This happened a while ago.
What happened was, I wrote a story about a young nurse and her elderly patient for the “Bridge the Gap” contest Camera Obscura was putting on.
I felt great about the story. While I now believe I felt good simply because I’d finished the piece, at the time I’d managed to convince myself the story was strong.
Whether it was or wasn’t, about a month later I received a note from the editors thanking me for my submission; there were a lot of good entries, they assured me; they hoped I would try them again soon.
Reading their note, I felt my hands curl into fists and the nearly overwhelming desire to punch at something sturdy. (I didn’t strike the wall, rest assured. For my own sake I’m glad I found the restraint. I doubt I would have even penetrated the surface. The walls in our house are finished with half-inch plaster. It would have taken – would still take – a more powerful swing than I could’ve mustered to punch safely through, that’s for sure.)
When I compared my piece to the prize-winning story, I realized my own story’s essential weakness lay in my superficial reading of the photographs the editors had posted as contest prompts.
In all honesty, I’d entered the contest on a lark; I should have kept this in mind as I read the rejection letter. So what that I didn’t win? Really. The rejection should have taught me there was a great deal of weakness in submitting a story I did little more than line edit obsessively for eight days.
The winning story was a fictionalized reminiscence of a solider who’d taken part in the Choctaw Indian relocation in 1831. The solider speculated on the motives of an elderly woman he’s seen who has refused to board the wagons, opting instead to walk with her people rather than be carted away by someone else’s army. It is somewhat seamless, and is borne of the kind of thinking that reaches beyond one’s own experience toward something much larger than the self: a history suggested by the sepia-tinted photograph of a rain-wet road winding toward hills. The writer read. She showed in her entry that she was capable of thinking outside herself. She used her fiction to inhabit and to understand. She was generous – achingly so. Her story is rounded and complex, startling in the way it compresses such a vast stretch of nearly-lost time into a moment so clearly observed and affecting that it demolishes historical distance. No matter that the moment has likely been fictionalized. It breathes. It sustains itself, and, for a moment, it sustained me, as I’m sure it has sustained anyone else fortunate enough to have read the story.
I’m still pissed – but not on account of the rejection. I’m more upset by my own failure of vision. I could have asked more questions of my characters, and thereby could have written a stronger story.
What if, rather than centering the story on the young nurse, I had instead found a way into the mind and heart of the young man who had made the difficult decision to leave his mother at a nursing home?
I could have composed a letter he might have written to her.
He might at first have had very little to say. He might have struggled to produce even half a page of text. After skimming back through what he’s written, he might very likely have torn up the letter on account of its vapidity.
He might not have written at all. Letter-writing is a lost art, anyway. Perhaps, after his failed attempt, instead he might have called his mother to check in. Perhaps he meant to catch her on her birthday. I might have transcribed that phone conversation, let it stand in for the many similar conversations he tried having with his mother, all of which quickly tapered when he realized she had so little to fill him in on, such were her days.
Yet another avenue would have been to imagine one of the young man’s solo visits to the home. This scenario might have yielded another halting conversation between the young man and his mother: about the weather, about the coffee, about the food. His mother might have more fully revealed herself as one not be trifled with; and because he would have known this, and would have also known the conversation she was allowing him to have with her to be full of—solely composed of—trifles, the young man – her son – would have felt his own weariness shifting very quickly to a frustration he would have had to struggle mightily to suppress.
He would have tried swallowing and suppressing that anger, each time he returned, alone, once a week for the next several years, until gradually that anger dissolved, and his mother lost whatever edge, or grudge, she’d held against him, and the room she’d stayed in started to smell like garlic, cinnamon, peach tea, and the musty odor of unwashed hair, none of which she’d notice, though he surely would have left with that taste on his tongue.
Perhaps, around this time, the young man’s son would have started bringing home books about princesses from the library, and his other son would have struck the fancy of one of his teachers, who would have found occasion to comment to his wife about the boy’s exemplary behavior, his good manners, his politesse. The good fortune, and the challenges, these two boys would have presented to this young man and his wife might have begun to strain their marriage. Or, conversely, they would have found in their children’s gifts to rally together and put whatever disagreements and difficulties they may have been facing behind them.
They might have had a conversation late one night that helped them determine the direction of the rest of their marriage, their lives, and the lives of their sons. While they talked, quietly or else with some frustration, a storm would blow through and take down the better half of one of the old oaks leaning over the back of the house.
Luckily none of the branches would strike any window or puncture the roof.
Still, the debris would need to be chopped up and removed. On the drive home from visiting his mother the next afternoon, the taste of his mother’s room would dissolve unnoticed as he imagined the weight of the limb-clippers in his hands, and the thickness of the canvas gloves he’d have to wear to save his thumbs from blisters as he clipped and clipped and made piles of dead limbs, which later he would have to load into the back of the family van to be hauled to the dump, where other piles of debris, deadfall, and leaves, and the still-moldering mounds of grass clippings from a summer’s worth of mown well-watered lawns, heaped mountainous toward the clouds.