By Laura Moore
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.