I’m working on a short story that’s new as of today, so I’m very close to the genesis of an idea. Right after Christmas, Scott and I went next door to give my neighbors a “thanks for cat sitting” gift. They told us the funniest anecdote about another neighbor. Afterwards, Scott said, “You should turn this into a story.” Usually as soon as someone says that, the idea is dead to me.
Most real life anecdotes do not make good fiction. They are too isolated from the ideas that we want to convey in a story, or too contextual–you really need to know the people or place for the anecdote to have any punch. Now, many, maybe even most, short stories originate in some nugget of a real life event, but then fact and fiction diverge. They must to make a good story. I think an anecdote is concerned with telling what happened, how it happened, and hopefully it’s amusing. A story, however, is concerned with telling some kind of truth that is less concerned with what happened, or why, or where, or how, but is more concerned with how that truth is expressed in a life, or a moment of time, and how that expression affects other humans.
This anecdote, however, stayed with me and I knew something would come of it, some day. Then I heard a Midmorning episode on MPR about hoarders, and a couple of dots connected. (I won’t tell you the anecdote here, obviously.) From these two elements, the funny anecdote and the hoarders show, a character began to develop. Then a situation. And as I wrote this morning, an entire family took shape on the page.
Characters do not magically invent themselves, but they do sometimes flow into existence. Today, I started with a first person narrator, male, standing by a window with a cup of coffee. He thought back through his morning and recounted how he had wiped up the milk his daughter left spilled on the counter, checked in on his sleeping son, and kissed his wife’s cheek before he had gotten out of bed. Ah…there is his world defined in a few lines, in one moment, through his own reflection about a mere twenty minutes or so of his morning. And I had three other characters populating my story.
I am on page 10 of this story after about 3 1/2 hours of writing this morning, long hand. (Who cares, right? Yet every writer I know is at least mildly interested in other writers’ processes.) I’ve yet to reach my climax. In fact, my narrator hasn’t left his house yet. This is a quiet story, contemplative, and hopefully funny.
I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches for class this J-term. Those are both quiet, reflective books about the human condition. I’m not trying to model this story after them, but I acknowledge the influence. It’s nice to know a reflective book can succeed. Some of my peers were dying for something to happen. I wasn’t. I appreciated the portrayal of the mind engaged in the mundane life.
“The Grassman” isn’t done yet. I do know the events won’t involve fireworks. It will be a small climax, reflective, but hopefully something we all can relate to, maybe even something we enjoy experiencing. I think, at this early draft stage, that the story is about the way we separate ourselves from each other, while acknowledging the commonality we share. Of course, by the end of the story, that may have changed.
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