Friday, April 12, 2013

Essays on the Desk and Bones Under the Water

by Jean Roberta

Do I put off writing by doing other things, or do I write to avoid doing other things? Both.

After all, I won’t get fired if I fail to send in a story submission for an anthology whose deadline whooshed past me while I was grading student essays or even grocery shopping, cooking & cleaning up dog poo. (Realistically, I probably wouldn’t get fired for putting off the grading for a few days, but sometimes the day job has to take priority. And the other stuff doesn’t really need to be explained.)

Last week, I did something that is more-or-less against my Principles. (These are like the barb-wire fences of my childhood in Idaho. I liked testing their stretch to find out if I could get under or over them without getting stuck.)

A gothic story was lurking in the back of my mind, and wouldn’t go away. It began to take shape in mid-March when I was on a bus trip for three hours with my spouse to attend the annual convention of the NDP (New Democratic Party, farthest-left of the mainstream Canadian political parties). A call-for-submissions inspired an image of a river rushing musically over rocks – or something else? I knew there was something down there.

In real life, Spouse & I were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, known as the “Bridge City” because the North Saskatchewan River winds through it, with numerous bridges. By the time we got there, I knew the something under the river in my mind was a body that had been there for a generation, undetected.

The atmosphere of this story was so strong that for brief moments, I felt as though I had read it somewhere. Then I remembered that I hadn’t written it yet.

Soon the deadline was breathing down my neck, so I sent the editor an email, asking for a deadline extension. She graciously responded: “Because it’s you” (with winking smiley-face). After that, finishing the story a.s.a.p. became a serious obligation. I couldn’t leave that body under the river for months or years before figuring out how it got there.

So I cancelled a class. Bad me. But it was just one class.

If/when everything I’ve ever done is weighed by some disapproving angel on the Day of Judgment, this cancelled class will probably earn me a little tick mark in the list. But it probably wouldn’t be enough to open the trapdoor that would plunge me to the Fiery Depths. That would be too gothic.

That whole day, I was in the Zone, the one writers like to live in. I wrote & wrote. (Technically, I typed & typed.) The maximum word count was 6500 words, and I watched as my word count went up and the plot thickened. At 3500, I realized I was more than halfway through, and worried that I might not be able to stay under the wire. Well then, I thought, something might have to be pulled out. Time for that later.

By evening, the story was wrapped up at slightly over 6K. Yes!

I forced myself to put off sending it to the editor as soon as the last period was in place. This is the time when a little procrastination is a very good idea. I knew that what looked brilliant to me in the moment would probably make me groan later on. (Why did I leave that awkward phrase in? And why did I use the same cheesy word twice in one paragraph?)

Spouse asked if I planned to cook supper.

Yes, I said, as soon as my story is really finished. I hoped she would chill out and snack on leftover Easter candy.

I reread the story, made some changes, and fired it off.

Then I was assailed by doubt, much like a gothic heroine being accosted by a sinister figure in a swirling cape. Point of View: the story starts out in third-person omniscient, but morphs into third-person limited when the heroine emerges from childhood into adolescence. I was sure the editor would reject the story for being an incoherent mess.

And then there was the creepiness factor: the call-for-submissions called for “dark erotica.” Was my story both dark enough and sexy enough? I knew it would probably be too dark for Spouse, which seemed like a sign that I was on the right track, but did the editor want the murders to be described in gory detail? Or would that kind of melodrama make my story as over-the-top funny as The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

And besides all this, there is some dubious-age-of-consent sex. None of the characters have a clear age, but they are both young. How worried would the editor be about accepting a story that could possibly be interpreted as child porn? (But then, said my Common Sense, a reader who would read my story thus would probably run screaming from the whole anthology.)

Well, I thought, I just have to consider doing a massive rewrite after the editor rejects the story. I’ll have plenty of time to consider sending it somewhere else.

Obviously I can’t write, I thought, which is really too bad since I am on-schedule to teach a creative writing class in September. What a fraud I am. At least I can do laundry and clean up after our pets, who lack human discernment. Being loved by animals probably doesn’t outweigh cancelling a class.

The day after I sent off my story, the editor sent me an email: “Consider your story shortlisted.” O miracle! O sudden, unexpected resolution of complications!

I think I should spend more time putting off everything else so I can write.


  1. what an enjoyable post, Jean. glad to hear another writer talk about her doubts. i have a secret desire to visit Saskatchewan. some of the most creative people i know come from there. what is it about the Prairies that seems to engender creativity? i hope the story was accepted. it sounds intriguing.

  2. I get what you say about the self-doubt when submitting to a call. Manifests in me with a lump in my throat. Of course, it seldom matters 'cause I usually get rejected anyway. It always seems something's wrong: word count, too squicky, too sentimental, too out-of-the-box, etc. and I'm not good at writing to spec. Hoping writing about topics thrown at me here on OGG will fix some of that.

    And to what Amanda says about prairies: Has anybody ever read any of Jim Harrison's work? The Road Home, IMO one of his best, (also much of Dalva) is set in Nebraska.

  3. Thanks, Amanda and Daddy X. (Amanda, you should definitely visit Saskatchewan! I have a spare bedroom in my house, but I wouldn't recommend a visit while winter is still here, in April.) What I hope you get from my post (what I hope all readers get from it) is that 1) inspiration can come back & can be encouraged to stay until the job is done, and 2) second-guessing an editor's decisions doesn't necessarily work. Editors can be nicer than one's Inner Critic. :)

  4. i love Jim Harrison's poetry, Daddy X. haven't read his fiction yet.

    Jean, what a lovely offer. if i ever have a reading there, i'll definitely take you up on that :)

  5. Just goes to show ya, Jean, that you shouldn't listen to those accusing voices.

    I have to agree that some of my best stories were written in the breathless rush of a single session, or as you put it, in the glorious Zone.

    Congratulations on the acceptance. Was this for Mitzi Szereto's book?

  6. Jean, your story sounds intriguing. I have to admit I was a bit despondent because I hadn't heard back from Mitzi, but now I have, so if the winds (or whatever) are favorable, I'll be able to read your piece in my contributor's copy.

  7. Yes, Lisabet and Mitzi, my story was accepted for Mitzi's forthcoming anthology, a kind of sequel to Red Velvet and Absinthe.
    (But it's not due to be published until spring 2014!)