By Laura Moore
I tried really hard to make my story fiction.
I wrote down what I knew to be true and then I let my imagination sprinkle it with details.
I changed the setting.
I stretched out the timeline of the characters's relationship.
I imagined a dramatic fall at the end, where the stranger reached out and caught the protagonist, uttering a poetically perfect phrase that wrapped up the tale with a tightly looped ribbon.
And in the end--despite the story being 75% real--everything about it felt false, forced, fake. It felt overly convenient and unrealistic. It felt all pie-in-the-sky, all naive, all sickeningly sweet.
When I pictured it in the hands of a reader, I could imagine someone snickering. "That would never happen," the guy would say. Or "now, now, you unsavvy, little optimist. Do you really think someone is going to buy this [insert eye roll] little tale?"
Each time I imagined the story's reception, I returned to the piece and revised the living daylights out of it, spending hours word-smithing sentences, altering images, deepening my characterization, heightening the drama, searching for ways to resolve the issues, before tucking it into a drawer and starting the process again a month later.
But no matter how many times I did this, no matter how many active and inactive months I spent, every time I read the story out loud, something always felt off.
Having been nose deep in writing books and articles and workshop notes, I wondered if perhaps this piece was hopeless. "Sometimes a story just isn't salvageable," a small press editor said in a workshop. "Before you invest a significant amount of time on a project, you need to decide if it's really worth it."
If the story had been 100% fiction, I think I would have said it wasn't worth it. I think I would have pegged it as a troublesome pest. I'd have chalked it up to a learning experience, a part of the process, a step along the path to getting better.
But the story--the true story--was real and because I knew it was a good one, I couldn't let it go. It happened five years ago, and yet time didn't render it any less significant in my life. Even more, each time I told it aloud to friends or to strangers sitting around a table, people were moved, stunned, silent, as they listened to each detail.
I knew there was something to it. There just was, and so no matter how immature or optimistic the story sounded, I couldn't bring myself to toss it into a slush pile of experimentation. I couldn't accept that it was an unsalvageable beast. I couldn't close out the document for good.
So I kept revising.
For seven months.
I kept trying to figure out what was wrong. I kept trying to figure out how to fix it. And the more I worked on the story, the better it got. The sentences were certainly crisper, the images were definitely more evocative and the story fit more snuggly into the plot arc.
But despite all of that, it still sunk flat on the page. It still didn't sound right. It still wasn't fixed it, and I couldn't figure out why....
Until two nights ago.
I printed out my latest round of revisions and gave the story to my husband. He offered me his feedback and then we discussed it. As we talked, something clicked and I realized what was wrong. I had been spending the majority of my revision effort trying to make the unbelievably real (although very much real) things in a fake story actually sound like they could happen.
I was making excuses for coincidences. I was building a case for strange exceptions. I was ignoring what made the story good to begin with. By attempting to fictionalize it, I was standing behind a curtain with my hands and toes and head peaking beyond the edges. "I am real. I am here. Let me out," the veiled version of me was saying. And I was too focused on my mission to listen.
My story didn't need to be fictionalized or exaggerated or drawn out. It didn't need to be tidied up and I didn't need to make excuses for it.
I just needed to tell it. Honestly. In the form that best suited the purpose.
I just needed to let it be what it was.
How true is this about life? About ourselves? About every small thing we force fit into places it was never meant to fit?
The minute I went back and erased the falsities--the minute I accepted the truths--the seemingly insurmountable barriers, the unsalvageable sentences, the naive images, they all fell away. And while I have no idea whether or not this story will ever get published, I do know that I fixed the problem. I do know that it no longer sounds naive. And I do know--without a shadow of a doubt--that it was certainly worth the effort to save it.
By Laura Moore
For the last four weeks, I've been busy creating my own world: carefully crafting characters, civically engineering neighborhoods and inventing all sorts of problems for my lovely young adults to solve.
I spent roughly 240 hours (probably more, but I rounded down) over the course of a month, swirling around in the clouds of my imagination, running my fingers through thoughts as if they were sculpting clay, turning them into sentences and paragraphs and metaphors in an effort to make something that would get my high school kids to think and talk about big things, things they've inspired me to write about, things like life and death, things like dealing with the pressure to succeed, things like being too scared to step out of boxes, things like seeing the value of slowing down, of realizing there is no finish line in life where the challenges go away and everything suddenly gets easier.
The process was awesome.
It was all of those things because the journey mimics life. The journey to create anything is about hope and then confidence and then doubt and then fear and then confidence and then hope all over again.
Sometimes the path is clear and easy and the weather is perfect; at other times, the storm clouds cluster the moment you hit the steepest part of the mountain. And as easy as it would have been to turn back and hide under the cover of shelter, I couldn't pull myself away from the challenge. I couldn't rightfully give up because deep down I knew that trudging through the mud and testing my grip was all part of the experience if I wanted to understand what I was made of.
And so I kept going.
For the first four days it was sunshine and rainbows. My fingers danced. My ideas were pouring out just like they appeared in my head, and because of that, despite hearing expert advice to the contrary, I felt like I had ample time to edit as well as write. In fact, I started each day by editing the previous day's writing. Then, several hours later, once I felt good about what I had, I launched into the new stuff.
My first draft is going to be polished, I said to myself each day as I went down for my third cup of coffee.
But then, on day five, the editing demon (and a massive headache) swarmed my body, and I found myself paralyzed with panic. Despite earlier editing efforts that added words to the word count, on that day, my three hours of revision cut out almost 320 words, which, unfortunately, meant that I now had to write 2,720 words rather than 2,400, and I had three fewer hours to do it.
Upon realizing this, I pounded the heel of my hand to my forehead, and right then and there--in the wake of a self-inflicted headache--I vowed to shut down my compulsive desire to nit-pick, to edit, to revise, to fiddle and fiddle and fiddle until my words sounded good in my ears. While other writers suggested this action as a vital mechanism for success, until I squared up with just how hard it was to move with an inner critic holding my feet in the mud, I couldn't shut him down, I couldn't bear to see what I created without him looking over my shoulder.
The minute I was at risk for failing my daily word count though, I knew that I had no choice: if I wanted to keep going, I had to rip off a strip of duct tape and slap it across his mouth.
And so I did.
"If you keep making me turn back," I told him sternly, "we are never going to get anywhere."
He struggled briefly with my retaliation, but he ultimately acquiesced, deciding to give me a chance to prove myself, deciding to give me the chance to write, to move without handcuffs and a three ton weight strapped to my back.
He stayed silent for three days, and for three whole days my fingers lifted ideas from my brain without any care or worry in the world. For three whole days I moved the story forward and I enjoyed the ride my fingers took across the keyboard. I could see the storm clouds up ahead, I could smell the rain, and I could hear the thunder, but I didn't want to believe it; I just wanted to keep going--I just wanted to keep joyriding--until I couldn't go any further, until something physically made me stop.
Maybe it'll miss me, I thought as the sky grew darker. But all along, I knew there was something brewing. All along, I knew it would eventually collapse on top of me. All along, I knew I would find myself beneath massive amounts of angry precipitation without any rain gear or shelter to dull the severity of the attack.
And just as my gut predicted, this happened on day ten.
When I sat down to write that Monday, my stomach churned the entire time my fingers pounded the keys. I kept going to see if I could fix the problem, but by the time I got to the end of my word count, I knew there was no fixing it. I hated what was happening to my characters. It didn't feel right, and even worse, the more I thought about the way my plot was unfolding, the more I realized the entire manuscript was headed toward the dreaded land of contrivedville (yes, I just made up that word).
I wanted to throw up.
In fact, the night the storm clouds dumped pounds of hail on my head, I laid in bed staring at the back of my eyelids for a good four hours before the nausea made me get up and sprawl out on the bathroom floor.
I can't keep writing something so stupid, I told myself over and over. You're 15,000 words in and this is absolutely, pathetically dumb.
Twisting and turning my ideas, I grasped for straws, hoping to figure something out so I wouldn't have to abandon my project and start over, but my mind could not move past the negative voices. I could not get the inner critic to shut up so the problem solver could swoop in and fix things. I could not stop doubt from swimming through my intestinal tract, jostling things up inside of me, and taunting me with his I-told-you-this-was-going-to-be-dumb mantra.
So I stared up at the bathroom vent and gritted my teeth.
Then our baby cried.
Crap. Crap. Crap.
I rubbed my temples, picked up my body and made my way to his crib. I rocked him until he fell back to sleep and I lost myself in his sweet face. Ten minutes later, I leaned down to set him softly on the mattress, but the minute I let go, he woke up again and screamed. We tried the process twice more, and after the third melt down, I carried him back to the kitchen, prepared a bottle and decided to feed him. Six ounces later, he fell into such a deep sleep he didn't mind returning to the crib.
It was now three o'clock in the morning.
Now what? I thought, staring at the clock. Too frantic to sleep and too tired to write, I sifted through a pile of books beside my desk and picked up Anne Lamont. Two paragraphs in, everything clicked. I pulled out my journal, and let my mind do its thing. Jotting down a revised game plan, I made notes about how to fix what I had already written, what I needed to delete and where I needed to go next. As I wrote, the nausea faded, and once I captured my epiphany, I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning, I deleted almost 5,000 words, revised the ones that stayed, and then set out on my new course. That process eliminated 1/3 of the work I had done up to that point, but once I cut the excess, I could see the fog lifting and the problems untangling. Ideas began forming again and I let myself follow their lead. My work was venturing off of my original plan, but it was exciting to see where it went. The entire experience was sort of like an out of body movie unfolding before me, and sometimes the plot would make me gasp: Woah. I didn't know that was going to happen to HIM! I'd say to myself, shocked. Or That's what she was trying to get him to see?
When I'd explain the developments to my husband, he'd always smile at my reports. "How are you surprising yourself?" he'd ask. "Aren't you the one making it up?"
"It's magic," I would say back to him, and in a totally nerdy sort of way, that's exactly what it felt like.
This magic continued through the end, even when I realized my book still had problems, even when I realized there were plot gaps and point of view issues and two characters that needed to be merged. And I think that magic continued simply because I allowed myself to accept the fact that what I was writing could be fixed later. I think it continued because I resigned myself to just keep going, to just keep plugging away, to just get out the story so I could figure out what I had to work with when I had the time to dig in my fingers and rework the clay.
When I uploaded it to the word counter for validation, I felt good about my imperfect manuscript. It wasn't pretty, boxed up or "finished" in any sort of way that would make sense to another human being, but buried in mountains of prose that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes messy, lies the promise of an idea I brought to life, lies a world that I made, a world stuffed with questions and fears and hopes and dreams. And even if no one else sees it, that world will always be alive, that world will always change the way I see mine, that world will always be something that exists because somewhere along the line I silenced my inner doubter, my inner criticizer, my inner voice that says you can't do it, and I filled the silence with a heart that says, you can.
By Laura Moore
Instead of enjoying a cup of coffee, or a few extra moments with my husband and son Monday morning, I rushed through my routine and darted across town at 7:15 am, in an effort to retrieve my wallet (which unfortunately, I, as the last customer of the night, left at a battery store Sunday evening).
I realized I had forgotten it as soon as I double checked my purse prior to picking up the pizza, and that realization led to a flurry of searching on behalf of my husband and myself: in the diaper bag, the stroller, the carseat, under the seats in my car, anywhere we could possibly think to look.
But the minute I realized it wasn't in my purse, deep down, I knew I left it there, at the store; I could picture exactly where I set it down, and--because I felt guilty for being the jerk who came in ten minutes before close--I knew I left it in that spot because I was mindlessly hurrying out of the store so the employees could log out and enjoy the night.
Despite knowing no one would be there when I returned, I rushed back to the store just in case, hoping that maybe someone was waiting for a ride, or got a last minute phone call, or had some other reason to remain well beyond closing time. When I pulled into to the empty parking lot though, I knew it was hopeless. Nevertheless, I gazed through the window anyway--just to see if it was there--and sure enough, propped up on the counter exactly where I left it, I saw my wallet, sticking out like a butterfly on asphalt.
I wanted to vomit. Why didn't anyone see it and lock it in the register?
Then I proceeded to scare myself: Someone is going to break in
. My wallet is so OBVIOUSLY there. The window doesn't seem that thick. The lights are so bright.
My abandoned billfold looked terribly tempting, bulging with the thickness of my life, hovering beneath spot lights, ripe with a vulnerable identity waiting to be stolen. Frantic to retrieve it, I knocked on every window. I left a message for the manager. Heck, I even called the emergency door line listed on a sticker at the top of the door. Nothing I did, however, produced results, and so I sat there, defeated. Before giving up entirely though, I called the police.
The non-emergency line operator told me to wait in the parking lot and she would dispatch an officer. Relieved and hopeful, I sat there, staring through my windshield into the store window, focused painfully on what I left behind. I sat there praying that the police officer would have the solution. I sat there inventing a thousand scenarios where authorities would arrive with a skeleton key, or a manager or some other magical means of opening the door and handing me back the
container that allowed me to conduct the business of life.
It took about ten minutes for the officer to arrive, and while I waited and invented my stories, I looked around. Observing my surroundings, I sized up the risk of my wallet camping out in plain sight. And when I spotted an over-served man with a blonde, scraggly beard, unkempt clothes, and ruddy red cheeks stumbling back and forth behind me in the parking lot, for the first time, I grew afraid. I watched him lumber in uneven strides, falling one way and then jerking back to correct his movements, and when he neared my car and split his gaze between my rearview window and the well-lit store containing my wallet, I grew terribly suspicious. Was this man dangerous? Did he want to get into my car? Would he break into the store and steal my wallet? Was he going to ask me for money?
I turned the key in my ignition and placed my hands on the gear shift. A slight wave of ease came over me as I realized I could dash off if he approached my car. With my adrenaline on high alert, I cued 911 on my iPhone, and I kept checking my mirrors, studying him, eyeing him,
waiting to see what he would do.
Moments later, he passed me, and as he wandered north up High Street, I rewrote his narrative in my mind. My fear now gone, I was free to be rational. And from a safe distance, I no longer saw him as a singular creature of suspicion--he was no longer a dangerous drunk who was looking for the chance to threaten some part of my life--
he was just a man, with a thousand possible reasons for why he just so happened to stumble through a parking lot at the same time my personal crisis (that in the grand scheme of life was not a big deal at all) happened to unfold. Maybe he was looking at me because he wondered if I was in trouble. Maybe he self-medicates because he can't afford medical care. Maybe he wasn't impaired, and just suffers from vertigo. Maybe he is taking care of his sick wife and didn't have time to shower. Maybe he was helping a friend with yard work and had one too many celebratory drinks. Maybe he isn't well, and is forcing himself outside to find food.
Of course, since I had idle time to think, the maybes
continued. And the more they continued, the worse I felt about my initial read, about my gut instinct to start the car, cue the authorities, and plan my escape on account of the way he looked
My train of thinking broke seconds later when the police arrived, and I turned my energy to the situation that called me there to begin with. The officer who was dispatched to my location greeted me with a smile, and when I explained my
dilemma, she peered through the store window at my wallet and then searched her records for emergency numbers. Even though she didn't have to, she took the time to call the contacts she had. Unfortunately, they didn't answer, but her response helped me feel better about the circumstances. She wrote notes about our interaction, and told me that if anything happened to my wallet, there would now be a police record.
The officer and I parted ways once our exchange was complete, and I spent the entire ride home thinking about both the man in the parking lot and my pleasant encounter with the officer. I wondered what the man's real story was. I wondered how he perceived the distant intersection of our lives. Despite thinking
that he was looking at me, perhaps he didn't even notice me there, perhaps he didn't give me a second thought, but perhaps my presence made him just as nervous as his presence made me. Perhaps my presence caused him to fear an altercation with the police, or with whomever he imagined was meeting me.
Despite giving him the benefit of the doubt later, I wondered why my initial gut reaction was fear. What was it about that man that made me afraid? Would have I been afraid under different circumstances? Or was there something about him that would have always triggered a high alert setting? And if there is something about seeing certain people that triggers an innate, survivalist response, where does that response come from? Is our fear the byproduct of a deeply ingrained instinct toward self-preservation or is it something we learn,
something culture teaches us over time? Perhaps it is some combination of the two, and if so, when is fear good and when is it bad? And how do we draw the line in such a way that we can keep both ourselves and our respect for humanity safe?
The police, of course, were on their way, so in my situation Sunday evening, the promise of seeing blue and red lights calmed me. If anything happens, they will arrive and stop it,
And the mere fact that my view of them as an ally, as a helper, as a beacon of justice made me wonder about all of the people who would never think to call authorities when they were scared, or desperate, or in need of a small outpouring of help. It seemed so natural to me to pick up the phone because that's what my
narrative tells me to do: Call 911 when you're in trouble. The police will help you. When cop cars pull onto the scene, you can relax. But this isn't a natural response for everyone.
As I drove home
from the battery store Sunday night, I thought about how different my narrative looks from the narratives of those who have been raised to avoid authorities, from those who have seen or experienced police brutality, from those who have endured tension, violence, profiling and fear. I thought about those who spend each day hoping
to avoid conflict, because they have learned that there are few voices standing up for them, standing up for all forms
I wondered how many other narratives were out there: not just with our justice system, but with every facet of life. Narratives that are not only shaped through a lens influenced by race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation, but also through lenses influenced by drug addiction, physical impairments or mental illness. Lenses that alter the way human beings experience and are experienced in the world. Lenses like the one I looked through when I feared an unkempt, middle-aged white man stumbling through the parking lot behind me.
Monday morning, I went back to the store, got my wallet and headed home. Everything resolved itself in a fairly uneventful way, but my brain was still alive with thoughts when I sat down at my computer. Uncertain how to make sense of them all, I smiled when I opened an email from my brother: "Here's your Monday morning writing inspiration," he wrote, and within the body of the email, he sent me David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College
. Of course since my brother knows me well, he sent the transcript
rather than the video, and when I read Wallace's words, I found myself stopped dead in my tracks.
Fully aware of his liberal arts audience, Wallace discusses the value of a liberal arts education (and not the typical "it teaches you how to think" defense, but a meaty defense that explores the idea of losing your arrogance, of learning how to be aware). He talks about how two human beings can experience the same story and derive different truths. He discusses how a true education takes a lifetime, that we will always be working to sharpen our mind and open our eyes. And he talks about the routine of daily life, what we worship and the options we have for how we choose to see our world.
If you're in need of thought about thought, I fully recommend reading the whole thing, but in the interest of time, one idea in particular stuck with me. One idea brought me back to the man in the parking lot, to the idea that we all have a choice about what choose to see or not to see, about what sort of narratives we write. Wallace talks about how we instantly judge the people around us, but that true freedom is taking a step back from our initial read and being open to alternatives. True freedom is about accepting that our view of the world is not absolute, that the things that happen around us are not always about us. True freedom is deciding not to accept the mindless default, and instead it is about choosing to be thoughtful, aware and conscious.
In other words, true freedom is about deciding
to give people the benefit of the doubt, and in so doing, releasing ourselves from the grip of negative assumptions, from being absolutely positive that our world is miserable and ill-intentioned, and deciding instead, to see it as multifaceted, to see it as having a variety of truths, a variety of complexities, and a variety of narratives.
My brother had no idea what I was thinking about Monday morning when he sent me that speech, but reading through Wallace's thoughts helped me sort through my own. It framed the way I reflected on my experience, on the questions and curiosities, on the line between instinctual self preservation and irrational fear. I have no answers about any of things I pondered or saw or felt. I still don't know if it was good street-smarts that led me to judge the man who walked behind me, or if my fear suggests a form of calloused cruelty, but I do know that the experience made me think. It made me stop. It made me see value in the process of considering why my default setting was to issue judgement. It made me take a step back and consider various narratives, realizing that though I might see the world one way, that man might see it differently. That while my lens shows me one side of the world, it is no clearer and no better than anyone else's lens; it's just different.
Of course the idealist in me hopes that one day we can arrive at a place where fear isn't so rampant, where more of us can can hear and accept the various narratives around us, and where the police-as-protectors concept is accessible to all people, but I don't want to sound naive. I'm not sure how such change can happen, but I do know that before it is possible, we must first see and admit a need for progress. We must first open our eyes and recognize that we all have different lines of sight. We must choose to dislodge ourselves from the default, and instead, decide to be open to the multiplicities of life.
By Laura Moore
It didn't happen right away.
Inspiration didn't swoon down from the gods. The tiny opening in the trees didn't issue an invitation to enter its domain. My fingers didn't feel an irresistible urge to pull out a pen and scribble on the notepad I tucked into the cup holder tray on my stroller.
Of course, those were the things I was hoping would happen when I packed up my baby and ambled down the sidewalk. With a thousand ideas curling around the margins in my jot pad and a million more pin balling around in my brain, I took a walk to find direction, clarity, focus. I took a walk so I could breathe, so I could observe, so I could grant my brain an opportunity to sort through ideas and give the more important ones a chance to clench my throat, climb up my esophagus and demand to be heard.
Of course none of this happened right away. Inspiration tends to be a tricky, little shape shifter. He rarely appears in predictable garb; she rarely arrives when you summon her. I knew this. And so I waited. Aiming to be present in the moment, I spoke to my baby in silly voices, giving him a tour of his neighborhood park, and I made him giggle by venturing into the bumpy domain of grass.
I also turned my iPhone to picture mode, frequently pausing to look around. Scanning the same scenery my husband and I pass on our evening walks, I looked for anomalies in the landscape. I investigated a low hanging leaf, burdened by the weight of raindrops clinging like climbers on the edge of a cliff. I indulged my curiosity, squatting to capture tarry footprints freshly imbedded in concrete. And I drew myself to gaps in the brush lining the creek, spotting a smattering of white wildflowers bursting like pinwheels against the lush vegetation.
I took note of jagged barriers in the grass, where portions had been cut, prepared for picnicking or play, and portions had been preserved, a matted labyrinth presumably left for nature. I relished my encounter with forked paths, marked trees and skittish squirrels. And I pondered the necessity of a 50 foot split rail fence that seemed to begin and end in a spot that appeared more appropriate for trees.
Somewhere along the way, my feet clipped the edge of a puddle sitting alone on a briefly barren stretch of asphalt. The unexpected jolt of wetness startled me, and I hopped backwards, pulling myself from the rainwater tickling my toes. I locked the wheels on my stroller, and turned to face the water which sparsely coated three thin feet of bike path. Leaning forward, I saw my shadow gaze back at me, dark and hazy, stirring back and forth across minuscule ripples, failing to settle into any state of stillness the entire time I looked.
I snapped a photograph of the faceless woman peering up at me, and then I continued further into the wooded area, where I encountered a deeper, larger pool, at least ten feet wide and six inches deep. I leaned over again, this time, hoping my reflection would be clearer. No matter how far I leaned though, my face did not appear. Leaves, caked in mud, lay matted along the bed, while trees climbed and cuddled above me. I switched positions, attempting to catch the sun at different angles. I crouched low to the ground and balanced my foot on a fallen branch bridging the water. Still, I could not see my face. I could not even see the shadow of my face. I saw nothing but clear water gazing back up at me.
In the absence of my reflection--in the caked leaves, the pooled water, the over-saturated sticks stretching from one space to another--a dull buzz of disappointment rose within me. When I saw the long, deep puddle, my creativity surged, and with all of the urgency of a person in pursuit of something terribly important, I wanted to see my face: clearer than hazy ripples, lighter than dark shadows. I wanted to capture my reflection in a prettier pool than the shallow asphalt one I encountered earlier. I wanted to snap what I perceived--in that moment--to be the inspiration I set out to find, the perfect image, the muse I needed to begin my latest project.
But I failed to manufacture such a shot. I failed to insert my face into a moment that wasn't meant to hold it. I failed to cast my reflection upon a collection of water already decorated with slivers of life. And I failed, because I didn't fit. I failed because my place was not in the pool of water, or in the symbolic mirroring I aimed to capture. My face wasn't meant to compete with the reflection of sunlight descending through the cracks in the canopy above me, or in the mosaic of muddy leaves layered like plush feathers in the clay. My face wasn't meant to cross over water-logged sticks or mingle with the grass.
My face was meant to observe, to listen, to breathe.
I walked away that morning without my prized shot, but as I pondered its absence during my journey home, I realized something far more important. We don't have to be part of everything in order for everything to be perfect. We don't have to have a place in the center of a landscape in order for us to belong. Our plans don't need to unravel cleanly in order for us to succeed. Sometimes our inspiration is less about what we see and more about what we imagine, less about what we want and more about what we get. Perhaps sometimes life doesn't intend for us to jump in; it just means for us to open our hearts and be moved.