This story began with a classic grad school text—The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Third Edition—with a cover that featured a long brown smear. I dragged that book around for half a year, and I still couldn’t make sense of the image. Was it supposed to be dirt? Chocolate? Poop? A visual representation of what happened to my soul when I read the knotty prose of long-dead men?
One of my greatest pleasures as a writer happens right at the start, when I find the ignoble seed. Some stories spring from a lofty impulse to interrogate the world, some from a dumb observation. And I love that the ignoble seed, despite beginning so ignobly, can become a spiky green shoot and climb up the lattice I have crafted.
First observation: That Norton cover is pretty gross but also disquieting, because it isn’t placeable. Second observation: High school was pretty gross too. Epiphanic moment: What if a quartet of high schoolers, trapped in their own gross bodies, attempted to make sense of the world by putting everything in its own right place? And what if that act of ordering created a sense of fellowship and purpose, despite being based in militant self-hatred?
I most often write in the first person singular, but “Substances: A School Year” begged for the communal voice. It’s a technique that works well for any insular and ultimately brittle group. The story’s quartet initially claim to be of one mind, even as a member of the “we” peels off and becomes an “I.” And still the upheaval doesn’t end. They regroup, but they can’t return to what they felt they were: four as one, arrayed against the icky world.
The initial draft of this story had substance, but no shape. It was an undivided mass of words. I was in grad school at the time, wrangling that enormous Norton, and I remember being struck by how absorbed I was by the arbitrary measure of time. Nothing mattered more than reaching summer. I saw how my characters, like me, might be propelled by the power of the school year toward the absolute finality of June.
Once I understood when the story had to end, I had a better understanding of how to end it. I had the image of the trio watching Lisa leave for Summer Break. What I love about the ending is that while most of us have never battled the substances emitted by our schools, most of us have felt what the trio feels in that moment—the loathing and the longing as a piece of ourselves seems, so easily, to float away. It is this sense of familiarity that causes me to return, again and again, to stories that begin with such dumb strangeness. From the ignoble seed springs the ordinary flower. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
ZOE BALLERING lives in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart and Rougarou and is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading.” She is the winner of the 2022 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, and her collection of stories—There Is Only Us—will be published in November.