I am thrilled to have my short story, “The Rope” appear in Storm Cellar Quarterly’s Issue 7.2 and finally be released from what had drawn out to a ten-year cycle of revising it. I’m beyond grateful to finally have it taken from my obsessive hands.
I wrote the very first draft of this story, then titled “Limbo,” a year or so before my MFA when I took a workshop at the Writing Center in Bethesda, MD. The story went on for a good 30 pages (as did pretty much everything I wrote then) and centered around the dismal life of some recent college grad stuck in this dead-end job. So dead end, in fact, that the narrator questioned if they might be dead. It had clever moments but didn’t ultimately go anywhere.
But I was convinced it could!
So every so often, when I felt like I’d improved as a writer, I came back to the story. Mostly I made new and better cuts, tightened and honed the language, and so forth. Still, I struggled to find the “it” of the story, the thing that it was really about.
The main problem, I think, is that the story was inspired by the location, which is based on an office where I did a stint as a technical writer after teaching middle school. (Thankfully, they let me work from home soon enough.) And of course, none of this actually happened! Nothing of consequence anyway. It was the place itself that had captured my imagination, the atmosphere, as well as that golf course across the street. Of course, I’d never had an office job before, so perhaps any office environment would have been strange to me. But I still think this one was particularly so.
It took me a few years to let go of the narrator-who-questions-if-they-might-be-dead thing. I had the stages of decay all worked out, the different types of flies and insects that began to accumulate, and so on. But as the editors nice enough to respond (I kept doggedly sending it out with each revision) would tell me, it had its moments, but they just didn’t amount to anything. They didn’t.
But I still thought I could make the story work.
So I stripped it down to the pithiest descriptions and made the whole thing incomprehensibly surreal. This may have been the worst of all my attempts. And yes, I sent it out. I continued to be convinced even this approach had potential and continued to attack the story again each time it again got rejected. The issues with this approach was still the lack of coherent meaning. Who was this character? What was the story about?
Finally, I decided it was about a guy who hanged himself in his office and had slipped into unconsciousness, his faculties thereby compromised, so the story was his march toward death with details from the outside world filtering through. This version also had a number of incarnations, but ultimately, it wasn’t compelling. I didn’t really care about the guy, and neither did any of the journals I sent it to.
So then I thought, well, what if the protagonist were female? This is when the story finally started to come together. On my fourth stab at this version, it was finally accepted.
The takeaway is not to keep trying. If I could have left this story in a quiet corner to die, I would have. The takeaway is: don’t start a story with a setting.
You’ve probably never heard a writing instructor says, “Start with a location that really speaks to you. There’s something about that location, right? So figure out what that something is. Then figure out who the people are who might populate this space and why. Then figure out what their issues are—that is, what they want and how this particular setting might thwart their ambitions. And from that, figure out your story.”
No, a writing instructor will not tell you this.