Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Ten Year Story

I wrote a story almost ten years ago. 

The exact date, or even the year, is kind of hard to pin down. That's the way it is with creative stuff, I find. The composition, the editing, the idea, it's all nebulous, pulled from the ether before you grab at it and try to nail it to the board, and in between all those fumbling grasps, life goes on around you. And the story. Some stories come quick, all at once, but others, they sit there, in different forms or shapes, for years. If you're lucky, you can remember the moment the story clicks. When it becomes more than an idea, and is, suddenly, something else, something you can share with the world. But I don't think that happens often. 

In my experience, a story comes in fits and starts. It's less blasting a shape out of stone and more the gradual wearing away of layers, experience piling up, both as a writer and as a person, until you look at it and think, Oh, this is something. But sometimes, the something you have doesn't match what was in your head, so it goes back in the drawer. It goes back to the subconscious process of sanding away and becoming something new. Molting into a different form. Sometimes you don't see those stories ever again. Life runs out or you simply have too many ideas, so only the strongest survive. But sometimes they come back. 

The story I first wrote almost ten years ago was published this week. I looked for the original draft, but that was at least three computers ago, so while it's probably on an external hard drive somewhere around here, it's definitely not easily accessible. And besides, I think I'd be embarrassed to read it. To watch myself grasping at things I did not yet have the ability or experience to emotionally convey. 

Back ten years ago, I was a new writer. In some ways, I think I still am, but if thats the case, then ten years ago I was goddamn green. I'd written and published a couple of short stories, and was very much in the I-Need-To-Write-And-Publish-As-Much-As-I-Can mode. The idea, which everyone around me (also young, hungry writers) was to get enough stories for a collection. To make it into the great magazines. To get noticed. 

So I played that game with gusto, and I got into a lot of the magazines I desperately wanted to be in. And a lot of those stories? They're pretty good, even now, with my more experienced eyes. "Moses on the Hill, with Fire Following" in ThugLit? Hell yeah! "Lights in the Sky" in Plots with Guns? Goddamn right. "Blood and Pavement" in the legendary Needle? Still a banger. But, the first drafts of the story I've been talking about, the story I published just this week? I never sent it out, despite knowing, at least on a plot and character and thematic level, it was pretty okay. Not great, maybe, not what it is now, but at the time, what the hell did I know about what I could do now? Nothing. I thought it was a good story. 

But I held it. 

A few years later, an editor heard I had a few things in reserve and asked to see them, so I sent a draft of the story I've been talking about. He liked it, but wanted me to punch up the ending to feature more action. If I did that, he'd publish it. And I didn't know why I did this, but me, Mr.-Hungry-For-Credits-And-Successes, told him "no".  It was a gut feeling. Something that said, "this isn't the right home for it."

And so I held it. For even longer this time. 

But that story, it's one of those stories I mentioned above, the kind that, as a writer, stays with you. That haunts your mental drawer, taking on new shapes, refining itself, the edges sanding away.

And those edges sanded away because I changed, too. I became a husband and a father. I became 10 years older than the main character of that story. I came to a place where I could see both the characters a little more clearly. I looked at the world and was scared by what I saw.  And all those things, finally, brought me to a place where I understood what the story was actually about. And when I understood what the story was about, when I rewrote it and reshaped it and pulled on the edges it make it better, I still held it. Because I understood what it was about wasn't something to be taken lightly. That feeling was back. The gut feeling. The one that said, it wasn't a story to be placed wherever. That I had to be intentional about it. So the story sat, no longer changing or refining itself, but instead waiting for the right home. 

That home came in the form of Meagan Lucas. I've followed Meagan for a long time, and read a good number of her breathtakingly beautiful short stories. And I've followed her magazine, Reckon Review for as long, always impressed with their stories and the obvious care they put into the work. But I'd never submitted there, in part, because of their Appalachian / Southern focus. My friends who published there were almost all from the South, and their stories are usually set in the South. I just didn't think it'd be likely they'd be interested in a gothic noir set in Nebraska. In other words, I self-rejected. Continuously. But, while reading submissions for Rock and a Hard Place magazine, I read Meagan's story, "The Stillness at the Bottom" and knew, instantly, that not only had she written one hell of a story, but also that she was the home my story had been waiting for. 

My concerns about regionalism were still there, but if anyone would be moved by the story I'd written, if there was anyone who could feel the things that had animated the story of a young man back home, helping his father cover up a grisly deed, an intimate act of shattering violence that still holds the power to shock despite how commonplace it is in our world, and the motivations and generational trauma that drive that character's willingness to help, it would be Meagan. So I sent it, hopeful that I could finally be free of this story that had haunted me for so long, and, thankfully, she accepted it. 

The story was published on Monday this week, and I am beyond thrilled. Not because I finally have a story at one of the best journals out there. Not because I have another credit. I'm thrilled because it feels right. Because I know the story doesn't just have a home, now, it has the right home. That it's finally arrived at the place that was waiting for it. 

If there's one thing to take from my experience, I think it's that. Publishing stories is a wonderful thing, and I still believe that, especially when you're starting off, you should try to publish as much as you can. But publishing isn't the only thing. Sometimes, you'll have something, and you'll know it's got a special kind of power over you (but maybe no one else!). And when you have that, you need to hold on to it. You need to trust your gut. You need to make sure you get the story right, no matter how long it takes, and you need to take care it ends up in a place that treats the story right. That cares about it just as deeply as you do. 

"The Color of Bones" is now available at Reckon Review. I'd be thrilled if you checked it out. 

Here in the Dark: Stories by Meagan Lucas is now available for pre-order at Shotgun Honey. Trust me, you'll want to buy this. 

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