Birth of a Story

I’m an impatient writer. I tend to write in cloudbursts of creative energy. Stories come gushing out like torrential downpours, 5000 words flooding onto the page. Writing is in some ways a birthing process. Ideas germinate, gestate and at some point, when they’re too big to be contained, they just have to come out, there’s no stopping them.

But just as in giving birth, the work doesn’t stop once the baby is born. A story needs nurturing, it needs to mature. It needs editing, rewriting, revising, workshopping. It needs fresh eyes, new perspectives. If you’re lucky, and if you’ve given it enough care, someday it will get published, maybe years after you first scribbled it onto a napkin in the haste to capture the kernel of the idea. 

Exercising patience is the hardest part of writing. I have no problem ruminating over an idea until it bursts from my chest like that thing in Alien. I wrote my most recent story all in one sitting during a 5 hour flight to San Francisco. Another came to me one evening after work. I came home, sat in my favorite chair, opened my laptop, and didn’t move again until almost midnight. Sometimes an idea comes to me in a dream, and I wake up and grab the laptop and get it down in writing before it fades away. And then my impatient self says,”Woo hoo! I’m done! Look what I did! I wrote a story!”

But the work has only begun. An experienced and pragmatic writer will tell you to set this newly minted story aside for a while. Let it stew. Like Jello, it has to go into the fridge for a while to set up. Come back to it in a few weeks or months and read it again. See what works and what doesn’t through fresh eyes. This is very hard to do in an age of instant gratification. I want it to be perfect now! And that’s part of the excitement of creativity. “Hey world! I wrote a great story and I want everyone to see it!” It’s hard to maintain that excitement over the months or years that it takes to perfect a good story.

After your story has steeped and brewed for a while, and you’ve fixed all of the glaring mistakes that you made when your brain was working faster than your fingers, then comes the agonizing part. Torturing your literary-minded friends for a critique. Please, would you read this story, if it’s not too much trouble? I mean, I know you’re busy and all, but I really just need a little perspective if it’s not too much trouble? You very quickly learn whose well of goodwill you can tap and how often you can tap into it before it runs dry. People start ducking you. “Oh no, not that crazy guy again with his godawful stories.”

People who write professionally have the benefit of having professional writer peers and editors to do this critiquing. They don’t have to pester friends and family. If you’re in an MFA program you are forced to do this, and to critique the work of others. Which is why those programs crank out such good writers. The rest of us poor unpublished slobs trying to squeeze in a few minutes after work to feed the muse must take our critical input where we can get it. And try to read between the lines when someone tries really hard not to offend us by saying ,”I really liked it, but…” (Honestly, you’re not going to offend us if you tell us the story sucks. We need to hear this in order to improve).

Finally, after months of revising and rewriting, incorporating the feedback from your test readers, soaking your bruised ego in Epsom salts, you may, if you still have confidence in your story, feel brave enough to submit it to a literary journal for publication. At last, you think, my hard work will finally pay off.

You give it one last read through, finding still more typos that you had somehow overlooked the first 35 times you read it, and you format it according to the exact specifications of the journal you have selected. You’re ready. So you submit. And wait. Most journals have a minimum 12 week backlog to review your story. Others take 6 months or more.

So you wait. And wait. And wait some more. But don’t expect feedback or critique. Editors are too busy for that. At least 10,000 other slobs have also tried their luck, and the editor has to wade through the morass of words submitted by hopeful would-be writers. But you’re not only competing against those hopeful first-timers, you’re also competing against the pros. People like Paul Theroux, who is taking time off from writing his 31st book to publish his 700th short story. Or Lorrie Moore, trying to get selected for America’s Best Short Stories for the 30th time. The editor has no time to offer critical feedback. Usually not even a rejection letter. The best you can hope for is an automated email. But most of the time it’s just a change of status in an online submission website from “received” to “rejected.”

Back to the Epsom salt bath. The ego is taking a beating. The baby you gestated, painfully birthed, and then nurtured to maturity has been unceremoniously rejected outright. Not good enough. Damn. You’re tempted to say the hell with it. Why even bother? But the muse won’t let you. Another nugget has been gestating in your brain, and the story birthing process won’t be ignored. Because you write for you, not for some overworked and underpaid editor. You write because you have to.

Maybe, just maybe, one day you win the story lottery and your baby makes it through to publication. Hooray, you finally got your first publication! You’re a professional now. Check is in the mail, right? Um, not so fast. Most literary journals can’t actually pay you for your story. Because the sad truth is there’s no money in short fiction. Hasn’t been for decades. Maybe there never was.

Alas, yours is a labor of love. You’ll never get rich, you son of a bitch, you’re a short story writer now.





One Reply to “Birth of a Story”

  1. How hard that must be to “birth” your creativity and devote so much time, love and attention to it and then have it rejected. I honestly never thought it about that too much. This Gave me some new perspective into that. Interesting…


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