Until yesterday, despite being in an MFA program for creative writing, I have not written fiction in earnest for many weeks. Because I hate trying to write stories.
And yet telling stories is also my great love.
I spoke recently to my advisor from my MFA program, the talented and generous Helen Schulman. The novel I’m writing, and have been tinkering with for several years, is not working yet. It is a beast, and I have to make it beautiful. But I don’t know how to structure it. It is ambitious and complicated, and it has been making my head swirl. I want to throw in the towel, because there are no rules for how to do it. This novel has never been built before. No one has done it before me. There is no one to tell me how to do it, or what to do.
I told Helen I didn’t know if I should be working on it at all. That maybe I had to let the book go. “It’s just so hard,” I said.
She affirmed my complaint. She said it’s a lot of work and very little reward. “The only reason people write,” she said, “is because they can’t stop.”
So let me tell you about this short story I’ve been working on.
Back in 2011, I remembered something that happened to me in 5th grade, and for some reason I felt compelled to write about it. I had two kids by that point, and I was getting more adept at looking at things from a child’s point of view, so I wanted to capture the weirdness of the situation my 10-year-old self faced. A girl had come up to me at recess one day, out of the blue, and told me she wanted to fight me. I was to meet her after school.
I was scared. I wasn’t the kind of person who was a physical fighter (I usually chose words), and I knew that if my mom found out, she’d be very mad at me. But I couldn’t back down, either, because I’d risk my reputation at school. I’d look like a coward.
That day, on the way to the trail where I was supposed to meet the girl, the three friends I had with me tried to give me pointers. “Give her an uppercut,” one of them said. I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know what any of this meant. It was all so stupid, I thought. Aren’t you supposed to fight someone in the heat of passion, when you wanted to get all of your anger and aggression out? I didn’t have any of that for this person. All I knew was she was popular; otherwise, I hadn’t thought of her much at all.
We got to the trail. She was standing with her friends, her brother, some older boys. I faced her, and a boy behind her said, “Start the fight!”
“We’re starting the fight!” she said.
I looked behind me and saw that my friends had moved away. Instead of standing behind me like her friends stood behind her, they had moved off to the side, huddled close together, talking.
The girl came at me. She whipped around her arms and her legs and kicked me in my side. I didn’t really hit back. It didn’t make sense, and I didn’t really want to. I just blocked the blows.
Finally, she stopped.
“I won the fight!” she announced.
The group of us headed off the trail into the development full of houses. A boy from our school was across the street, raking up leaves with his father. “I won the fight!” she told him.
Then my friends and I walked back to my house.
“Why didn’t you stand behind me?” I asked.
One of them said, “Because we didn’t want to see you get hurt.”
We walked the rest of the way with our heads down. My side ached where the girl had kicked me, but I was also aching because it was clear these weren’t actually my friends. I was coming to terms with the reality that in so many ways in my life, I was alone.
When I began writing this story, I was wrestling with this sense of loneliness, this feeling of being separate or different. And that became the root of the story, even though I didn’t know it at that time. It became a story that reflected what I believed deep down, what had been shown to me through struggles and pain, through dark periods of my life. I am alone. I am alone.
Luckily, this is something I don’t actually believe anymore.
For eight years, I’ve worked on this short story. Eight years, 19 pages. First it was called, “The Fight.” Now it’s called “The End of the World.” First it was true to my own story, my own biography. Then it changed. The main character’s parents got divorced. She and her mother moved. I took the fight part out. I put it back in. For a while, a plot point revolved around her having a baby brother. Then the brother got eliminated. She had a stepdad; then she didn’t.
I have not figured out, for the life of me, how to tell this story. It has driven me crazy, so I’ve left it for long periods sitting in isolation on my computer. Or I wrap up some loose ends and send it out to publications for rejections. And then when it gets rejected, I look at it again.
Because I can’t stop.
Yesterday, I reluctantly opened up the story again. It’s been sitting in a sidebar on my computer, waiting for me. And I really didn’t want to work. I wanted to lie on the couch and read instead. It was raining outside, and dreary, and I was tired. And I had read the same lines for so many years, the same sequence of events. I had grappled with how the girl’s mother behaves, or what the popular girls at school were supposed to say. I felt conflicted about the fight, whether it captured something true. Above all, that’s what a story needs to do. It needs to be true. Not true in terms of fact, but true to universal human experience. Who was this girl, and what was it she wanted? How would she actually behave? What’s a likely ending for a story like this?
What does this story believe?
So I fiddled some more. I changed some things. I cut a few paragraphs and added a line here and there. I changed the presentation of the fight. As I worked, and made myself a second cup of coffee, and forced myself to sit there in what started out as misery, I slowly lost myself and began to feel lighter. I moved through the toil of words and emotions and on to the other side, toward heightened energy. Toward truth.
I came to the end, and I smiled at the girl. She was here. She was alive. And she was not alone.
I think I’m almost there.