“I wish she’d just hawk it up and spit it out. You know? Loogie-style.” That’s what I say to Dave in front of the Kwik Stop. We’re on our lunch, drinking off-brand iced tea in plastic bottles and as…
It’s a daunting task to explain or even document how a story gets written. Somehow, the words make their way to the page and then get pushed until I feel I can let them walk off into the world. That said, I no longer believe that writing requires unknowable magic—although it can certainly help! More often, I think it’s that the writing process involves so many tiny choices and decisions—each of which stands both on and under the last and the next—it’s tough to say in retrospect how the story gets built. Kind of like those wonderfully maddening M.C. Escher drawings of perpetual upward-winding staircases.
With that as my disclaimer, here are two things from the writing of this particular story that jumped out when I look back.
The real vs. the imagined: My idea for this story began with a memory of drinking a soda in front of a 7-11 halfway through a day of cutting grass in suburban Rhode Island during the summer after my junior year of college. Lots of sights and smells and oddball visuals, but few traditional elements of story. All I had was lawn mowers, gasoline fumes, and a crabby boss. It should have been easy to take these sweaty ingredients and hang them on a plot of my own making. But it was not. The process of getting this story into a workable form showed me (once again) how actual memories and lived experience can dull and distort what I try to create in fiction. Even in this case—when there was not an actual story to be overcome but rather a mere set of recollections—my misplaced loyalty to those real-world memories blocked me from fully imagining the characters and situations I needed for this story. Once I gave myself permission to develop the characters as creations, rather than as renderings, they began to feel more real. And, most importantly, an actual story line emerged.
Need to know: Another important moment for this story came during the editing process, courtesy, it should be said, of the CRAFT editors! Among other things, these astute readers asked me to convey the motivations of the main character with greater authority. Without writing a completely different story (and run the risk of the backstory overwhelming the front story), they asked me to help the reader better understand what drove this guy’s particular obsessions. What happened to him that made him this way? In the end, what did he need and want?
What I realized from these prompts was that I hadn’t fully answered these questions about the character even for myself. Instead, I was leaning on other elements of the story—the nature of the images, word choices, plot structure, etc.—to allow the reader to infer answers rather than having to commit to something specific that might limit or diminish the story. The editors saw through this trick and encouraged me to go back and make some specific decisions that, I hope, helped to bring the characters and the overall narrative into more satisfying shape.
I’d love to remember these things going forward, but I won’t. Instead, if I’m lucky, I’ll get the chance to re-learn these and other lessons the next time some oddball, ultra-specific moment from my past begins to sound like a great idea for a story.
CHARLIE WATTS earned an MFA from Brown University studying with writers including Meredith Steinbach, Robert Coover, and Michael Ondaatje. Charlie has published stories in journals including Carve, Narrative, Storm Cellar, and Sequestrum. He and his wife, a chaplain, live in rural New Hampshire after other lives in Boston and Providence.