Like angels and devils breading hordes of bastard monstrosities, the impetus for the type of stories I like to write comes out of the comingling of two polar opposite ideologies. One is quite happy frolicking with idealism and innocence, while the other takes great pleasure in torturing countless victims. Together they make for unpleasant friends. The type to cater to your highest morals and simultaneously use those morals to bash you into the dirt.
More or less, I can’t write a story (or complete a story I should say) unless I’m telling on someone. I’ve thought about this extensively. Largely because I was stuck for a long time, years even, on getting a collection of short stories to completion. Now I’m writing a novel and burning through the second revision phase. I think a lot about writerly things, like why I write, what drives me, why did I get stuck, and how did I get unstuck? When you’re deep in the muck that is stagnation you will contemplate ideas and processes you never would in other circumstances.
One of the conclusions I realized recently was that I could not and still can not complete, finish, finalize, bring to fruition, totalize a story unless I am telling on someone. I always write from real life experiences. I fictionalize small things here and there to create a strong story arch, but more or less everything I’ve written has been about something that has truly happened to me, or to someone around me.
In the previously mentioned short story collection, Reflections on the Water, I had a number of stories that were fantastic conceptually. They would have made for great stories, and maybe they will one day when I go back to them. But what I discovered was that the stories didn’t keep me interested because I wasn’t trying to get someone in trouble. Meaning, the characters weren’t divulging something terrible in each other.
I tend to like the big issues and the most disgusting behavior, like racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the oppressive qualities that they tend to come with. Typcially, there also has to be systemic issues that reflect the micro behavior, so if a character says something racist against Native people (or dark skinned Native people) we get that people live isolated lives and keep their circles very small because they aren’t emotionally strong enough to expand their circle. They’re emotionally like a child and need any and every form of protection to make them feel all snuggly safe.
What makes the issue more interesting, or interesting enough for me to complete a short story or add into a novel, is if the racism is supported by an entire system. Not necessarily an entire community, but it could be that. I like things that show systemic issues on a smaller scale than community or national. It makes the issue more tangible and readers, including myself, can actually witness the details of such gross behavior. So if there is an organization that is supporting oppression of Native voices (or dark skinned Native voices), then it becomes more tangible, because readers will immediately reflect on their own place of work and determine if they run into the same issue. They’ll either recognize it and see how the issue is real and needs to be changed. Or they will not recognize it and say to themselves “What’s wrong with the people in this book/community?” Either type of judgment works for me. I’m looking for a reaction that will drive people to action.
I’ve started great stories that made it through several drafts and one in particular that made it all the way to what I thought was a final draft, but they turned out to lose steam. Why? Because of the absence of micro and macro societal abuse. If one or the other is singularly present in the story it will fail. If it has both? Micro and macro? The statement along with the condoning voices in the room. That’s what makes for a good story. A story readers will want to read over and over again.
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(Works Cited: The image above was borrowed from flicr.)