I hope this finds you writing. It’s the height of grading season in this house, and it’s been a minute since I found the headspace to write. But the last two days, I dipped out of the novel revisions and spent some time with a couple of short stories and it did me a world of good. Sometimes, with the novel as big and unwieldy as it is, writing can be overwhelming. Or worse, a chore. But it was good to play in these little stories and not have to worry about anything else. May you take some time for yourself this week to scribble without thinking of deadlines or submissions. May you dwell in the fun of creating a world that’s all your own.
This week’s story is a stunner. The Last Thing We Need by Claire Vaye Watkins, from her collection Battleborn. It’s a slow build, with some great sentences, and then a final scene that will make you uneasy.
I’ll confess, I’m not usually a fan of the epistolary form. I find it creates distance between reader and character; the information comes across as information. But that’s not what’s happening here. Perhaps, it’s because Thomas Grey is writing to a stranger, sending his letters out into the void. They go unanswered. Six letters over six months. And this allows the letters to become a kind of confessional for him. If at first he desires a reply, that hope vanishes as the letters progress.
Already a month has passed since Thomas stumbled upon what he speculates has been a car wreck in Rhyolite. It’s becomes a mystery to him. Rhyolite is a ghost town. He seeks it out for the solitude. For the quiet. But this time he’s found Duane’s pills and pictures.
What happened out there? Where is your car? Why were the medications, food and other supplies left behind? Who are you, Duane Moser? What were you looking for out at Rhyolite?
As the letters progress, we begin to get a sense of who Thomas is. We learn that he has a wife and two little girls. His father lives with them. The third letter tells us a lot about Thomas’s life without telling us specifics. His marriage is not, perhaps, as satisfying as Thomas imagined.
Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
Thomas imagines he and Duane are kindred spirits, connected through Rhyolite. Through this Chevelle. The way they guard their hearts. Zip them up like ziploc bags.
We know something has happened to Thomas, something he doesn’t like to talk about, something that has altered his worldview, though we don’t know what that is yet.
I’ll tell you what I don’t tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.
The sooner Layla understands that we are nothing but the sum of that which we endure, the better.
Watkins very deliberate in the way she parcels out information. We learn in letter four that Rhyolite is a ghost town. Thomas goes there to be alone. Why? In letter five we finally get the secret. He tells Duane the story that he has not been able to tell his wife of fourteen years. He shot a kid (who also drove a Chevelle 66) when he was working the graveyard shift at the gas station outside of Beatty. He’s haunted by this encounter.
That night, I drove out on Cane Springs Road to Rhyolite. I drove around that old ghost town with the windows rolled down, listening to the gravel pop under my tyres.
It is, presumably, the reason that he still goes out to Rhyolite. We learn in the sixth, and final letter, that it’s six hours away. (!)
When Thomas takes his little girl out to Rhyolite to camp, we know that something is going to happen. There are so many possiblities for disaster:
Crumbling buildings, rotted-out floors, sinkholes, open mine shafts. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions.
It’s not safe for little girls.
This last scene made me nervous in a way few stories actually do. There’s such urgency on the page. And, I think, the form sets us up to be surprised. We don’t think of letters having this kind of tension. Especially these that go unanswered. But then we find ourselves frantic. Wondering where is the little girl? Has someone taken her? Will they be reunited?
I want to talk about this urgency for a minute. There are lots of things that bring us to the page as writers. You already know why you write. A sense of wonder. The beauty of language. A character, a place, a problem. But what keeps you reading? What makes you stay up late flipping pages? What makes you want to talk about a book with a friend? I’d say it’s this sence of urgency. Sometimes, as writers, I think we forget about it. The stakes need to be high. Really high. (I just abandoned a book that had been on my reading list for a very long time because there were no stakes. No connection to character, and ultimately, no reason for me to become invested. Especially when my reading list is so very long.)
It’s one thing for a little girl to be lost. (I happened upon a crying toddler separated from her mother in the parking lot of Home Depot just this week. But I was there. I was going to try and help her.) Layla is lost in the middle of nowhere. With sharp ruins at every turn. In the snow. A place where people rob gas stations and get shot. Where they have car accidents.
A child means nothing out here.
There’s something unsettling about ghost towns. Especially the detail about the school. It adds a sense of hopelessness. In the town I grew up in, there was an abandoned elementary school that sat on top of the hill. Rusty merry-go-round and all. Write about an abandoned place that you know of. What could happen there?
Or. Here the Chevelle connects the past to the present. How can you use an object to connect two seemingly different people? How might their memories of the object not line up exactly?
Revision. Where do you need more urgency in your essay? Chapter? Story? (Where is there a lull? Where is it boring?) How can you up the stakes to add urgency? Or, conversely, can you add urgency by parcelling out details more slowly than you have done? How would that change the pacing?
The essay about slow writing seemed to resonate with a lot of you. Here’s another essay on the Slow process of Revision. (I recently heard another writer offer up the same advice: there’s no wrong deicison. Each one just takes you down a different path. And honestly, it was quite freeing. Make a deicison. There’s no wrong one. Really?!? Really!)
The Fabulist is open for short, fantastical fiction through Nov. 12. Citron Review is open for flash and flash cnf through Dec. 6. Harpur Palate is looking for fiction and cnf that leans experimental through Nov. 15. Conjunctions has an open call for works on the theme: fear itself through Nov. 15.
Do you know someone who would enjoy what we’re doing here? Please let them know. (There’s a handy dandy share button right down there.) I’d love to see more folks join us in our Sunday sessions.
That’s it from here, scribblers. I hope you find some pencil time. And I hope you are able to harness that sense of urgency. Until next time~