Previously, on My Origin Story: I wrote, or rather overwrote, my first novel.
Through 7th and 8th grade, I played around with what I called realist writing. I wanted to, in the words of Hemingway, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” My novel, Bleeding Hearts, was so over the top that it drove me to think about underwriting, downplaying. I didn’t know the word for it, but I found if I suggested an emotion instead of going on and on about it, if I showed a character’s behavior rather than stated what they were feeling, the feelings came across more powerfully. Later I would learn the effect I was going for was the infamous and much-beleaguered show don’t tell, or understatement. So was born The Spider. I had two goals; realist writing and to write a story in a single typed page.
She inserted the key in it’s lock and leaned open the door. Although she had left it that way that morning, the mess in her apartment startled her for a moment, for she had been too tired then to notice it. After a time, she closed the door and rested heavily against it, slipping off her sandals and dropping them against the wall. They hit the floor with a dull thud.
She plodded out into the kitchen, stepping over clothes and paper, and fixed herself something to eat. The evening was spent doing crosswords curled up on her worn, holey sofa and watching her small black and white television set. She took a shower before she went to bed, avoiding her reflection in the steamed mirror.
She lay back, not taking her eyes off of the bottle of pain-killers on her nightstand. It would be so easy, there were at least twenty left.
She unfastened her pink bathrobe and slipped it off down her back, letting it fall to the floor. She was now nude. When she got up to turn off the light, she noticed a large grey spider making it’s way up the wall. She rushed to the living room and seized a shoe, returning and smashing the spider to nothingness. She pounded the wall much longer than necessary, breaking down and crying after about ten minutes. Sinking to the floor, her slight body trembling, her shoulders shaking, she sobbed quietly for what seemed a long time.
She then returned to the bathroom, staring at her reflection absently. There was the hum of silence around her, accompanied by city sounds. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another spider, but did nothing about this one. She didn’t care really. There was no reason to have killed the other one.
Back in her bedroom once more, looking down at the unmade bed, she couldn’t go to sleep yet. She tried not to think of how long since there had been a man in that bed. She switched on her television set and fell on the couch, slipping into an exhausted, worried sleep.
She awoke to the static hum of the television after it had gone off, and left it on. The spider was still in the bathroom, inching along the wall by the rust-covered shower. She eyed it listlessly, mumbling to it as if it were a man.
It was so damn hard to get the bottle open, people-proof caps. Soon they nestled comfortably in her palm, cold and sticky. They were the pretty blue-and-white capsules that she once used to pull apart to see what was in them. She stared at her hand until the blue part warmed and began to dissolve. That many pills were hard to swallow all at once, and she had to drink out of the sink faucet to wash them down.
She leaned over in the spider’s direction and blew, hard. It dropped off the wall into the bathtub. She watched it begin it’s long ascent back up the tiles.
“Go ahead and try, little spider, you’re doomed in this place … ”
She laid down on her bed gently, as though afraid to awaken someone sleeping there. It wasn’t long before the dizzy, light-headed feeling overtook her. She smiled dreamily, and let her dry, bleary eyes droop closed.
“Go ahead and try, little spider…”
I did write this in a single typed page. The other goal was less successful. I managed not to “tell” in a few places; for instance, where she’s beating the wall. But I broke the tone by saying, ‘she didn’t care really.’, and ‘she fell into an exhausted, worried sleep.’ Told! I also notice now that this woman seems to be killing herself because she has a bad apartment. Still, this story is something of a milestone in my writer’s journey. For one thing, I actually finished it. And I learned some things about downplaying the drama. (I needed to learn that ‘it’ has no possessive, but, all in good time.)
McCracken’s Barn was the culmination of much practice with realist writing. I began it in late summer when I was 14. I wanted to write about a farm girl who learned hard and fast in the big city.
In September, 9th grade, I turned it in for a writing assignment and my English teacher encouraged me to submit it to the National Scholastic Writing Contest, Junior category. Sometime in November, my friend Liz and I received notice that we had placed high in the contest, me in first place, Liz in fourth place nationally. I missed a whole lot of 9th grade staying up late at night writing. I wasn’t there the day they announced it. Liz told me the class applauded my empty chair in English class.
Liz and I were honored at a luncheon at the Denver Public School’s Admin building, and at the Mother-Daughter Tea and Continuation. My first place was used to make the school look good. As if the school did anything but get in the way of my writing–I had to be there at the crack of why-the-hell-am-I-awake. But I won fifty dollars, to date the only money I’ve made off my writing.
The exposure lead to some strange moments. A classmate told me she cried after reading my story, which was sweet but I really wanted her to know why she cried. I knew why. I walked in on an English teacher discussing it, interpreting it as though it were a morality tale – this is what happens when you run away from home. I wondered how often we’d been taught off-base interpretations of other writers’ short stories.
A social worker approached me in class, apparently concerned about the subject matter of McCracken’s Barn. She asked if everything was all right at home, as if the story was some coded cry for help. I wondered what would happen if anyone saw Bleeding Hearts or some of the other seriously twisted stuff I’d written. I’d have been locked up, like that girl in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. So, though the acknowledgements of my writing were nice, overall, I once again felt it was just as well to keep it to myself. The process, not the product, was what interested me.
One cool thing to come of it: Liz’s father Dr. Keleher read it and said two words, “Deathly understated.” Not only did he get what I was trying to do, he taught me the word for it.
Reading it over now, decades later, I so want to change and fix things. I did some good realist writing, but it falls apart in the last few paragraphs. I just tell – the baby would be swallowed up – when I should have let the story show the contrast. Other little nigglies. But it represents such a snapshot in time, one of my first successfully completed stories, that I leave it be, warts and all.
Next up on My Origin Story: Another Novel, More Lessons Learned (Sort of)