It was never intended as a first chapter.
I was intrigued by C. Michael Curtis, Agni and Ploughshares, the Bellevue Literary Review -- especially Bellevue because that literary journal was founded by Danielle Ofri. I'd read both of her memoirs of what it was to become a doctor and wanted desperately to write something that would impress her half as much as her writing touched me.
Short stories are difficult animals to tame, invested with a nature I find elusive. When recommending fiction to Post Road, I consider an accomplished short story to be dynamic, have a compelling voice and characters unlike the 10 other male ennui submitted that quarter, I want to be moved by something transformative. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. But my goodness, it's awfully hard to write, don't you think?
Mr. Curtis, past fiction editor for The Atlantic, believes first-person present tense is an affectation; Sven Birkets, the editor of Agni, expects language to arrest his attention; and frankly, I've never understood the tastes of those at Ploughshares. But Bellevue, I love the pages of that literary journal. It contains writing that is bound to this earth, sensible and enthralling, nothing that strains credulity. Its editors seek out stories that demonstrate an understanding of craft, a facility with language, and honest insight into the human condition that other journals can only reach toward. So when I finished my short story, I sent it to Bellevue, knowing Dr. Ofri wouldn't read it. It was enough someone there would.
Weeks passed, I was distracted by an illness in the family, a move to a new home. And then an email appeared from the Bellevue Literary Review. It had to be a rejection, I expected nothing more and surely it was from the fiction editor. Well, yes and no. It was a note from Dr. Ofri:
"We considered this story strongly. Good writing, nice tone. But the ending isn't as strong as it could be; it seems to stop rather than end. It also feels like we need some more mortar in the story: We need to know early on that woman is embalming and that narrator is female, how old. We need a bit about her life, how long has she worked there, what is private life like. It was a touching moment when little girl wanders in, but reader needs to understand how narrator's life is like the girl's. If you decided to fill the story out, we'd be happy to read a revised version if you submit it late summer or early fall (during our next reading cycle). -Danielle Ofri"
I must have read her words a hundred times. Everything she wrote made sense, but nothing more than, "...it seems to stop rather than end." The problem was I hadn't written a short story at all, I was inept as ever. What I'd done was write the first chapter of a novel. I knew this was true, knew it at my core, because my characters wouldn't leave me be, they had so much more to say.
A few moments of Dr. Ofri's time spent reading my submission and a hurried email with editorial feedback encouraged me to take a path I'd never intended. Perhaps she'll be happy to know I worked on that first chapter for five more months before continuing on with the rest of the story. Like the reader, I, too, needed to discover how old my protagonist was, more of her private life, and the ties that bound her to the little girl. As Dr. Ofri said, I had to build the "mortar" of her life. I've done that, I think. We shall see if it's good enough.
So thank you, Dr. Ofri, you were right. It wasn't an ending at all, just the beginning.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007