The boy woke to the sound of his father grabbing the gun. He heard his father sit up in bed, heard his feet touch the floor. Heard him switch the safety on and clear the round in the chamber.…
“Ricochet” is the first story I’ve ever written that I knew the ending before I started writing. Usually I am muddling around trying to figure out where the story is going, but this one came to me before there was any story. I grew up in deer-hunting country, and had heard stories similar to this, in which men argue over who killed a deer. As a former member of the military, I had also been writing about war, and what it does to the men and women who serve, so the ending came, fully formed, out of those two ideas.
The problem, of course, was getting to the ending, which proves that even a story in which the ending is already written is hard to finish. I wasn’t sure where to start. I wasn’t sure the point of view. I wasn’t sure how much of the father’s backstory to include. I knew I wanted to mention the war in some way, and I knew I wanted every aspect of the story to point to the sudden onset of violence: dawn “carves” the mountains into shape, the boy wakes to the sound of his father grabbing the gun, the violence of killing a deer begets the violent confrontation between hunters.
I figured out the problem with point of view by realizing this was a coming of age story. It had to be from the point of view of a boy. The father would already understand what war was, and why men fought—he would have seen that firsthand. But that bled over into the second problem of how much backstory to include. So I solved that problem by thinking about language. To me, writing always comes back to language. As Frank Conroy writes in his great essay “The Writer’s Workshop,” “if there is some problem with a story…the seeds of the problem can always be found at the microlevel of language, the words and sentences on the page.” The father’s language would be sparse, so he wouldn’t talk much about his time in the war. He would be a man of action instead of words. He speaks about the war to his son only once, in the light of the TV, as they watch a war movie.
The rest was reaching that final confrontation. I wanted the woods to seem unfamiliar to the boy, even though he had been in them before, because now he wanted something from them—in this case, he wants to be like his father, and since he is too young to fight, hunting is his rite of passage. I wanted the journey through the woods to be a journey toward manhood and violence, toward death and an understanding that the outcome of any sort of violence is more violence. And I wanted that sudden understanding to haunt the boy, that he might be the kind of man who questions, constantly, the need for violence.
PAUL CRENSHAW is the author of the essay collection, This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press. His second collection of essays, This We’ll Defend, about his time in the military and beyond, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review, and Brevity, among others.