In trying to think of something remotely useful to say about my craft, I am reminded of a lecture Zadie Smith gave on “That Crafty Feeling.” She says that craft “is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas.” After laughing at this spot-on comment, it’s painfully obvious to me that my formal training and overall nerdiness about fiction has made me much better equipped to offer insight on works that aren’t the ones I write. The only other thing I’m halfway decent at is telling stories. So, rather than bastardize the wit and enlightenment Smith draws from her observations, I figure it’s best to just stick to the story of how “De Nuevo” came to be.
While I didn’t write this piece in my pajamas, I certainly did it in that delusional 3 a.m. state where your body is screaming for sleep but you’re in grad school and have an assignment due in five hours so you just suck it up and tell yourself I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or when I publish a damn book). That’s what “De Nuevo” originally was, an assignment for a seminar I took during my MFA. The class focused on studying memoir, how we can adopt memoirist approaches to come up with ideas for the fiction we write. One of these approaches my professor called the “Day in a Life” story, which he made us write our own flash version of. The prompt said to tell “a first-person account of a day, era, or job that significantly changed the character’s life or worldview” (shoutout to my still-active Canvas account).
Pretty much all the artistic inspiration I have comes from my hometown of Albuquerque, so in conceiving my interpretation of the “Day in a Life” story, my writerly mind did what it normally does: think of certain areas around the city and certain folks who live in those areas and the certain circumstances those folks face. The resulting characters aren’t fictionalized versions of people from my life; instead, they are my best effort to render what it means to have a life in this specific place with this specific culture. In other words, they aren’t real people, but they have a real experience. With “De Nuevo,” I wanted this day, the day the father rescues a dog, to act as a hyperfocused lens that captures how various cultural and familial elements intertwine to illuminate this narrator’s lived experience. In doing so, it is my hope that this flash piece contains any amount of what I love most about the short-story form: how it can pinpoint a small bracket in time that somehow embodies all the larger human pains and triumphs and beauty swirling around this particular moment. In that sense, I think every story is a “Day in a Life” story.
Before ending things, it’s worth mentioning that this version of “De Nuevo” is definitely not the same one I barfed out at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. I received some very helpful feedback during that MFA seminar, which allowed me to see there were about four hundred unnecessary words standing between me and a real gut-punch of a story. My peers and professor helped me visualize who and what I wanted “De Nuevo” to be about, which guided my revision process. Turns out most of that process involved cutting the poetic stuff I’d included to impress them. I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this revision, something about how your best writing, your most moving writing, shines through when you focus less on your idea of what other people want to read and more on the validity of your experience, the validity of your story.
Born and mostly raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, A. J. RODRIGUEZ is a graduate of Cornell University and resides in Eugene, Oregon, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. He is the winner of Fractured Lit’s Anthology Prize and Gival Press’s Short Story Award. His work has also placed as a finalist in New Ohio Review’s Fiction Contest and CRAFT’s Short Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for The Masters Review’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Find him on Twitter @SoyAjRodriguez.