Wednesday Works in Progress: Witch Burning

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What a pleasure it is, after nearly two weeks away from the work, to have a short story again finding its shape in imaginative space, unexpected details looming into view. Today, in the short story I’m drafting, which goes by various names, Sylvia Plath showed up.

This is the tale of a woman in her thirties facing a difficult diagnosis who forms a relationship with an elusive teenager; it takes place in a little pocket park in Prescott, Arizona. Today, for the first time, the protagonist finds a note that the girl has left in that park, amid a disturbing art installation that may be a cry for help.

At first I thought this note might contain some of the girl’s poetry–I thought, in fact, it might contain one of my own overwrought adolescent poems. But then I remembered a recent podcast, a conversation between my grad school friend Angela Ledgerwood and Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts, in which the author recalled a time when she had bought into a certain narrative about love, a rather tragic narrative supplied by the poet Sylvia Plath, and that it had been detrimental to her outlook on life.

I thought, wow, isn’t Sylvia Plath the poet all teenage girls turn to when their emotions feel too big, too tragic? I certainly did during my senior year of high school, when I discovered her work. To an adult like the one I am now–one who has faced down her own difficult diagnosis–such tragic preoccupations from so young a person cannot help but seem a bit twee.

But I think this poem of Plath’s I found in my trusty dog-eared Contemporary American Poetry perfectly carries the counterpoint, the young girl’s point of view, which is about how it feels to be kept, captive, to have your identity twisted and your voice stuffed back in your throat–how ultimately intolerable it is to be cast in such a role: “Witch Burning”, the first stanza of which I included in today’s draft.

Hot Season: And the Winner Is…

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Thanks so much to all of you who weighed in on the three options for the back cover of my debut novel, Hot Season. After careful consideration, and consultation with a number of marketing-type folks, the publisher and I agreed that the crowd favorite was the strongest. Here it is:

In the tinder-dry Southwest, three roommates—students at Deep Canyon College, known for its radical politics—are looking for love, adventure, and the promise of a bigger life that led them West.

But when the FBI comes to town in pursuit of an alum wanted for “politically motivated crimes of property,” rumor has it that undercover agents are enrolled in classes, making the college dating scene just a bit more sketchy than usual.

Katie, an incoming freshman, will discover a passion for activism that will put her future in jeopardy; Jenna, in her second semester, will find herself seduced by deception; and Rell, a senior, will discover her voice, her calling, and love where she least expects it.

Unlike option number two, this copy doesn’t emphasize the struggle for the Greene River, the issue at the heart of the book. But by foregrounding the human drama, my hope is that this copy will do more to draw the reader in.

Next challenge: securing reviews. Stay tuned.

The Story Behind the Story: Sunshine

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Marrying your best friend is a beautiful thing. But within those words “till death do us part” is a hard truth: one of you will die first. And the other will be broken by it.

There are people who postulate that the evolutionary purpose of stories is to prepare us for threats we have not yet faced. If so, stories that deal with the death of a spouse, like the one I’m releasing to my Patreon subscribers this month, are here to help us prepare for the unpreparable.

I wrote “Sunshine” during the semester of my MFA program when I worked with David Long. David writes fine literary fiction, and that, in part, was what I went back to school to learn—how to write beyond tales built on concepts and ideas, verging on the speculative, like “Spin.”

Post-MFA, I’ve come to embrace those sorts of weird tales in my work again. But I’m grateful to mentors like David for showing me how to build stories around the basic, everyday truths of real characters, experiencing basic, everyday things.

In the case of “Sunshine,” that character is Greta, a woman in her early 70s who has just lost her husband, Ray. In this story, her neighbor Charlie has picked up a stray dog on the Navajo reservation, which his two little girls have named Sunshine.

But Sunshine doesn’t want to live with Charlie, or his daughters. Sunshine wants to live with Greta. So day after day, she keeps returning to scratch at Greta’s door.

Greta does not want a dog. Greta does not want to have to talk to her neighbor or his out-of-control daughters, which he’s raising on his own. She doesn’t even want to get dressed and comb her hair and pick up her groceries. Greta wants to sit at home in the dark with her memories of Ray.

But literary fiction is not a place where characters get what they want—it’s a place where they get what they need. And in this, I think, such stories prepare us for the often difficult business of personal growth.

“Sunshine” was the first fiction I ever got published, back in 2012; it appeared in a little journal called Sin Fronteras put out by Writers Without Borders, a nonprofit based in Las Cruces, NM, dedicated to “encouraging a community of established and emerging writers, developing audiences for these writers, and giving voice to those whose voices may not be heard.”

There’s a lot of love in this little story—for the people I’ve known and the places I’ve lived—and it meant so much to me, at a point when I really didn’t know if I had what it took to succeed as a writer, that this little nonprofit arts journal picked it up.

And it’s inspiring, just four years later, to realize how far I’ve come: “Sunshine” is now also a chapter in the sequel to Hot Season, my debut novel, which comes out in November from Harvard Square Editions. (The name of the sequel, which does not yet have a pub date, is World’s Smallest Parade.)

Thanks for sharing the journey!

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