Exploring the art of prose


Author: Billy Middleton

Author’s Note

When I first moved from Mississippi to New Jersey in 2011, the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson enchanted me. All that steel and concrete, such a change from the country life I’d led my first thirty-four years. Eventually, I got around to exploring the rest of Jersey. There are some beautiful wildlands here, but it was the Pine Barrens that really grabbed my imagination. When I was young, I’d read folk stories about Captain Kidd’s ghost, the Jersey Devil, the Black Dog. When I was nine or ten, I saw Friday the 13th and later learned that it was filmed in the Barrens. There was also that episode of The Sopranos where Christopher and Paulie try to dispose of a Russian gangster there. Pop culture and folklore have branded the region with a spooky reputation that, if you’ve driven through the Barrens at night, you’ll know is well deserved.

I tried placing several stories in this setting before eventually figuring out the right one. A cabin in the Pine Barrens seemed like the perfect place to isolate Dieter, Norah, and Jeremy to see if they could work through their problems. My initial notion was to explore how a triadic romance such as theirs could be healthy and fulfilling. The drama would’ve arisen from Dieter’s inability to look past his fears of what might happen and simply enjoy what they have. While elements of that premise remain, the characters began to tell their own story, as they always do. Jeremy’s conspiracy theories and bad politics surprised me, as did Norah and Dieter’s desire to transform Jeremy into a surrogate for the child they’d never had. Over countless drafts, the power dynamic shifted between the three characters, but it felt most natural to give Jeremy the upper hand. He has the least at stake, and he knows it.

I’ve always been a slow writer. By necessity, I follow Anne Lamott’s advice to give myself permission to write shitty first drafts. I often extend that advice to the second draft, and the third, the fourth, the fourteenth, etc. In the past, especially in grad school, I tried to force stories to be ready before they were, convincing myself that no one would notice the parts that felt wrong. They always did. With this story, I made peace with the fact that sometimes the timeline to completion is measured in months or years. On several occasions, I found myself so deeply lost that I had to abandon this piece, in one case for over a year, to work on other projects. The most gnawing doubt was whether a story about three lovers in the woods who don’t do much besides sit around and talk could be interesting. I tried to tack on extra ornaments to pretty the story up (a fistfight in the Whole Foods, a run-in with the Jersey Devil), and when those didn’t work, I got frustrated and went to work on something else for a while. These temporary abandonments became part of my process too. Every time I came back, I had a better sense of what the story was really about, what belonged, and what didn’t.


BILLY MIDDLETON currently teaches creative writing, first-year writing, and film studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. His work has been listed among the notables in Best American Essays and has most recently appeared in J Journal, Santa Monica Review, River Styx, and many others. Find Billy on Instagram @Absurdprof.