia commons.

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“Thy Neighbour’s Goods”: The story behind the story

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Some background on my story, “Thy Neighbour’s Goods” which appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Southampton Review.

The story began with a conversation with my wife about language. We were discussing the lack of distinction between singular and plural second person in English and I told her that actually the English “you” is plural and the singular second person is the effectively abandoned “Thou.” She had been asking me to write something in the second person, but I was unwilling to go diving into Jay McInerney territory. And it occurred to me that using “thou” for a second-person piece would give me a new take on it.

The only problem was what the story should be about. Then, while reading Raymond Carver’s “Menudo,” I had one of those moments of reading off the page that yield the best ways to be influenced. Carver had written a story about a man who had had an affair with the neighbor’s wife. I found myself imagining what would happen if it the watcher had had the affair with the neighbor rather than the neighbor’s wife. From there, things began to flow. The structure of the story emerged midway through the first draft; I picked up the statue from one of my MFA classmates and Terese Svoboda made the suggestion (glaringly obvious in retrospect), that the goods should be arranged to make the story chronological. A King James Bible I filched from a hotel room while in college helped me in creating the language of the story.

Thanks to Christina Del Rio, Tiffany Knowles, Chelsea Wait and David Weisblatt for workshop commentary on this piece.

Illustration courtesy of wikimedia commons.

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