A couple of Mondays ago, I wrote a short story. I’m not usually very creative on Mondays, as it’s my day to clear up weekend debris and take care of business gunk like checking on submissions or printing invoices. Mundane, but necessary.
But that Monday, while dressing the kitchen table with one of my beloved vintage tablecloths, I was thinking about an exercise we’d done back in June at Rosemont College’s short story retreat. The exercise was on unreliable narrators. It was lots of fun, because the author basically tells a lot of lies, only it’s done from the mouth of a character, so it can’t be held against you. I don’t get to tell a lot of lies in my life, esp. on a Monday when I’m unfolding tablecloths, so the idea of fibbing on purpose, with no consequences, was appealing. Like legalized naughtiness.
The challenge of the unreliable narrator in fiction is that, in their own minds, the character is not lying. They’re telling the truth from their own, self-serving perspective. If done correctly, every sentence, individually, is completely factual. Put together, however, the sum of all of the sentences is a great big whopper.
I was thinking about how much I had enjoyed that legalized lying, when suddenly, a line came to me. An opening line:
“When my sister finally left home, I was so glad.”
I don’t know where the line came from, but I liked it. I listened to it in my head again, and it sounded like a girl said it. A youngish girl, but not a little girl. A teenager, with an older teenage sister. I listened again, and the older sister—the one who finally left home—sounded like her name was Evie. So the line changed to:
“When my sister Evie finally left home, I was so glad.”
I knew all of that in a minute or two, and by the time I had dressed the table and emptied the dishwasher and put a load of laundry in, I’d heard in my head that Evie had left home with a boy—or maybe two boys?– and it was not a pleasant trip. But it wasn’t horrendous. I don’t write stories where horrendous things happen to older sisters. Which meant it was worse than no fun and less than something actually criminal.
I also knew that Evie’s little sister wasn’t glad at all that Evie had left home, because little sis was an unreliable narrator. I just wasn’t sure–yet–why Evie had left home, or why little sis needed to pretend to be glad about it. But I was sure that little sis would explain it to me.
And that was how my story called “Evie” was born.
No. That’s not right. “Evie” wasn’t born yet, because Evie was still in my head. It’s more accurate to say that that’s how I got pregnant with the story of “Evie.” For the story to be properly born meant I had to record it.
It’s weird how writers become pregnant with stories, as opposed to how we become pregnant with children. (I don’t want to take this analogy much farther, because then I might do something dopey like try to compare rough drafts with stretch marks.) I confess that, most of the time, I get my story ideas the old-fashioned way: I steal them from my family.
But sometimes the quirky happens, and it’s a gift. You get hit with a line out of the blue and two or three minutes later, that embryo (sorry, had to do it a little) is growing conflicts and themes and scenery.
It rarely happens when I’m trying to do it. When I’m actively trying to pop out a story—like when I read about a literary contest and the theme is “blue skies” or “water balloons”–I instantly become intellectually barren and can’t think of a single line that has the remotest connection to blue skies or water balloons. Which might be good because those sound like two terribly dull topics.
But Evie totally intrigued me.
The seed came from recalling the exercise. I suppose I wanted to relive that pleasurably experience, so I subconsciously gave myself a new assignment. The only other option is that creativity molecules flew up from the tablecloth, lodged themselves in my brain and sent me into a tizzy. But I don’t think so.
I blew off the housework (such a hardship) and sat at my dining room table with one of the fat notebooks that I now use for short stories. I wrote in longhand for a several hours, non-stop, until I had full draft recorded. I have learned that when this kind of story pregnancy happens, the best thing to do is to record it spontaneously, without any further planning or thought or overworking. Like Mother Nature intended.
It didn’t come out quite in line with my original spare vision, but it was pretty darn close. The next day, as is my habit, I transcribed it to computer. It was 17 manuscript pages. I whittled it down to 13– 4000 words plus change. Last night, I emailed it to my critique group for my November submission. In a couple of weeks, I’ll find out what they think of “Evie.”
That’s how it happened, how it may happen again. Hopefully.
I have an summary line about some good things being planned and others being unplanned and how to recognize the value of either, or both, but it’s very close to that dopey area with the stretch marks/rough draft comparison, so I’ll spare you having to read it.
Instead I’ll say to remind me, someday, to tell you about my tablecloth collection. It’s pretty neat.