Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ramona Ausubel and the Story About the Spool Farmer

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born (Riverhead Books), relates the value of pursuing even a bad idea for a story.

Years ago I was driving on the stretch of freeway that climbs over the mountains between the city sprawl of Los Angeles and the Central Valley. There were low, scraggly trees and brush and the black char of an old forest fire. It was almost pretty, a little dirt and leaf after having been stuck in the car a long time with only metal and asphalt to look at. Then, in the middle of a hillside, there were several huge empty wooden spools. They seemed strange and out of place, and one of those usually dormant parts of my brain wondered if this was, perhaps, a spool farm. Quickly, logic swooped in and presented some actual possibilities: These spools were meant to hold wire or underground cables, transported by truck to this location.

I was in my first quarter of graduate school and it was my paid job to write stories (technically my salary came from teaching freshmen to write essays, but whatever). So, I decided to write a story about a spool farmer. I took great pleasure in the thought that the state of California would be paying me for this. No one could stop me. It wasn’t exactly like Robin Hood, what I was I doing, but it felt good.

The important thing about this particular short story, its real stand-out trait, was that it was bad (and not on purpose). Thanks to the gift/curse of permanent Internet storage solutions, I can provide you with an excerpt:

People who didn’t know asked: “So you grow trees and then build spools out of the wood?”

“No," Walter said over and over. "No newfangled building. We farm them the old fashioned way.”
“From seed?” the questioner wanted to know.   
“No. We mate ’em, just like pigs or sheep or any of God’s other animals.”  

Instant classic, right? Spool sex with religious overtones and notes of the heartland.  Later on it is noted that the spools eat mostly grass, “though they do enjoy a good meat sandwich.” Ah yes, the carnivorous spool.

I don’t remember giving up on the story. That it failed was not a great disappointment and I moved on to other work right away. When I thought of it a year or so later I was embarrassed for myself and disbelieving. Did I actually try to write that? Thank goodness I never showed it to anyone, I thought. I was extremely relieved that I never turned it in to my workshop.

If I had been a more experienced fiction writer I might have known immediately that writing about meat-eating pieces of wood would pose a challenge. The trouble is that I might also have “known better” than to try to write about a pregnant teenager who believes she is going to give birth to a three-headed giraffe, or about a place where everyone grows a new arm when they fall in love. Those stories did come together, by whatever magical, alchemical means fiction does and I’m grateful that I was brave/dumb enough to try those first unknowable drafts.

I am writing a new batch of stories now and I have been thinking about the spool farm. You’ll be glad to know that I have no intention of reviving it as a work of fiction, but I’m weirdly proud of it. Not what’s in it, certainly not, but proud that I tried such a silly idea. I want, every single time I sit down to write, to follow the path that that unquestioning part of my mind makes. I’ve learned things about writing fiction in the years between the spool story and now, useful things, things I’m grateful for. But I almost never feel like I know what I’m doing—sometimes the most well-thought-out, doable-seeming ideas fail while the biggest leaps succeed. And I like it that way. I like that it’s always a surprise. The image of those spools is like a talisman I keep in my pocket to remind me not to think I know better. I imagine the field of them, ready to mate, ready to eat bologna on white bread. Be brave, they tell me. Be dumb. Be willing.