Fits & Starts
What happens is I write a first sentence, then I read the sentence that I've just written, and then I immediately erase that sentence; then I begin anew by writing another first sentence for a completely different story; then another first sentence for another story, so on and so forth. Though I might not immediately write, read, and erase: a week or two or more might pass before the sentence (paragraph, page, or twenty pages) begins to bother me. At first, I usually think the sentence is fine, good even. And at those times, feeling okay about the sentence, I read and reread, as I continue working on the story, moving forward, making progress. Then, occasionally, I'll feel good about what I'm writing. I'll actually feel excited and hopeful, and life seems good. But of course it never lasts.
Because eventually, somewhere along the line, I begin to hear something tinny or false or vaguely suspect, a perception that builds and builds, and I soon find an irreparable flaw in the sentence. Either the language and/or the thought, the very premise of the story, and all of a sudden I think, What a stupid idea for a story that is! What the hell was I thinking? And soon enough the sentence, language, story, and premise, the whole damn thing bothers me, all of it, everything. Soon I can't stand the first sentence, and it suddenly appears the worst sentence I've ever read and/or the stupidest idea I've ever heard, and it might take a few minutes or a month, but inevitably I start over. The only variation on this theme is the half-finished story, which I usually forsake or abandon, until which time I can erase the entire file without giving it a second thought.
So instead of offering a complete work, because I don't see that happening anytime soon, I thought I might offer a working list of stories that I have recently or not so recently quit, abandoned, or forsaken, complete with short summaries of each failed effort, in order to give some idea of why they've been sent down. Besides, I like listing. It cheers me up. Listing gives me a sense of purpose and completion, you know. I don't have to feel alone: because I have a list! And I need never feel a sense of failure, checking off an item on any given list. Of course this particular list of failed stories will serve only as a sample of what I might've offered, had I finished any of these particular stories, and is no way intended to reflect the vast killing fields of my hard drive.
Most recently, as of this last month or two, I quit working on a story that's currently untitled. There are two reasons why this story doesn't have a working title; the first reason being that I rejected the first working title, "Animals Are Our Friends," and the second reason being that the second working title, though much improved, "The Second Coming of Ethel Merman," was likewise rejected. In any case, that story begins:
My daughter bats headless chickens out of the trees with an old broom.
There's more to it than that sentence, like eight or nine pages more, but due to nagging syntactical doubts with the first sentence, I've put that story on the back burner for the time being. Long ago I bought into the idea that no one will read beyond a first sentence, so I put a lot of pressure on the perfect first sentence.
I used to finish more stories, or some at least, though not very good stories, and some were just lousy, and others were painfully bad, bad stories, really. But still, I finished them at least. Unfortunately, sometime shortly after I submitted my first story, I heard that you only get a paragraph. I heard that when you submit a story, any given reader at any given quarterly or little magazine or wherever will read the first paragraph of your story and then decide if it's worth continuing, or pitch the story in the reject pile then and there. Then, when the first story I submitted was rejected, rightly, I'm sure, I started thinking more about my first paragraphs. Then I heard somewhere that you don't get a paragraph, no, you only get a first sentence, and that's when I started fretting about my first sentences. Then, just to make matters worse, a friend told me not even, you don't even get an entire sentence, no: you only get five words. That's right: five words. My friend insisted the first five words were make-or-break. And I believed him. It seemed plausible, what with everything you read about our short attention spans these days.
So ever since then, for a good three, four years now, whenever I'm at a bookstore, I can't help but open book after book, and I read the first sentence, counting along, tapping the first five words on the fingers of my right hand. What's more, it's a hard habit to shake, and I don't get much reading done that way, and it's annoying, really. So I was talking to my friend recently, and he asked what I was reading, and I said not much, and I mentioned this behavior to him, and he apologized, because he had no recollection of saying that to me, what he said about the first five words. He gave it some thought, and he said he stands by what he said, somewhat, the first five words are important, yes, but he simply can't remember saying that to me. Well, anyway.
My daughter bats headless chickens out of the trees with an old broom-I can't say what, but something is just not right. Though I really don't know why I should start worrying about syntax now, I never have before, but still. And I wouldn't say I've abandoned this story just yet, I'd prefer to say its fate is undecided. Besides which, I'm extremely, extremely superstitious when it comes to my writing. I honestly believe that I'm really asking for trouble, talking about a story, even mentioning a story before it's finished, so as a rule, I never talk about my stories with anyone; and the closer the acquaintance, the more liable I am to failure. But anyone at all, really. Like when I meet people and they politely ask what I do, and I try to spit out something about writing, and if they should then ask about my writing, I just tell them, I'm sorry, I can't really talk about it, and we both seem relieved. Anyway, that's the second reason why I can't talk about this story or call it by a proper title, really, as I'm not ready to give up on it yet. Because every time I have ever discussed a story before it's finished, I've abandoned the story. Forget I mentioned it.
Coincidentally, the next story on my list also has a chicken theme, and it, too, falls into the category of unfinished-but-not-yet-completely-abandoned stories. It's a work in progress, a piece of nonfiction that I've simply called "Pinkie," for the lack of a proper title, and hoping to dodge the jinx, and so as not to confuse it with any other, for the past year or two. And, as of today, the story of Pinkie still begins:
Honestly, there was no Pinkie, and Pinkie was certainly not my grandfather, though there was a doll called "Pinky" and a man called "Winky." And the true story of Joe "Winky" Edmonds is this: As a child, no more than five or six, Joe Edmonds and his older brother were playing in the yard during the time of slaughter, when the boys noticed the ax left lodged in the tree stump. So the elder brother dared the younger brother to a game of chicken, to place his left hand on the butchering block, and the younger brother accepted the dare. Not to be bested by his younger brother, the elder dared the younger to spread his fingers wide apart, and the younger accepted the dare. All right, then, I'm going to give you to the count of three, and then I'm going to swing, the elder said, focusing his aim. He thought, of course, the younger would flinch as soon as he moved the ax, so the elder brother said, One...? The younger didn't move his finger. Then he said, Two...? But still the younger didn't move a muscle. Finally, the elder brother said, This is your last warning: Are you going to move your hand or not? And his little brother just looked him in the eye. All right, then, Three...? he called, before he swung the ax, severing his little brother's last digit to the palm. As for Winky, Joe got the nickname by winking his maimed hand hello and good-bye. No, though I once claimed Winky, or rather Pinky, to be my grandfather, he was not. Winky was my grandfather's lifelong best friend, and close to blood, but not really.
I haven't got a handle or even an angle, so the story trails off after this. What's more, what I've just shared happens to be the truth, so part of the problem is that there isn't exactly any fiction to the story, just yet. I have no idea where it might lead, once I begin to twist it into some form of fiction, but I think it's pretty flexible, and it could go in any direction.
A year or two ago, I told this very anecdote to a new acquaintance, who then, a few nights later-the very next night, in fact-accused me of threatening to castrate him. Before I could even tell him the truth, that Winky was not my grandfather, nor was Pinky. Pinky was a Madame Alexander doll I named in honor of Winky Edmonds, because she was suitably dressed in a pink chiffon gown with a pale pink bonnet and her precious little fingers were curled, such that the last fingers couldn't be seen...Well, before I could explain myself or the truth, my acquaintance accused me of threatening to castrate him. This gave me pause. I didn't know where to begin. I'm sorry, when did I threaten to castrate you? I asked, assuming he must be joking. The story of Pinky was obviously a threat to castrate me, he claimed, in utter seriousness, taking another bite of his cone.
Here's what I want to know: Why in the world would this man ask me out for a drink (and later ice cream) if he honestly-honestly-believed I was threatening to castrate him? Really, what would possess him? Something definitely doesn't sound right. And I'm not asking you to believe me, and I know I can be pretty roundabout, but still, if I were going to threaten to castrate a man, why wouldn't I just come out and say so? I tried to figure it out, I mean from his point of view-maybe he was thinking that I was insinuating that I was like the older brother and he was the younger brother? But even if that were the case, how did we get from his finger to his balls? I just don't see it. But still, part of the reason I backed off from writing about Pinky or Winky or trying to write anything related was the fear of how many male readers might also misunderstand and incorrectly assume I was threatening to castrate them as well. Still, I swear, if I were even going to try and fictionalize my threat, I'd just put my cards on the table:
Much to my surprise, John invited me out for a drink the day after I threatened to castrate him.
Copyright © 2004 by Courtney Eldridge
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