Last week, before the weather turned cold again, we went out as a family for walks in the evening. The temperature was in the sixties, the skies radiant blue. On a couple of evenings, we walked through abandoned farmland and around marshlands, and I was overcome by the sounds of spring peepers, birds, ducks, and other waterfowl. The sound was deafening. I’m serious. Pointing out a pair of mallards to Ellie, my daughter, I needed to raise my voice so she could hear me. The ground was soggy and it felt good to feel your feet sink a little bit into the mud as you stood, totally engulfed by the sound of wildlife. For a good fifteen or twenty minutes, until dusk impelled us to head back towards where we parked, we stood there, listening to the sounds.
If you haven’t heard spring peepers before, listen to this YouTube audio clip. Imagine the sound amplified, no joke, by a factor of a hundred. Imagine being in the middle of that sound, the sound swirling all around you like chaos. Imagine that sound being compounded by song birds, duck calls, other frogs, the sound of ducks taking off from or splashing down into the surrounding waters.
I’ve heard the sounds before but, honestly, until this past week, hadn’t really listened to them.
Since I wrote my last blog post, another couple of my short stories were accepted for publication by various literary journals and magazines. Which makes five acceptances over the last three weeks. Plus a rewrite request from another magazine editor. I’ve never had a spate of luck like this before.
Art is long.
That’s how I feel about my short stories. Not that they’ll necessarily stand the test of time or that they’re works of profound genius. But long as in, they’ve been around with me a long time. In the case of the story that was selected as the winner of the Washington Square 2016 Fiction Award, I first started working on it in 2006. It was the second story I workshopped at Virginia Tech while pursuing my MFA. I sent it out for a while back then, and then for many years I didn’t bother sending it out anymore because ... because, well, it needed work. From time to time, I’d pluck it out of my hard drive, work on it for a bit, and then set it aside for many more months. In January, in the lull between working on a pair of novels, I worked on it for another couple of weeks. And then, finally, I sent it out.
Frankly, I can’t quite believe it’s been ten years since I started working on that story. What’s funny is, nearly every time I wrap up a first draft of a short story, I think to myself, WOW!!! This is awesome. And then, after the rejections pile up, I realize, Um, maybe the story ain’t quite as awesome as I thought it was. Yet.
Actually, I like my revision process. I just wish I could speed up the end product a little bit.
But revising, especially over a period of years, is like a form of collaboration. You’re not the same person you were ten years ago. So it’s like collaborating with your past self. The “you” of today usually likes what your previous “you” wrote, but rarely do you adore it. Sometimes, man, you just want to scream at that old “you.” Because the person who wrote those original drafts no long exists, you’re better able, emotionally, to rip into those drafts, better able to see the faults, the clunky lines, the metaphors that just aren’t working.
And, honestly, with time, you’re better able to “hear” what’s actually going on inside the story. Sometimes, revising an old story draft, it’s like listening to the peepers and trying to pick out the individual sounds of the ducks. With time, you can do that. You can appreciate what’s struggling to emerge from the marshland of boggy prose. You know there’s a duck in there somewhere.
Addendum: Admittedly, some of my revisions can be less than arduous. A couple of weeks ago, I looked afresh at one of my stories ("After the Riots") that I adored. It always puzzled me why, in 4+ years of submitting it here and there, and revising it here and there, it had yet to find a home. When I looked at it this time, I realized the answer: the first line was an absolute clunker. Just horrible. So I deleted it, and then sent it out. Sure enough, that did the trick. It was accepted by Atticus Review a few days after I sent it out.
On Saturday, as a bit of celebration, we went out for pizza and then came home and watched GO WEST, a Marx Brothers movie we hadn't seen before. We're big Marx Brothers fans in this household, and there's just something so delightfully subversive and zany that gets to us. Despite not being perhaps their greatest movie, GO WEST has some great moments of dialogue.
Midway through the movie thought, Ellie threw up. I started feeling sick too. On Sunday, Stephen felt sick. My guess is that the celebratory pizzas did us in. So ixnay on future celebrations, right?