Content Warning—child sexual abuse Tansy My sister, Liberty, tells me I need to exercise, that it cures all ills. Well, I don’t see how swimming cures hers. All it does is dry out her hair. Jolee, my youngest…
I write into mystery, lifting veils, one after the other, until the story emerges and its greater truths are revealed. It takes time. “Old Harry’s Daughters” was long in coming, with more incarnations than I can count. I abandoned it, deleted it, shoved its pages into a file and shoved the file into a cabinet that lives in the garage. I added to it, stripped it bare, switched it up, prefaced, reformatted, and used its pages for scratch paper. I even put it in the freezer once. The one thing I didn’t do, couldn’t do, was let it go. I don’t know if obsession counts as an element of writerly craft, but it helps. So, my first tidbit of advice is this: If you can’t stop thinking about a character, you’re probably on to something. If you’re still thinking about the story after it’s spent a month in the freezer, keep writing. If after you’ve shown it to all your friends and they’ve said things like “I don’t get it” or “That was nice,” keep writing. If you still can’t stop thinking about it even after you’ve submitted to ten or so literary magazines with all of them sending back cleverly disguised form letters about how much they enjoyed reading your work but that it isn’t quite right for their journal, then print the damn thing out, dig a hole in the backyard and stuff the pages in. You’d be surprised what a story will give up after spending a little time buried in the backyard.
Is this craft? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s literary coercion, that’s certain. But what about how the writing is done? Personally, I’m driven by my characters. I’m interested in pain and how it’s processed. I’m more than curious about the creative ways my characters handle trauma, how they shatter and rebuild. Or not rebuild. How a soul becomes lost or found.
In this story, I used three first-person voices to give the reader (and the writer) a deep dive view into Tansy, Liberty, and Jolee’s humanity. They survive their impossible childhood in different ways. Tansy escaped, but self-medicates, keeps herself numb. Liberty becomes invisible, and isolates in a crowd. Jolee invents a bizarre world where emotions have color, colors have tastes, and safety is found in a dead man’s backyard. They came to me as sisters connected, but not close. Loving, but not trusting. I love them, pure and simple.
I didn’t plan them, or outline them. I discovered, experienced, and listened to them. I ached for them, laughed, related to and avoided them. I abandoned them, even punished them, but I couldn’t forget them.
Here’s the golden egg: Follow your literary obsessions, let the story tell itself. Be in relationship with your characters. And if all else fails, boil your pages in a pasta pot. That works wonders.
JULIANNA WATERS lives in Hood River, Oregon, with her husband and two yappy dogs. She’s been published in Falling Star Magazine, The Portlander, Four x Four and has two stories forthcoming in the anthology, Dark and Stormy. She’s an award-winning singer-songwriter, has recorded two albums, and was showcased in Oregon Literary Review and Songwriter Magazine. Julianna holds an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop and worships at the temple of mystery. Find her on Instagram @oldcrowspen.