Monday, July 23, 2012

Jennifer Spiegel's Three Worst Stories—So Far

In the eleventh in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc Books) confesses to some failed efforts.

Oh, I’ve written a lot of bad stuff. Some was bad because I was too close to the material, failing to let the “trigger” or subject matter marinate or ferment: not enough psychic distance. Some was lousy because it was inauthentic: I didn’t know what I was talking about. Some sucked because I didn’t care. Playful prose, no passion. 

Here are my Top Three Narrative Calamities:

1.  We don’t like to talk about this in my family. We’re pretty embarrassed. Surely, it says something about us as people. Surely, there must be criminality in our genes. Surely, we must beat the children or embezzle funds or, minimally, drink. I’m talking about the time our beloved yellow Lab bit the head off a Siamese-mix kitten, her body left limp—cast off to the side, if you must know. Even as I wrote those words, I moaned aloud—the memory too gruesome and too heartbreaking to type my way through.

I was still living at home. We had just gotten a kitten: a fluffy little kitten we promptly named Sophie. For one day, Sophie was a star. She was adorable, clamoring around the velvet recliner, purring and frolicking like a bunny, an angel. Even Hemingway, our gentle giant pup, thought her special.

But then the dawn: Sophie innocently, dumbly, pitter-pattered over to Hemingway’s dog chow on the kitchen floor and sniffed it out. Hemingway, animal that he was (may he rest in peace), didn’t hesitate. With unanticipated fury, he growled, he snapped his jaw, and he bit her head off.

It wasn’t quite this way. The head was still attached. Pandemonium truly did ensue. My mother shrieked. My father picked up the broken body and Sophie, dying, defecated. I was the one appointed to drive to the animal hospital with my mom holding the ruined kitten in a towel. My mom wept the whole way. The beautiful, beautiful kitten would be put out of her misery when we arrived. The spasms would cease.

And Hemingway remained. For maybe nine more years. There were other cats. They all lived. He liked them, actually. At first, we struggled. Especially my dad. What were we to think of this dog, this monster, this cat killer? How were we to make sense of his snap dog-decision, that resort to sudden bloody violence? How could he still be our sweet pup? Should we get rid of him?

We kept Hemmy Bemmy Man, and—later that day—I knew I had to use this violence of Flannery O’Connor proportion and turn it into a stunning metaphor for beauty, innocence, and pain.  I wrote and wrote, incorporating it into a story about a woman with inoperable cancer.

All you need to know is this: It sucked.

Why? Psychic distance. Not only do I need a measure of objectivity, I also need that lapse in time in order to be free from what actually happened. I’m only able to manipulate and shape details—for a better aesthetic purpose—when time has passed.

Something missing
2.  “Following the Dead” was going to be about the Grateful Dead because my mom’s cousin, who I knew remotely but fondly, was a Dead Head at one time—and I had this strange, lurid obsession with groupies, which might be similar to my contemporary strange, lurid obsession with Renaissance Festivals. The whole thing sounded utterly fascinating. I started smoking a pipe, I put on my thinking cap, and I came up with a Grateful Dead scenario. That band name! Following around the Grateful Dead! Talk about another metaphor!

One problem: I never listened to them. I didn’t even really like them. They seemed a little smelly. I kinda liked my boys pretty. But then the coup d’état: someone let on that Jerry was missing a finger. I never knew! I had no freakin’ clue!

I abandoned ship. Obviously, my story would lack authenticity.

What writerly virtue do I prize most? Authenticity. It isn’t that I have to live it physically, but I need to grasp that world spiritually and mentally. If I don’t know about Jerry Garcia’s missing finger, I’m not fit for this story.

3.  “Scallop.” I called my fictional town Scallop. I think it was in Upstate New York. This was an assignment by a licensed counselor. Because I was in therapy. Yeah, I’m admitting that. I had been in this near-fatal car accident, which I never like to talk about, and I hated it. I said a lot of B.S. stuff. When she asked me to write her a story since I liked to write stories, I assumed she was patronizing me—but, hey, I thought, I’ll blow her @#%*ing mind with my literary awesomeness!

Friday night in Scallop
I don’t need therapy! I’m a badass writer!

What happened in the story? I don’t even remember. Something—no doubt—about a vivacious, badass woman ending up in a small town called Scallop, where they square-danced on Friday nights and preserved fruit and sh#t. I remember how the poor therapist said, “I don’t know what it means, but I know I like it.” Patronizing! I flew out of there, and burned “Scallop.”

The problem: the machinations of craft are necessary but not sufficient for literary awesomeness. The spark, the passion, the talent, the divine grace: If it’s not there, the story is D.O.A.

I have plenty more narrative disasters, but I’ll hold back.