During my MFA thesis semester in 2018, a good friend mentioned the short story “Stay Down and Take It” by Ben Marcus because she figured it was something I’d want to read. She was right. The story is told in present tense by a first-person narrator, and I was so gripped by the immediacy of Marcus’s prose that I wanted right then to try and create something similarly urgent. All I had in mind at the time was a main character, a woman who feels out of her element, as new mothers often do. In addition to her being a new mother, I visualized her as a new stepmom navigating a new marriage and living in a house once occupied by her husband’s ex-wife. With that, I began the story. The first page came easily. The rest did not.
What I’d heard once during a craft lecture turned out to be true: it can be difficult to sustain momentum when writing in present tense. I experienced several stops and starts and sputtered my way toward an unsatisfactory end, ultimately shelving the story after graduation. Then early in 2021, I reread it, recalling something a member on my review committee had suggested: give Kaitlyn more agency—she should kill the snake (in my original version it slithers away on its own). After several rounds of revision, I submitted a new draft to a critique group as well as a few trusted writer friends. Along the way, I added new scenes, particularly those involving the ex-wife’s photographs. Even though this is Kaitlyn’s story, my aim was to create a nuanced portrayal of a blended family where the characters are complex and struggling in different ways, hopeful that readers might understand each of them—possibly even before Kaitlyn realizes she’s culpable too, and capable of behaving poorly. The only innocent character is Lily, yet she too is struggling, quite mightily and literally, to survive. In earlier drafts, she doesn’t reappear at the end, but during a discussion with another writer about throughlines, it became clear that Lily is the “floss,” as Kurt Vonnegut would say, and she deserved her due.
It’s immeasurably helpful to have others respond to my work. I’m indebted to many. If there were space to list them all here, I would!
CYNTHIA (CYN) NOONEY’s stories and essays have appeared in Chestnut Review, Ursa Minor, Fractured Lit, New Flash Fiction Review, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, including fiction anthologies. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stubborn Writers First Prize for Flash Fiction from Chestnut Review, and her work has been shortlisted for contests sponsored by Split Lip Magazine and The Masters Review. She holds an MFA from Pacific University, and her writing has been supported by Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, Community of Writers, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is working on a collection of short stories.