A decade ago, I decided to finish the stories I started. I regularly abandoned a narrative several pages into its first draft rather than solving for plot or reimagining structure. I didn’t think much about plot or structure. Instead, I sat at the notebook with a soft-edge idea or image. If I began with the right sentence I might slam through a first draft – but at the first stumble, I turned away. I quit to avoid failure. My notebooks were full of detours into self-pity, grade nine literature lesson plans, gossip, grocery lists, plans for our move abroad. So I kept writing. Twenty minutes at the kitchen table, to say I did, before bed. Two hours at a table near the sale shelves at Barnes & Noble. Sixth period study hall supervision. And then airport cafes, a tent in Peru, the Juan Valdez at Unicentro. All the journaling and story snips forgotten at the close of each notebook: this did not satisfy. When we left South America for the Middle East, I bought a laptop and told Justin I’d write a book on its keyboard.
We had a baby, and I would be home for a year with her. I could write when she napped. After a month, I hired a nanny to watch Claire for two hours twice a week, and I started my book. Which was more like starting a dozen books as I rummaged for a narrator and place and situation – all these narrators began to sound a lot like me until I made up a soldier named David and wrote a long, violent story I made myself finish at forty-some pages. David was the second story I made myself finish (the first also wrapped at forty-some pages) and neither were very good, but I was hooked on the exercise of finishing stories.
I had two little ones, taught part-time, and signed up for a couple of online workshops. I returned to craft. For years I’d kept notebooks. I’d minored in creative writing and led writing workshops and understood the overlapping elements of prose and poetry but during my early thirties I really got into my craft. What makes my writing mine. What I want my writing to do in process and as literature. I am still into craft and process.
I work slow, most of the time. Little by little. When the kids were young and I determined to practice the short story, I learned to do two things well: daydream drafting and note drafting. Both are as they sound.
All my starts dropped because I didn’t carry the story around in my head. I knew what it was like though, to think of your story, refine a scene or character in your mind, know the world. At university I took a fiction workshop and spent nearly the entire semester revising a single short story and the mother in the story was a puzzle I thought about on my early morning runs. It was getting cold when I ran down a dark stretch at the edge of town and realized what it was that the mother kept close, and the idea came so quick and sure that I stopped, hands on my knees, frost breath, and laugh cried. I returned to daydream drafting, in the car, while grocery shopping, on a walk along the Gulf.
I make quiet spaces in my day to think about a story.
The habit of note drafting was born of necessity: I’d have a scene or story in mind but not the hours to write it in full. (I rarely had an hours long chunk to write, but I’ll get to that another time). At my next writing practice session I’d make an outline to catch as much of the idea in my head as possible, and later, when I had more time or quiet, I’d refer to those notes as I drafted. Before I started note drafting I had a narrow view of how to draft. I thought outlines stifled creativity and surprise. Even now, I don’t note draft every scene before writing it out, and I rarely know the full story from its first sentence: I like the muddle of writing narrative, finding a way through the story, sensing its near completion. But daydream and note drafting taught me to carry a story around for the weeks or months it needs to become an early iteration.
Now I have a story to mull while loading the dishwasher, walking to the bakery. In addition to whatever short piece I’m drafting, I have two longer stories I keep rolling around. Takes some discipline to make your mind go to narrative work. Loll about for a bit. Then note where you leave off.