Short stories are like those Escape Rooms that are all the rage (although I, myself, have not, to date, raged via them. However, I have been known, on occasion, to rage, and intend to via one, perhaps as soon as next weekend (though unlikely)). The short story begins in a locked room, and the writer’s role is to solve its immediate problems in order to unlock the door and escape into the next room, which will pose a new set of locks/problems. This process rinses/repeats until the story reaches its end (which may or may not also be a room, but for the sake of writerly morale, let’s call it a dewy meadow). Rooms can unlock page-to-page, paragraph-to-paragraph, even sentence-to-sentence.
Whenever I begin a draft, I have almost no direction. I prefer, as Donald Barthelme describes it, “not-knowing.” But I need some kernel to pop, some energy—i.e. something I’m intrigued/excited to chase. In “Old Wife in Fits,” this was a concept where a character steps on a crack and literally breaks his mother’s back. Very soon into the draft, it became clear (and surprisingly/excitingly) that the story would not be about the broken back, but the brokenness of the family.
I then discovered the room’s first problems: why do Stan’s parents believe Old Wives’ Tales are true? And: how does this relate to the family’s brokenness?
So I chased. Through numerous false starts and revisions on that first page, a peripheral tension began to simmer. I escaped room one by pursuing this tension and identifying that it derived from some unspeakable implication in Betsy and Stan’s past that has since defined who they’ve become as adults—and this event is still causing Stan a great deal of remorse and indebtedness.
The next room posed a new problem: how do you move through time without pumping the brakes (i.e., getting knee-deep in mucky exposition). The “key” was in the structure. By organizing the story around Betsy’s specific seizures, I could move through time in an unclunky way. I could show them growing up and apart, and I could show the weight of Stan’s guilt compounding.
(I will note here that claustrophobia often sets in in all of these rooms, and these problems are placed on the back burner for others, such as a crippling existential crisis, or severe indigestion from a stress-eating bender, a migraine from a Netflix marathon, and other digressions that a writer’s brain creates when it feels concerned for itself, asking: Should you be grooming with a brush or a comb? How much is one USD worth in Hungarian Forints, right down to the hundredth decimal? Doesn’t that potato look like Richard Dreyfus, or does Richard Dreyfus look like that specific potato? Isn’t it about time you dusted the tops of the ceiling fans and maybe bought some new skis, and also learned how to ski?)
I chose a comb, took a Tums and an Advil, composted that odd little potato I purchased with 163.97 Forints, and then, with the tops of the ceiling fans spit-polished and my swollen ankle elevated and my broken skis in the trash, continued working room to room, re-energized by new surprises. One of the surprises was the story’s logic that characters could be arrested for using finger guns in public, or for speaking violent onomatopoeias. This device interrogated how we use inference as evidence. It’s absurd, but so is rationalizing blanket-assumption in service of an irrational emotion: fear. Fear often dictates the desperate and unethical means for which we seek justice.
However, despite the damage here, the story’s anchor is love—primarily the love between a brother and sister whose lives have taken very different, yet similarly unfulfilling paths. What has kept them together is the unique love inherent within us—that specific strain that is only activated when a sibling, or a child, is born. It’s my hope that this is what shimmers in the dewy meadow.