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How to Ignore Your Instincts and Find the Real Story


Signature, the Penguin Random House site dedicated to books and culture, celebrated Short Story Month this past May by taking a close look at short stories from the writerly perspective and has teamed up with the Bullet Journal to create The Compact Guide to Short Story Writing [2]. The *free* (when signing up for the RH newsletter) guide features 14 essays on the craft of short story writing from authors such as Josh Barkan, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Patrick Ryan, Charles Yu, Emily Ruskovich, and others who share their perspectives, insights, tips and advice. It explores crafting killer beginnings and endings, idea formation, character development and more.

It’s our pleasure to profile one of these essays for you today, written by Emily Rushkovick [3], whose novel, Idaho [4], was called “Haunting, propulsive, and gorgeously written” by PEOPLE magazine. And if the following is any indication, I think we can all co-sign that Emily knows a thing or twelve about how to write fiction that tunnels in for a long stay.

Enjoy this gripping essay, and be sure to check out the free book, linked above and below, too.

How to Ignore Your Instincts and Find the Real Story

For me, so much of writing is chasing feelings I don’t understand. Sometimes the feelings mingle with memory, and sometimes they don’t. Paying attention to these feelings, which can arise at any time, is crucial. Sometimes, at first, I chase the feeling too fast. I make an easy story out of it, using instincts I have developed as a fiction writer. The story is neat. Its climax is exciting. A great deal is at stake. But usually, this first story is not the real story. It’s just a structure I build quickly in my mind to house the original feeling. And the real story is the one I find only by actively not forming a story out of it, only by actively ignoring my instincts. Instead, I allow images to gather in my imagination in this strange way that is very difficult for me to describe. These images might gather over the course of a day, or over several years. The images feed the feeling until, finally, the feeling is whole enough for me to capture it inside of a scene. And then it happens fast.

It’s as if fiction is this parallel world that is real and living all the time, and these feelings that authors get are simply tiny collisions of our world and the other. It always feels like an accident to me, when I dip into that other world, because I don’t know the rules of how these worlds overlap, and I can’t sense their orbits. This is not a metaphor; this is actually what it feels like when I write. A few days ago, my cat licked a mosquito off a cold window, and immediately I felt the first flicker of a story. Why? I don’t know. A few days before that, my brother and I scooped with an old coffee can a gelatinous sac of bullfrog eggs out of a grassy ditch, and I felt it then, too, as if I’d accidentally scooped into that can a portal to that other world.

Again, this isn’t a metaphor. It’s actually how it feels. Some images catch hold and linger. They are imbued with irrational meaning. They are the souls of stories I haven’t yet found.

A few summers ago, walking through a very small town, my mother pointed to an old farmhouse and told me about a relative of hers who once lived there. When he was a baby, his father put him out on the porch in the winter, hoping the baby would freeze to death. The story made me very sad for my relative, and angry at the cruelty of his father. I began to imagine that someone walking by the house looked in, and saw the baby on the frozen porch, and I imagined the stranger breaking the window with a rock, climbing in, and rescuing the child.

This was the first story, the easy one, partly because it was so close to the real story, and partly because the emotions were exact – sadness for the baby boy, fury and disgust for the father, love for the stranger. It was compelling, and it made me feel.

But it was not the real story. The real story began to rise in me the farther we walked away from that house, talking about other things. If the light that afternoon had been a little different, if the dust hadn’t tasted in the air the way it did, if we had stopped for a cup of coffee or even just to tie a shoe – it’s likely the story would have stopped at its own trueness. But as it was, it grew. Suddenly, I saw the porch in my mind, and it was completely different from the real porch, the one I’d seen just minutes ago. And locked inside of it was not my relative, but a little girl I’d never known, ten years old with dirty-blonde hair and a bright and cruel face, a tight, twitching mouth.

She was standing in the middle of that porch that was built out of windows. This was her punishment for something (what?) terrible that she had done, to stand out here in the cold, locked out of the house and also out of the out-of-doors, in the frozen in-between space that was the covered porch. The windows were framed with frost. The locked door behind her was blue. I saw the stale, wicker chair beside her. I could smell its frozen cushion. On the ground, a cup of water, as if her father could assuage his guilt by reminding himself he had given her that. The girl wore a dress. She could have put on her coat, which was wadded up beneath that wicker chair, but she did not, though her bare arms were covered in goosebumps. She stood perfectly straight in the middle of the porch. And what she was wasn’t sad – she was wildly glad. She relished her own hunger; she devoured that cold. Her breath was bright and beautiful and scary.

And, suddenly, it wasn’t her father who had put her there but her older brother, a teenager, fed up and hardworking and in charge, much older than his sister but not half as smart. Inside, he is secretly pained by having locked his little sister on the winter porch to punish her. He feels tired and guilty and half-panicked at what he’s done and what he can’t quite decide to undo, though it would be the simplest thing in the world, to just unlock that door and let her win. He’s looking through the curtain of a different window, seeing the passersby, his neighbors, glance at his poor sister, locked out in the cold, and he is punished by their glances, by their shame of him.

And suddenly, it’s not the girl who is being punished by her brother, and it’s not her brother who is being punished by the glances of the passersby; it is the passersby themselves who are being punished by the girl. They glance up at those windows and see her staring out at them, see her gathering the pity from their eyes until what’s left in them is only their own shame, as if they, somehow, are to blame for the abuse she is enduring so bravely, in total silence, in total stillness, hands clasped elegantly in front of her. And they know that she is making a display of herself, but they are wrong about why: They think she stands that way, in pained grace, because she is trying to preserve her dignity. They think she wants to appear to the world as strong and brave for their sakes. And such striving makes her even more pitiable in their eyes, her stern innocence a terrible shock in the winter light. Should they go knock on the door? Chastise whomever has done this to her? Should they call the police? Should they spare the girl by pretending they haven’t seen and just hope, pray, that it will end soon for her? It is terrible, the indecision and the shame.

The girl knows all this, of course, and doesn’t mind the cold because of what she knows. She is glad for this singular chance to stand in this perfect glass case, like a museum display, and exhibit to the world the stupidity of her brother and the culmination of all the injustices inflicted upon her beautiful self.

And she triumphs; to the passersby, the girl becomes more than herself, a feeling they carry into their own warm houses. For some of them, she is a memory of having long ago endured pain inflicted by adults; for others, she is the memory of having just yesterday inflicted that pain upon a child. She is guilt; she is blame. She is a trapped and frozen breath that chills her brother to his core and lasts in him forever.

All of this is only an instant, something I felt over the course of a single summer walk beside my mom. And yet this instant has stayed inside of me for two years now, and nothing has ever come of it except this essay, an answer to a question: What is writing like?

Maybe there is nothing more to this story. Maybe this is it.

Or maybe, one day, she’ll wake up inside of me, suddenly furious to discover that she has been used as an example. I will be there on the sidewalk, and she will look out, and I will see her blame me for what I’ve done to her story, for my cold exploitation of her pain. Suddenly, she will look down at the floor, where the cup of water has frozen solid after all this time. And she will bend down, bang that cup against the floorboards until that cylinder of ice slides out. Then she will pick the ice up, wrap it in the coat she removes from beneath that wicker chair, and bang it against every window, breaking them all.

Then, like fiction itself, she’ll climb out, down into her yard, face me for an instant, and turn away.

Click the image below to be taken to a free download page for the Compact Guide to Short Story Writing. Write on!