Hooray. I just graduated. Rather than write a reflection, which I still might do in the future, I thought I’d share the preface of my final thesis [a short story collection], in which I attempt to trace my roots and my writerly interests, and also predict my undetermined future as an emerging writer.
I’m from a town in Connecticut called Cheshire—pronounced Chess-sure, not Chess-shire, which is the British way—and it used to be a place other state residents probably never heard about. The most exciting thing to happen to the town was likely a new tenant moving into 7 South Main Street, which was home to a pizza shop, a tailor shop, a deli, and today, for now, a Thai restaurant. The only “club” nearby is Costco. People left their front doors unlocked during the day. Our summer block parties were legendary.
Then, in 2007, a woman and her daughter left Stop & Shop without noticing who was driving behind her, and they led, unintentionally, a man and his partner into her home. She and her two daughters were raped and killed. Her husband was beaten in another room, but managed to escape before the house was set on fire. To say this was a blessing would be wrong in this case. He had lost everything.
The illusion of Cheshire as a place where Nothing Ever Happens was shattered. At the time, I didn’t acknowledge how much the incident fascinated me, but now I cling to the darkness of it all. Before this event, to be clear, I never had a great affinity for happy stories. I disliked—and today, to some degree, still dislike—Disney-animated movies. I filled my brain with titles by Robert Cormier, Douglas Preston, Ellen Hopkins, and Carol Plum Uccie. In sixth grade, I wrote a short story from the point of view of a Holocaust prisoner in Auschwitz, then later did a book report on Jose Saramago’s Blindness. But the Cheshire invasion was something that happened for real, and the tangible reminder of it lives as a memorial garden where the Petit house once stood.
Months after, fear hung like impenetrable fog over Cheshire. People had to look over their shoulders as they exited Stop & Shop, nested in a busy shopping plaza. I took from this home invasion the idea that everything is not as it seems. Tragedy causes life to veer from normalcy, leading us to question everything. If we look harder at something, we can never look away again. This message is the crux of my short story collection.
Like many short story writers, I did not consciously write to form a collection. Only for this collection did I acknowledge that my characters are often broken from a daze by tragedy. The narrator in “Recycle” is a police officer on a regular night watch when he finds a woman pushing a dead baby on the swings, forcing up memories of his own daughter who died from SIDS. The narrator and his father in “The Boarder” have led a reticent life since the death of the mother and wife in the 9/11 attacks, but a new tenant adds more tension to their fraught relationship. A stripper in “Honey” is reminded of her abusive stepfather when a handsy client gets rough with her and suddenly, she wants out of that world.
These eight stories are experiments. Pulling from and stitching together MFA lessons, conversations with writers, and weekends of imagination, I became like Frankenstein and somehow, several Monsters have emerged. I leave these stories in this collection to note my sense of accomplishment in writing them and a recollection of my journey in learning to craft characters, backstories, and endings.
Cure for Sleepwalking
My characters are always keen observers. I think this is because most of my characters mirror parts of me. I have always been shy; at parties and social gatherings, I prefer to stick in the corner of the room. I am not quick to share an opinion unless asked. Like Callie, the protagonist in “Gaw Gaw,” I was never comfortable in school and tended to shield myself with books. But the problem with observers is that they can become quite dull and passive. My first-semester mentor, Hollis Seamon, spotted this issue in the first draft of “Recycle.” Believing the character was too mired in grief, Hollis wrote: “Give him much more to do, show us how/when his feelings break out of passivity into actions—even destructive, disturbing actions—rather than just allowing him to sleepwalk through the story.”
I had to wake up my characters; they had to act. So I started reading stories with astute fly-on-the-wall characters who still felt alive in the story. Jennifer Egan’s protagonist in the short story “One Piece” showed me how. As a child, her older brother had accidentally killed his mother when he was playing behind the wheel of a car, and this incident seemed to indicate to others that he can never be trusted. The protagonist is stuck between pitying him and wanting to help him. The story would have been boring if she continued to stay inside her head. But Egan didn’t allow that to happen. “So many things are wrong I can’t sit there. I feel crazy, like worms have crawled inside my bones,” the narrator says, at her breaking point (Egan 85). She knows she needs to change others’ perception of her brother; he is not a killer, he can be a savior. At a bonfire gathering, she climbs a tree, waits for people to notice, for her brother to see her. And she jumps. Her brother springs into action, puts out the fire, redeeming himself in everyone’s eyes. I remember the character for her vision of the world—but this action had defined her for me, this action made her character.
For other notes on characterization, I turned to Janet Burroway’s section in Writing Fiction on how to make complex characters. She borrows Aristotle’s term consistent inconsistencies (Burroway 148). Consistent refers to actions that make sense and fit in with the rest of the details created for the character. One character might be a painter; a writer can extend the nature of her occupation by describing the paint stains on her hands and her favorite pair of jeans spotted with paint splatters. But an inconsistency or contradiction in this character might be that the painter is a clean freak. Every time she paints, she layers her whole studio, ceiling to floor, with clear plastic and she dons a plastic suit as well. To me, I can understand this character—she is both real and odd. I kept Burroway’s lesson in mind when I crafted the father figure for “Gaw Gaw,” an academic whose head is full of history and facts, but doesn’t have much room to remember general tasks like cleaning his house or noticing that something is wrong with his daughter.
I also find inspiration for characters from my daily life. Living in New York City does not necessarily affect my setting so much as my compendium of written and soon-to-be written characters. New York City: it’s full of weirdos—vagrants have imaginary conversations to subway walls, pant-suited women wear Hello Kitty backpacks to say I’m a big little girl, and there is a strange species called hipsters, whose diet consists of kombucha, kale, and tofu and can be found living in Williamsburg. In “The Curious Vietnamese Boy,” the laundromat is inspired by the laundromat I frequent in Bed-Stuy, and I also stole the owners’ likeness from this place. I am sure the owners sometimes wondered why I was staring so much.
Writers are often told to “write what you know.” This is not meant to confine the writer; it is not a rule saying to write only what we know, but rather it is a sensible tip to have a real-to-life foundation and quality, especially with people; then from there, we can allow imagination to go where it pleases.
Getting Inside Their Head
Continuing to experiment with characters, I played with perspective in this short story collection. Three short stories – “Gaw, Gaw,” “The Boarder,” and “Recycle” – began as third-person stories, which is what I normally write. My former aspirations to become a journalist and the years spent at my college newspaper made me believe that third-person was the only way to write, the only way I can write. But I loved first-person, loved how they fooled me into believing a character could be a friend. I pitied and envied Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower as he told the story of finding where to belong in high school. Despicable Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita felt like an artist describing a spectacular masterpiece—his language masking the vileness of his actions. Reading such literature showed me what I lacked in my own attempts at first-person: conviction. I needed to write a story where readers feel they can only hear the story from this character, and no one else.
I looked to Denis Johnson for more offbeat voices, especially from Fuckhead in his collection Jesus’ Son. Johnson exposes the ridiculous and the pathetic side of humanity through fascinating characters. The narrator of the “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” sticks with me: he is bitter and vicious and uses drugs to drown out the world that he feels has wronged him. But his thoughts feel like rollercoaster rides. He describes a scene in the hospital, after he, the driver, and the driver’s wife were in a car crash. “She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us,” the narrator says (Johnson 9). Who would think of an injured woman as “glorious”?
To re-craft “Gaw, Gaw” I imagined observations that only someone obsessed with fairytales would say. I made a list and asked, “How would she feel about Halloween after years of being fed fairytales and academic literature on Halloween by her academic father?” Callie used fairytales in the way we would use logic.
Capturing first-person voice is also a matter of dynamics. We are told to always have dynamic characters – show reactive characters — but I like hearing how voices change according to circumstance. My initial attempts at writing first-person perspective also disappointed me because the voice was always a failure. My narrators always managed to sound perpetually angry and snarky, and this voice, like in real life, builds a cement wall between the reader and the story.
In this case, the saying “action speaks louder than words” take a backseat. I like to hear a long monologue once in a while, where it’s just the narrator reaching past the pages and grabbing hold of us. Just as I love the inflections and pitches voices take, I like hearing in my head the colors in a character’s voice. I read André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, a novel I picked up during Banned Book Week about the emotional and sexual yearning a boy feels for a male tenant at his family’s house in Italy. In Jandy Nelson’s beautiful YA novel I’ll Give You the Sun, Jude’s yearning as she reminisces on her broken relationship with her twin brother bursts from the pages: “This is what I want: I want to grab my brother’s hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders” (Nelson 245). Same goes for her brother’s judgments about his family: “Because I can see people’s souls sometimes when I draw them I know the following: Mom has a massive sunflower for a soul so big there’s hardly any room in there for organs. Jude and me have one soul between us that we have to share: a tree with its leaves on fire. And dad has a plate of maggots for his” (Nelson 30).
To That End . . .
Examining this collection, I remember how long I had spent thinking of endings to finish up my pieces. I used to prefer shock endings—twisting endings like the one in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Sixth Sense. Both storytellers planted asinine clues through their works that hinted at their endings, but they didn’t dwell on them. Viewers never focused on how the protagonist’s wife didn’t seem to acknowledge him because we just assumed it was a symptom of a dying marriage. We never thought the lottery meant killing a town resident because it just seemed like a town hall meeting. The closing words “then they were upon her,” still sticks with me today (Jackson 302). My intent to have similar twist endings fell short mainly because my intent was to shock readers and not benefit the story. Reading shocking endings and twist endings become tiresome—you can only feel a certain way about the ending once. Other endings, however, have more of a timeless quality because you regard them in a different way with every read.
I have read endings that felt so natural in the story, felt like it belonged, which made the story’s message more profound. During my first semester, I learned the term “rhyming action” from Hollis Seamon who was quoting Charles Baxter. Rhyming action is a moment of “déjà vu, which is only an eerie sense of some repetition, of a time spiral, of things having come around back to themselves” (Baxter 111). Something that happens in the beginning of a story—a detail, a word, a feeling—appears again in the end. But our impression of this detail, word, feeling differs greatly because the story has led us “toward a new state, a new condition, into the future of manifest possibilities” (Baxter 113). I spotted the occurrence of rhyming action in Jennifer Egan’s “Why China?”
It’s the story of a man facing an embezzlement investigation that jeopardizes his career, his family, and his moral compass. The story begins in an open-air market in China where the protagonist Sam spots the con man who had started his downward financial woes. They are the only Westerners around. Sam approaches him, but it seems that Stuart does not remember him. Throughout the story, Sam gets closer to him, a motivation to perhaps understand what had made him the target and to distract himself from his impending downfall. In the end, we see Sam and Stuart converse face-to-face again. Like the beginning, it’s just the two of them existing, for a moment, in their own world. But there are notes of differences: the setting of a noisy market is swapped for a quiet Buddhist mountainside temple, and here, Sam finally reveals that he was from Stuart’s past—and to Sam’s surprise, Stuart knows him, too. There is a sense that we have come to the same spot, but only when Sam tells that truth do we realize that, no, it’s different this time, that things will change and can never go back.
In one of the stories in this collection “Look See Wonder,” I also experimented with rhyming action. The story is about Nina who mourns her relationship with her sister as they run in different crowds, experience different things—she fears no longer knowing her. In the beginning, they had been close; Nina remembers how her sister had tried comforting her after a bad fall, “cradling Nina in her arms, shushing her, smoothing back her hair.” At the end, under difficult circumstances—“Margie’s warm hand tightly clasping hers in accord”—she receives her sister’s support again.
I also hear I like to use zero endings, but I’d never heard of the term until taking Al Davis’ Fiction class. With a zero ending, according to Al, “you bring the story’s central dramatic action to resolution but with a whimper rather than a bang, so that a bit of the work takes place in the reader’s mind. ‘How have things changed?’ she might ask. The result of such an ending is an impression that life is epiphanic, with its high moments and breakthroughs, but not explosive or decisive.” This is evident in Raymond Carver’s short story “The Cathedral,” which charts one man’s prejudice against a blind man that his wife had befriended. He doesn’t really understand what it means to be blind, making snarky comments here and there. But in the end, the blind character tries to make him understand, by having him sketch a cathedral with eyes closed, as if he was blind. “His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now” (Carver 14). In this moment, the protagonist doesn’t say anything—the judgment is absent from the character, and he begins to understand how the blind man sees the world. Yet, we can only guess at what happens after the moment ends.
Writing each story individually can be described in a mix of ways: painful, necessary, tedious. Yet, putting them together into this imperfect collection felt surreal and gratifying. Some stories I wrote before the program. Others I wrote while in the trenches of writing my packets, some as a distraction from my packets. For some stories, I remember exactly why and where I wrote them. Even after revising, I still sense the pauses and hesitations, which sentence I gave up on, what characters I never felt satisfied with. However, for my more recent stories, I read them and seriously question if I had written them. I like it when this happens; I take it as a sign that I am letting the story speak for itself, and I, as the writer, disappear.
After this program ends, I’ll continue to revise with the intention to submit short stories to magazines and journals. Revision is my favorite process. An editor I admire said, “Revision is a re-‘vision’ as in reimagining the work, not just revising.”
While advancing my writing career, I’m also on the opposite end of the spectrum as I pursue a career as a book editor. I recently acquired my first novel, which will be published in May 2018. At this very moment, I am editing the first draft. What I can take from this program is a sense of knowing what to look for in good stories. It is crucial to not only recognize strengths and weaknesses in the submissions that come through, but also express these opinions to help the writer. Just as Hollis Seamon, Eugenia Kim, and Al Davis did for me, I want to be a mentor to writers. I want them to experience that wondrous feeling of growth that I gained after three semesters with Fairfield University.
This foot in the publishing world also lends me some advantages, but not in the way that most people think. There’s no increased likelihood of me being published; we have turned away “publishing insiders” because sometimes the writing is not up to par. I know, however, that I am more knowledgeable of the publishing process. I already know how to query, who to submit to, and what to say, while others might need to do more research. I am also heartened by the opportunity to learn from editors who still admire great writing. Publishing might seem like a space where art competes with commerce, but there are people inside who value the art and do their utmost to defend the fictive worlds spun by authors.
I envision a long writing career for myself and will fight to guarantee it. I don’t think I can ever escape writing. Because here’s how my writing cycle usually works (by this point, I’ve gotten a sense of the rhythm my writing life follows): There will be periods where I will not write. I will do anything I can to avoid writing. I will watch dark, twisted Netflix shows, read pretentious literature, cook up a storm, decide to treat my friends decently, and book an overpriced trip. But eventually, I will daydream while having a conversation with a friend or start hearing snippets of conversations that never happened, between two people—characters—I have never met. To get them out of my head, I will write—on my laptop, fingers pecking on my cell phone screen, me dictating a story to my iPhone. When I finish the first draft, I probably will celebrate. I will feel triumphant. I will tell my mirror self that I am the best writer alive, until I return to my story and see all the faults that my addled brain refused to see during the writing process. I will edit, while my insecurities and doubts, like Churchill’s black dog, breathe down my neck. To escape, this feeling, I might step away and there will be periods where I will not write.
This cycle is something I cannot break. I don’t want to either.