First, I want to say I enjoyed the way you play with narrative time in the story. I count eight different narrative jogs—more because some of them are recurring—laced in and out of the whole. Do you find you write in this Escherian fashion when drafting, or do you tend to write linear stories that you then edit like a Time Lord?
Thanks for the kind words—and to the SmokeLong staff for all their wonderful work. One time I misheard a friend say that “a story is a failed painting,” and that’s stuck with me. I’m not sure what it’d mean in practice, but I like the idea of literature striving for what visual art can accomplish. There were Escher lithographs on my childhood bookshelf, next to a book of three-dimensional illusions, the ones where you’d cheat by lifting the page right up to your nose. I’m envious of how those artists get to play with physical space, and always trying to find ways to mimic that formal inventiveness. As a result, this piece’s narrative threads were even more intertwined in earlier drafts. It didn’t work so well. Editing was a process of untangling them.
I feel like we all know Tessa—and have all been Tessa. In fact, I feel like Tessa is the annoying story I’ve gone back to and abandoned again at least once a year for the last six years. Did she ever find her door?
What a delightful idea. I think part of Tessa’s problem is that she’s looking for something that purports not to exist. How exactly does she expect to succeed at that? Everyone who’s ever quested for the Holy Grail has died trying, and yet we keep seeking confirmation that the impossible can’t be done. (Which is to say nothing about your story, Shelly. I believe in you.)
I’m always most interested in characters who find things they aren’t looking for. We don’t know much about Tessa—she’s pretty much an empty shell here—but everyone deserves to find their inspiration. I doubt very much that Tessa’s, ultimately, will look anything like a door.
I read this again at about two in the morning and became convinced she was really dead, that the title is her requiem. What happened on August 10, 2016?
I hadn’t considered that interpretation, but Tessa’s a fictional contrivance by the story’s own parameters, so I don’t disagree. Let’s back up.
We can’t see black holes because they don’t emit light. But we can locate them based on how objects react in their vicinity. A really great story might operate similarly: Its emotional core might be invisible except for how it bends the ideas in its orbit. I didn’t have that confidence—I felt the story needed a beacon to establish either place or time.
If the legend is true, Anne Carson’s Red Doc> got its title from the document name her computer spat out after fritzing. August 10, 2016, is when I finished the first draft. I’ve refined the language plenty since then, but the structure’s remained essentially stable. So has the document name. I suppose that makes the title something like this story’s event horizon.
The story presents as metanarrative, with your name and a stream of consciousness that feels utterly internal. How do you approach the self in story?
All fiction is, I think, autobiographical. At least that’s true of mine. Not that “Michael Sarinsky” frequently shows up as a character—this is my only piece in which the author makes a literal appearance. But my characters think like I do; they each share some subset of my obsessions, my concerns, my verbal tics. I don’t have a big imagination for personalities, so most of my stories end up employing a different narrative conceit to disguise that shortcoming. Metafiction is really the thinnest of those conceits, and so maybe the best reserved for a short piece.
You mention writing workshops and the death-by-criticism of a story—I appreciate that so much about this piece. Why are workshops so much like being shaken in a bag full of glass? What, if anything, is constructive about the workshop way?
This piece is awfully impolite to the power of written fiction. Nothing changes between its beginning and its end. At times it substitutes self-negation for narrative drama. But I hope it isn’t equally pessimistic about the process of writing fiction championed by MFA programs. I love workshops. Brainstorming, long letters. A dozen of my smartest friends talking seriously about craft. So when workshops sting, I just consider it growing pains. The abandoned novel that I mention in this piece—even as my classmates, and especially my professors, taught me why it deserved to fail, they showed me what was salvageable from it. Not which sentences or plot points, but which sensibilities, temperaments, humors. It was a generous and generative environment, where nobody tried to steer the group toward that generic, Auto-Tuned center for which workshops get a bad rap. The opposite, actually. We liked weird ideas. I think we all pushed one another to be more ourselves.
Maybe the question’s answer—why this piece feels critical of workshop—lies somewhere in its relationship with truth. When I told my mother that I’d written a story about housing Socrates last summer while she traveled around Italy, her first response was: “I didn’t go to Italy last summer.” Apparently I’d changed her destination somewhere in the editing process. I can’t remember why. But over the long course of rereading and tweaking the piece, it’d somehow become my reality.
There are other liberties scattered throughout the story that I’m more conscious of. My high-school best friend has never sent me a book, for instance. And the apartment number is wrong. These were little casualties born of esoteric decisions. Maybe my workshops, too, became collateral damage for the sake of a better story. In my experience, I think they’d be pretty OK with that.