A couple of years ago, my then elementary-aged son started getting anti-Semitic messages from a former friend. It started small: a GIF of a Lego swastika sent via DM. But within a few months, he was receiving a relentless stream of Trump propaganda and graphic pictures of WWII German firing squads. For complicated reasons, he worried about blocking this kid, and for equally complicated reasons, we were hesitant to contact his parents.
A seed of all of this lodged in my brain, and I tried through many drafts to write that story from the perspective of someone like my son, my son’s age, in a similar life situation, etc. But it didn’t work. I must have done ten or more drafts before I set it aside and decided I couldn’t write it.
About half of my stories have some foot in my real life, and those stories are often the most difficult to write because there’s always a long period of disentangling and fictionalizing that has to occur. It often takes months to see around the constraints of whatever real-life situation may have inspired a piece and find a structure and voice and perspective that really work for the material.
Once I set this aside for a few months and let it rest, I was able to see that it might be stronger with multiple perspectives, older kids, and I wanted to try to give voice to the “villain” in the story and make him a little nuanced and even sympathetic.
This entire process reminded me that thinking about writing IS writing. It’s an essential part of the craft. I know this isn’t earth shattering, yet I forget it all the time. Sitting at a laptop staring at an open document, deleting, revising, tinkering… not always the answer. The walking, the listening to music, the conversations, all of the things we do while these ideas are percolating are essential to the process. We all know this on some fundamental level, but with the emphasis on product and being prolific and publication, it’s easy (for me, at least) to forget how key that period of thought and incubation is to creation of product, especially when the material springs from something personal. (Caveat: I know this is a privileged position, and if we’re writing on a deadline or relying on publication for income, waiting around isn’t always an option.)
The situation with my son ended as well as it could have, with a kind of détente and an apology. But I wanted this story to build up to something a little terrifying but murky and unknown so there’s tension but no resolution or finality, at least none that’s overtly stated.
Some stories emerge in a breathless few hours, and it’s easy to divorce from craft and think, who needs craft? Writing is a mysterious fever. Craft is a dark nothing, a black box, a mindfuck designed to lead grad students in circles of torment. But this story was not like that; it felt very crafted in its process: lots of thoughts about shape, voice, perspective, form, and lots of time spent drafting, going away, and drafting again. I’m still not sure it’s finished.
AMY STUBER’S work has appeared in Triquarterly, Passages North, Wigleaf, Joyland, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Flash Editor for Split Lip Magazine and is on Twitter @amy_stuber and online at amystuber.com.