Writing

The last five years.

Joyland Magazine published a short story of mine last week. You can read it here.

It’s called “The Only Tricks We Know,” but once upon a time the title was “Weather Man” and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get the story to work the way I wanted.

I first drafted this piece the summer of 2009. I was working for O&CO then, and after I was done at the office I would walk five long blocks west to get home, all the while churning story ideas around in my brain. I’d just taken Rachel DeWoskin’s memoir workshop the spring semester before, and she had planted the idea in my mind that maybe I should pursue an MFA in creative writing.

That teensy seed of thought set off a whole chain reaction. I’d always loved reading but that summer I trained myself into having a voracious appetite for words. Instinct told me I needed to drastically increase my consumption of books in order to improve my writing as much as I hoped to before I sent out applications. I developed a disciplined writing schedule that dominated my evenings and left me permanently sleep-deprived. The summer ended and I had three and a half short stories. “Weather Man” was one of them.

That fall I workshopped it in Darin Strauss’s advanced fiction class. I was among the first four to workshop — volunteered grudgingly because we needed one more person to go first. But I remember feeling anxious, wishing for more time to polish the piece before other eyes saw it.

The workshop was fine. I went home with the feeling that people thought the premise was interesting, but the story was still missing something. My hope was that I’d be able to develop “Weather Man” until it was strong enough to include in my MFA application portfolio. Ultimately, I cut it from my writing sample. The second story I’d written over the summer seemed like it had started out much stronger; I threw all my energy into sharpening that one piece instead.

I gave up on “Weather Man” for the most part. Throughout grad school I toyed with the idea of improving it, maybe sending it out. I worked on a little. It didn’t seem salvageable. I stopped thinking about it, threw it into the metaphorical “drawer” and backed it up onto a hard drive full of writing I never planned to touch again.

One day in 2012 I was talking to David Lipsky on the phone and somehow “Weather Man” came up. I ended up telling him the premise. He said, “That sounds great! I think that could really work!” I brushed it off, explained how I was done with the story and it was a lost cause. He told me I should go back to it, said I could pull it out now and fix it up. I can’t remember his exact words; I wasn’t listening closely enough. I was thinking about much I loved the idea behind the story and how sure I was that I’d never get it to work.

But weeks or maybe even months later I found myself replaying that conversation in my head. I thought about his reaction — that was the kind of response I wanted from people. That was what I’d been hoping for when I started writing the piece.

David’s encouragement gave me new energy. Maybe he was right. Maybe I could rework it, make it better, make it good enough to be something worth reading.

In 2013 as I queried agents with a big fat fantasy novel I found myself desperate for a short-term project. That was when I dragged this story out from the depths. I reread some of it, skimmed the rest, and thought: How the hell am I supposed to fix this?

I decided, as an exercise, to try rewriting the story from scratch. I worked on it for a few months, and about halfway through the rewrite I paused. I had twisted the premise, brought out a new cast of characters. I could feel the story improving, could clearly see that my sentences were so much stronger now. But the progress was infuriatingly slow. I thought to myself: This is a short story. It’s not even a book. How is it taking so long for me to get it done?

By then I had started writing a brand new novel and revising an old project, so I felt pretty okay about stepping away from the story. Toward the end of the summer I was asked to read for the Eagle and the Wren reading series in Brooklyn in September. I hadn’t given a reading in a long time. It made me nervous just to think about it, and that alone convinced me it was something I should push myself to do. I’d made a New Year’s resolution about stepping out of my comfort zone.

I dusted off the short story, which by this point had been retitled, and shared the beginning of what I’d rewritten. The audience gave me wonderful feedback. Friends asked to read the whole story when I got around to finishing it. Strangers came up to me and told me that it reminded them of authors that I happened to love. I’d walked in ready to pass out and I left the cafe bursting with warmth.

It was the audience at that reading that made me finish the story. I thought: Wow. People are actually connecting with this in the way I wanted. Over the next few months I worked to write the new ending. I polished it off, sent it to my friend Kayla for a fresh pair of eyes. Loren read it for me again; he must’ve read it a dozen times between the original draft and the final result.

Sending it out to magazines felt strange. I very rarely work on short stories and even once they’re written I’m terrible at sharing. When friends ask to read things my usual answer is to smile and nod and then pretend to forget. And this particular story didn’t fit well into any one category. Not genre enough to place in a genre magazine…but then I worried it might be too genre-y for a traditional lit mag. It also fell on the long side of most short stories being published. So when I submitted it to Joyland I was skeptical. I sent it off into the ether…and that was that. I figured I’d be looking at a rejection in a month or so, and I went back to my novels.

They replied just two days later to say they were accepting the piece and it would be published soon, and when the initial excitement wore off I actually started to panic a little at the thought that people would be reading this thing. I hadn’t published anything in a long, long time, and the stuff I’d published before was in limited print runs, safely hidden from the world, unable to be found. But “The Only Tricks We Know” would be out in the world, on the internet. If I wanted to make any other changes to it, too bad. It was going to be published; it was going to be public and permanent. The internet is forever, etc.

Pub day came. The story went up. I reread it. As the day wore on I found I didn’t have as much the urge to puke anymore. I was pretty happy with my piece, and thrilled when strangers on the internet said they loved the read. The strangers are the honest ones; their words were fuel I didn’t realize I was desperate for. I got the kindest messages, and then I was floating.

It’s crazy to think back on the life cycle of this story. The summer of 2009…that means it took five years for me to get from the nugget of an idea about a guy and the weather to this piece that now lives on the Joyland Magazine website.

I wanted to document this as a reminder to my future self, for when I’m feeling bleak about my novels or whatever it is I’m working on. Everything starts as shit. Everything. There were so many times I believed the story was unsalvageable. So many times I thought I was giving up on it for good.

I was never certain I would be able to mold the piece into what it was meant to be. But somehow I did it. And now you can actually read the thing. Unreal.

One short story, five years. But in these five years I’ve learned so much. Who knows how long it’ll take me to get one of my novels through that same cycle? But now that I can look back and clearly see the path that I took in order to finish that story, I don’t care. The amount of time doesn’t matter. There’s a lot to reshape. A lot more growth to be had. I’m calm and I’m ready.

4 thoughts on “The last five years.

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