Anyone reading this blog will notice I’ve taken an interest in flash fiction, which goes by a variety of names and definitions, but I consider it fiction under 1000 words.
I’ve been reading flash, and trying my hand. Push Yourself Up! was a first attempt. I’ve also gone looking through some of my old writing to fish for ideas, snippets, anything that sparks my attention and could give me some practice. Lottery Night in America spawned from the first chapter of THE CULLING.
Time Ceases to Exist is a snippet from IN FLIGHT.
Then while searching through other old work I picked up a copy of Storyquarterly where I had a story published many (many) years ago. It wasn’t my first published work, but it was my first to appear in a well-known and highly-regarded literary journal.
It was also the first time I worked with a real editor. We mailed annotated manuscripts back and forth during the editing process. I didn’t know what STET meant and I guessed at some change the editor might have wanted. They wrote back and told me STET is an obelism used to override another editing mark on a manuscript, and it means “let it stand.” In other words, no change, despite my attempts to make several.
In the story, “The Painter’s Son,” a man in his late twenties looks back on his complicated relationship with his father. The accompanying photo shows the first page of the story. (Tony is the family cat.) It probably wouldn’t be appropriate now to write “Chinese people wearing wide-brimmed hats and silk robes . . .”
The “Painter’s Son” was the first of my work that Harriet read. I think it helped her fall in love with me a little bit more. Lucky me.
The characters in “The Painter’s Son” stuck with me. I wasn’t finished with it, even after publication. I thought the story needed to be expanded. So much so that I turned it into a novel called STILL LIFE. In the novel, the main character, Vincent, has to contend with his father tracking him down after ten years of no contact, at a time when Vincent is trying to emerge as an artist and navigate being in love.
I had an agent that loved STILL LIFE and represented it, but no publisher bit.
Here are two tiny excerpts from the novel. In the first, a young Vincent takes a walk on the frozen lake in front of his house. In the next, he’s trying to teach the woman he loves how to ice skate.
I went for a walk on the lake, which was frozen and covered with snow. On one windswept spot near the middle the ice felt maybe only an inch or so thick. I stared down, trying to see through, and noticed leaves trapped in the layers. When the first sheet of ice forms, if the wind hasn’t rippled the new crystals, there is a day or two, sometimes only a few hours, when the ice becomes both a mirror and a window. Look from one angle and you see the bottom of the lake—the murk and old logs and bloated plants—then from another angle, just by blinking, you can see the reflected clouds and sun, at night the moon and pinpoint stars. I took another step and the ice cracked beneath my feet and immediately I dropped down to spread out my weight. There is nothing like the sound of ice giving way; there is a subdued, muffled popping, as if from underneath a blanket, and you can hear the percussion fade as the crack grows longer. Usually there are smaller aftershocks, like echoes or the creaking of a door slowly closing. I crawled and dragged along the ice toward shore, and heard another crack behind me. I turned and saw water seeping through the crack, pooling and spreading like blood from a wound. When I got to the thicker part I stood up and made it back. I wasn’t as terrified as you might think. My father used me to test the ice every year, reasoning that I was smaller and lighter than him and therefore the ideal recruit for the mission. If I was able to walk out on the ice without a problem—such as the ice cracking or me falling through and drowning—he’d then have me stomp up and down, and if that worked out okay then he’d come out on the ice with me. I was his canary in a coal mine.
I thought it would be easy to teach her. Her muscles are strong enough; at least she's not skating on her ankles. And Jane’s not timid, either. She just can't move. When she leads with one skate, the blade peeks out like the head of a turtle, then sneaks back in. I’m struggling to come up with step-by-step instructions for the continuous, fluid dance of ice-skating. I know at what point to bend my knee, when to push forward, stretch my calf, enter the glide, when to pump. I know how to rhythm my hips and swing my arms. I've skated for almost as long as I've walked, and I don't remember learning how, only knowing how, and I'm not doing a very professional job transferring this expertise to Jane. Try putting weight on it, I tell her. Push forward. Don’t let your feet slip behind you. Jane forces the blade out there again, where it stops. She drags her other skate forward to catch up. How do you teach glide, I wonder, how do you learn balance? I circle around, take her hands and skate backwards, pulling her along. She's bent forward, her skates moving only because I'm pulling her. I turn and skate alongside her now, an arm around her waist, telling her to try a few strides, put a leg out, sway those hips some, fan your fanny. Suddenly she glides away from the pressure I'm putting into her back. Her arms flap like wings, but she stays up. Her strides are tiny and precarious as a baby's first steps. A step and a glide. Step, step, glide. I hold her hand and we go like this for fifty yards, then one hundred, along green, glassy ice as hard as diamonds.