Exploring the art of prose


Author: Kathryn Paulsen

Author’s Note

Unlike writers who toss work they find wanting, I save it all: files upon files, mostly unorganized, filled with typed writings, handwritten notes, and often-illegible jottings on all manner of paper. From time to time I look through them, and now and then glean something worth working on—most often a poem.

A little over two years ago, in one of those files, I found two moldering pages of typescript, with crumbling edges, turned tan with age. The first page began with a draft of a poem I vaguely remembered; below that a three-line poem I didn’t remember at all.

The bottom half of the page was occupied by three untitled, single-spaced paragraphs, the first word of which wasn’t even capitalized. Curious, I started reading, and right away thought, This is pretty good. I went onto the next page, which was titled “Kate,” and continued enjoying the read, but with no real sense of recognition.

Then I got to the end.

You stopped! Why did you stop? I asked myself, after reading the words, “her apartment hadn’t a yard.”

But I knew the answer, or thought I did: I’d stopped because I didn’t know how to finish the story. I had the imagination and skills to create Kate and her world—her building, her pot, her pennies—but not to figure out what would happen next.

Decades later, I had those skills (and more life experience). Out of several possibilities that occurred to me, I quickly decided how the story should develop, then finished it. Here are a few of the notes I made as I began the process: “Should she drop it? Should it hurt someone—an animal. Should she adopt the animal?” “Did she count pennies in her house—go to bank to get penny rolls,” “should she bring it to the bank—or be on her way through the streets—not rolled up but open?” “It was the cat that told her to run for her first public office?”

Thinking about the writer I was then—likely in my early twenties—I tried to imagine what inspired the story. The apartment might have been based on the sixth-floor walk-up I lived in back then. I’ve long been a fan of film noir, and assume the image of the bare bulb throwing shadows of Kate’s head was inspired by those films.

Looking again at those old pages, I noticed that the paragraph beginning “One day…” had narrower margins than what preceded. But the final paragraph not only had the widest margins, but was in a different typeface—had been written on a different typewriter (possibly the one on which I’d written my unpublished first novel). So I’d returned to the story twice—was it possible that I could have finished it, but just didn’t?

Whatever the circumstances of the story’s beginning, completing it feels like a two-way gift between the writer I was then and the writer I’ve grown into—and a reason to keep hanging onto old work.


KATHRYN PAULSEN lives in New York City, but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places, and suffers from chronic wanderlust. Besides short fiction, she writes long fiction, nonfiction, poetry, stage plays, and screenplays. Her work has been published in New Letters, West Branch, The New York Times, et al., and may currently be read in journals including Big Fiction, Scum, and Maudlin House. For fiction and playwriting, she’s been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and other retreats. She interrupted her latest novel-in-progress to write a new full-length play, FORBIDDEN GREENS, and shorter work, including “The Wishing Pot.” See her occasional musings at Rambles and Revels.