The Story Behind the Story: “Charcoal”


Sometimes it’s interesting to understand the inspiration for a story. If you’re curious about the origins of my story “Charcoal,”  published in the Fall 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner, here’s a little about what went into it.

In August of 2011, I attended a screening of the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet ice age paleolithic cave paintings in France. The film is remarkable, not just because of the subject, but because of Herzog’s treatment of it and his unprecedented access to the cave. I highly recommend the film, which is available on Netfllix and elsewhere.

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. In college I took anthropology and archaeology courses, but in the end decided against pursuing it as a career. I still have my amateur fascination with prehistory, so this film held me rapt, until one line of dialogue in the movie pulled me completely out of the cave. I haven’t watched the film again since then, so I don’t know the exact wording, but it was a comment about the security guard or guards stationed outside the cave to keep intruders out.

At that moment, my attention went from the cave to the idea of a security guard for a cave. I couldn’t stop thinking about that job, that person, what a strange way that would be to earn a living. What would it be like to be that person? After the film was over, I remarked to my friends how interested I was in the security guard, and of course they hadn’t even noticed that one tiny, crazy detail. It was not the thrust of the film for anyone in the theater but me. I decided on my way home that I had to try to write a story from the point of view of that security guard.

In September of 2011 I went to Gilman, Illinois for a residency called “Writers in the Heartland,” anxious to start this story. I wrote part of the first draft there. A month or so later, I had a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and continued to work on the story.

My initial vision of the story was that it would be an exploration of how something profound and moving like 30,000-year-old cave paintings could affect one’s psyche. I could imagine becoming obsessed with the drawings and wanting to possess them, to recreate them, to retreat into one’s own version of what must have been a sacred place for prehistoric people.

Of course, when you write a story, other things creep in. Suddenly my protagonist had a nephew that I hadn’t known about. Their relationship infiltrated the story. In my head, since the Chauvet cave was discovered in the 1990s, that’s when my story was taking place. Also during the 1990s was the founding of the European Union and discussion about globalization, which was kind of a new topic then. I started to think about what happens to jobs during globalization and outsourcing and how a person without much education, like my protagonist, was going to face this new world.

Soon after I returned from VCCA, where I probably revised the story 3-4 times over the three weeks of the residency, I began sending it out to literary journals. TOO SOON! I have a patience problem, a history of sending work out before it’s ready. It was rejected 3 times in that round of submissions. I stopped sending it out, set it aside, and later worked on more revisions until I sent it out again at the beginning of 2013. Fortunately, I use Duotrope to track my submissions, so I can easily look back over the submission history of this story.

My habit is to send a story out too soon, pull back and revise it more, send it out more, revise it again, lather, rinse, repeat. I don’t recommend this method. I still haven’t worked out how to know when a story is finished, but now I know it’s probably not finished when I think it’s finished. “Charcoal” was rejected a total of 23 times over a series of quite imperfect drafts.

Between the end of 2013 and the end of 2014, something about my latest revision was working. The story was a finalist in 4 different contests. I asked friends whether that meant it was close to right, but not quite there, and should I try to “fix” it more. Everyone I asked said that I shouldn’t change it if it was that close so many times. I was sufficiently insecure about my writing that I considered revising it again anyway, but instead decided to send it out again, this time to Prairie Schooner.

Prairie Schooner does not accept simultaneous submissions. I know a lot of writers don’t consider themselves bound by that requirement, but I do. That meant, for the time I was waiting for a response from Prairie Schooner’s editors I couldn’t send it elsewhere and so would not be continuing to revise the story. According to Duotrope, after a wait of 152 days, I received an email from the editors of Prairie Schooner, offering to publish the story, but requesting that I consider revising the ending.

Endings are hard. I have read so many stories that are engaging all the way to the ending and then disappoint. Either they just end, with no feeling of resolution or inevitability, or they wrap things up too neatly. It’s very hard to get an ending that works.

I had always felt the ending was the weakest part of this story. I had changed it several times, mostly in response to readers’ comments. I talked with Kwame Dawes, the editor of Prairie Schooner, about his suggestions for the ending, took a long walk in the woods, made one last draft of the ending and sent it off for publication.

I hope this will give new writers some perspective on publication. This story took about 4 years from inception to print. I don’t know whether there was anything I could have done differently, except to wait longer before submitting it, revising and going back over it over a longer period of time. It might have been rejected fewer times before an editor somewhere liked it and thought it worthy of inclusion in his journal. I’m beginning to get the hang of this, maybe, and beginning to have a little more confidence in my own work. It all takes time, patience, practice, trial and error. Like pretty much everything else in life.

Have a similar story? Share in the comments the length of your favorite stories’ journeys from first draft to publication (print or online).

How to Make Writing Pay

How_to_Make_Writing_PayOn March 23, 2013, as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, I moderated a panel called “How to Make Writing Pay,” with freelance writers and professional authors (from left) Don Fry, Leslie Truex, Edie Eckman, and Gabe Goldberg. The panelists shared a wealth of insights from their many collective years of experience earning money as writers. The podcast is available here for a listen.

Mea Culpa

If you’ve come here from my WriterHouse blog post, I am truly embarrassed at how long it’s been since I’ve updated this blog. Please forgive my neglect. Consider this the equivalent of the cute little “Under Construction” graphic that used to show up on the home page of so many web sites in the early days.

James River Writers’ Conference 2011

Spent today at James River Writers’ Conference. Highlights:

  • First page critiques with literary agents Michelle Brower, April Eberhardt, and Becca Stumpf
  • Short story panel with Leona Wisoker, Michael Parker and Belle Boggs
  • Imagery and language panel with Kathleen Graber, Lucia St. Clair Robson and Irene Ziegler
  • State of the industry talk by agent April Eberhardt

I will try to find time this week to report more fully about what I learned from these panels. Looking forward to day 2.

I’m staying away from the silent auction. Last time I was near one I discovered that alcohol causes reckless bidding.


The Gift of Time #2

Last night I posted about having writing time, and this morning I received a phone call about a residency I applied for a few months ago. I’ve been selected to spend a week in September at Writers in the Heartland, in Illinois.

It’s so great to get news like this. Although sometimes we say we’re only writing for ourselves, deep down we want some sort of validation. Having your writing selected for publication or for admission into a residency or conference is the kind of validation we don’t all get every day.

So, thank you, Writers in the Heartland, and if you’re from the midwest or have a connection to the midwest, consider applying next year.

The Gift of Time

A couple of weeks ago I spent several days in the North Carolina mountains with about 20 other writers, scenic vistas, and great food. Generous and talented authors like Darnell Arnoult and Jim Minick, and guest authors Lee Smith, Barbara Bennett, and Joseph Bathanti were also in attendance. There were daily impromptu critique sessions, I got to spend time with Susan Gregg Gilmore and to top it off,  southern family-style lunch–all part of the Table Rock Spring Studio, put together by Georgann Eubanks and Cindy Campbell.

All that was great, but the best thing about the week was the uninterrupted writing time. No meals to prepare, no carpools, no laundry. Nothing to do but write. I used most of the time to mark up the first draft of my second novel, which was not nearly as fun as writing new material, but needed to be done. I also revised a couple of short stories that had been lying fallow.

Getting away to focus on one’s art is a great gift. If you get a chance, give it to yourself.

6 br, new on the market, must love pink

I finally got around to assembling and putting up my limited edition pink Rock City “Survivor Birdhouse.”  Thanks, Susan! If you don’t know about Rock City, it’s a natural wonder of Tennessee. Check out their website.

I hope it’s not too late in the spring to attract some birds. Bluebirds were checking out one of our birdhouses earlier this week but apparently decided not to move in. There are baby chickadees in the other birdhouse.

Can’t wait for the letter from the neighborhood association architectural review board about the unapproved house colors!

Fondly Remembering Phone Tag

Back in the day, we all complained about something called “phone tag.” I would call you on the phone and leave you a message, asking you to call me back,  you would call me back and leave a message, and we would take turns doing this until such time as we both got on the phone at the same time and had a conversation. At the time, this seemed frustrating and inefficient.

Sometimes you called to leave a message when you knew I wouldn’t be able to answer, so  you could discharge your responsibility without investing your time in the real conversation. Sometimes I deliberately didn’t pick up when I figured it was you; I just wasn’t in the mood to talk. Eventually, though, we would have whatever conversation we needed to have, resolve whatever needed resolution, and cross something off our lists.

When email first became popular, we thought our communication would be so much more efficient. We would lay out our questions and arguments in clear prose and, pronto, receive a response. We could send messages in the middle of the night and, magically, the answers would be in the “inbox” when we awoke. It would solve all our problems.

Those were the days before the 100-message-a-day inbox. The correspondence has become so voluminous that email programs now keep track of “threads” and gmail offers to help you prioritize incoming email. I’m not even counting spam here, which is already filtered and filed away in the “junk” box, when I tell you that all my inboxes combined hold more than 12,000 email messages. I’m not one of those people who saves everything forever, either. I love deleting messages I no longer need. The problem is this: I have multiple “conversations” going on at any one time that all require 8-10 messages to complete to the point of deletion or filing in more permanent storage.

“Phone tag” has now been replaced by “email tag” or “facebook tag,” except for the missing voice conversation in which the loose ends get tied up. I send a message to you saying, “Want to have lunch next week?” on Thursday morning. By Friday I probably have your response, which is something like, “Sure, what day?” I respond with, “How’s Wednesday?” and then leave your message in my inbox to help me remember in case you don’t reply promptly. It will likely take 6-7 messages back and forth to set our lunch date. More complicated interactions are more protracted; days can elapse between messages.

Sometimes I get frustrated by the whole thing and pick up the phone to cut through the fog. But wait, I no longer have your phone number. The phone book is useless because your number is unlisted and I don’t have your cell number. I’m going to have to email you or message you on facebook to get it.

I have two teenagers. They informed me a while ago that it’s now considered rude to phone somebody without first contacting them on facebook to make sure it’s ok, unless it’s a very close friend. In that case, you should probably text instead. We now have more ways to contact each other and more barriers to using them.

I started writing this post two weeks ago and just got around to finishing it. In the meantime, the Wall Street Journal has caught up with my thoughts.

I have a radical proposal. If you need to communicate with me, how about giving me a call…on my landline.

Suggestible Parents Look to Fiction for Naming Children

Twilight Drives Cullen Up 300 Spots in Name Rankings; Atticus and Holden Stay Strong – GalleyCat

Last year was a good year for the name Cullen, which jumped nearly 300 spots in the Social Security Administration’s list of most popular names. The New York Times points out the clear connection between the name’s new popularity and Edward Cullen, the vampire star of the Twilight series.

Apparently the American public has so little imagination and/or such a tenuous grip on tradition that they look to fictional characters for baby names. Wow. I wonder what the demographics were of the parents. Are 25-year-olds fans of Twilight or is it the teen parent cohort naming their kids after a vampire? How will they explain that in twenty years? I say either stick with Biblical or traditional names or go the other way and make up something unique.

Need names for your fictional characters, or just want to make sure that the character born in 1920 could plausibly be named Brittany (no)? I recommend Name Voyager. It’s a web-based tool that shows the popularity of first names over time. Don’t distract your readers by being sloppy with the character names.

Um, it might be too late for bandaids…

Somebody in my house brought this home today, and it struck me as an ironic juxtaposition of concepts, so I had to blog about it. It’s a plastic holder for bandaids. With advertising. From a hospice. Of course the first thing that struck me was, “isn’t it a bit too late for bandaids when you’re choosing a hospice?” Or is it that each time you cut your finger you should have this memento mori? Or what exactly is the logic behind choosing this as an advertising medium? I can imagine the meeting where the marketing team was browsing the tchotchke catalog. “Let’s see, hospice frisbees, hospice thumb drives, hospice golf visors…YES! Bandaid holders!”