Get Out of the Way

Since having kids a few years ago, I rediscovered the library. Seems we could no longer afford my, or my husband’s, book-buying addiction. I still buy them occasionally, but save those purchases for books that are truly special or for coloring books.

The best thing about the library is there is no buyer’s remorse. There is no guilt for not finishing – or even beginning – a book.

During my last trip, to pick up a book on hold for my husband (non-fiction), I ran up to the New Arrivals section to see if I could quickly grab something. I had seen The Best Short Stories 2010 and others of its ilk every January, but my blinding jealousy usually kept me away from these anthologies (see The New Yorker’s 40 under 40 list).

I grabbed the book and checked it out. I could always return it unread. But eventually I got up the courage (and swallowed that jealousy) to read the first story.

Wow, what a great story.

I’ve never read Steve Almond but I am glad his name begins with “A.”

The stories in the anthology are printed in alphabetical order. If they weren’t, or if he was Steve Zebra, I probably wouldn’t have read more than one story. But because his story was amazing, I went on. Unfortunately none of them were as good.

His story, Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched, is riotously funny and disturbingly poignant. What strikes me though, and it wasn’t apparent until I moved on to another story, is how effortless his story felt. It didn’t feel written by anyone. It felt like there was a story out there, this specific story with these specific words, and Steve Almond was the chosen translator.

In my best writing, this is how I feel. Like a story is handed to me, fully formed, and my blessed duty is to write it down and not screw it up. This has happened three times, and I believe they are my best stories.

One of my first short stories, the first one published, and the one that got me accepted to Goddard’s MFA was Debris. I wrote this on Sunday morning in one sitting; very little editing was done to it. I wrote it after a night at a club in San Francisco where a really obnoxiously drunk guy was ruining the show for everyone until he was thrown out by a bouncer. He didn’t actually die, only in my story.

The first draft of What We Call Living was written longhand during a plane ride from the East Coast (after a summer residency at Goddard) to home in San Francisco. This too has seen remarkably little change since that first draft.  The third story that felt given to me whole was The Last Time. It was like a present and I finally opened my eyes or heart or soul enough to see it and transcribe it.

I like all my other stories, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps it’s like raising a difficult child versus an “easy” one. You love them both of course, but the ones that take more energy, are more difficult, drive you absolutely crazy, are just a bit harder to like.

Often, as with a story I am working on now, the idea and momentum are there at the beginning, but there is something not quite right with it. It needs to be wrestled with, cajoled, bribed, all of those things, until I give up. Then I try something else – add a new character, put it in a new setting, change the point of view – but ultimately what I’ve found is that instead of going in and tinkering with a draft, I need to let go and open up and let the story come to me.

I’m not saying that just the act of letting go means a story comes easily and fully formed. For all I know Steve Almond struggled over every word of that story. But it felt like he, the author, just got out of the way and let the story tell itself.

Many of the other stories in the collection were good but to me, none of them lived up to Donkey. Some of them just seemed to try too hard.

That is what I want to avoid at all costs in my writing. To get out of the way and let the story tell itself. I’ll just fix the spelling.

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