When you arrive, the boy is perched on the kitchen island with a serrated knife in his hand. Stabbing at the vacuum-sealed top of a plastic cereal bag. When he sees you in the doorway, he grins a wild…
Growing up, I always imagined that I would be a writer. I imagined it often and I imagined it with all the trappings: the worn leather notebook and the coffee shops and the perfect office with a cat at my feet. The back booth of a dive bar waiting for me around the corner. I never became that kind of writer. I spent my mid-twenties working as a nanny. I traded my imagined cold brew for lukewarm canned espresso. I traded dive bars for the park. I never had the diligence to keep a journal. “Big Feelings” began on my phone, in the Notes app, in fragments. Those days, I never could write much. But I had time for fragments.
Composing directly into my phone put every thought on an equal footing. My ideas blurred together with things I had typed up for work, my writing hidden alongside errands and grocery lists and pickup schedules. When the pandemic locked everything down almost exactly a year ago, I stopped nannying completely for the first time in four years. I had time to consider my fragments. I had time to see if I could make something of them.
The structure of the story is meant to mirror the Notes app itself—a list of things to do, with heartbreak and laughter alongside the necessities of routine. I was drawn to the second-person POV because of the way it creates an artificial intimacy with the reader, a similar dynamic to what happens when you enter into the space of a family’s daily life. Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help is a big inspiration for how the perspective is working here.
I wanted to explore the language that adults use to talk to children, how we play roles and recite preapproved lines and euphemisms to balance their pure id. I thought a lot about how to make those euphemisms more gutting than the real words and how kids have a natural way of cutting through the bullshit to get to the heart of things.
Another thing on my mind was the language that’s written for and read to children. I wanted to honor the hundreds of picture books that I’ve read aloud over the last five years and write this story with rhythm and rhyme, both in the sense of literal rhyme and in the repetition of full lines that changes their meaning to a new context (like the best picture books.)
I hope the story feels like a particularly devastating and life-affirming day of work. I wanted to throw you into the deep end. Childcare is strange. It’s a lot of just being there and doing your best and letting the kids fail and grow and surprise you. You spill and you clean it up. You say sorry and maybe, hopefully, you do better tomorrow. It’s easy and it’s hard and it’s soul-crushingly mundane and it’s magic. It’s a lot like writing. I’m not the writer I imagined I would be. But maybe I can be a different kind.
IAN SAUNDERS is a writer living in Southern California. He is at work on his first novel and on a collection of short fiction, both of which focus on connection and loss, on the heart-crushing and the absurd and the space somewhere in between. “Big Feelings” is his debut short story. Ian can be reached at his website ian-saunders.com, or on Twitter @ian_saunders.