Photo courtesy of Awkward Family Photos.
My brother-in-law gave me an Awkward Family Photo desk calendar as a white elephant Christmas gift back in 2009. I worked my way through the horrifying daily photos until sometime late in 2010 I came across a family posed, each member holding a different kind of snake. One of the kids had a haunted look in her eyes, like something off-frame was troubling her.
I started drafting the story on December 12, 2010. I draft in single space and save a new file after each writing session. Sometimes a story, especially a short one, will present itself right away. This one took about ten hit-and-miss sessions over the course of a little over a month to complete a first draft.
It’s a short short piece, so I was able to read through it each time and edit out any
clunkinessmisspellings, etc. Here, I excised a little bit of mean-spirited stereotyping, added some clarity, took away some excess. I realized the setting needed to be in a place where snakes could live outside year-round in a “back lean-to,” yet where freezing black ice could be a possibility. A quick internet research session put me in Alabama where tupelo trees are common and abundant. I also found a link to a video of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Wasted twenty minutes on that trying to figure out how Neil Young pissed off those boys in the band so much.
The title came to me soon after I wrote the line within the body of the story: “Look This Way, Look That.” I promptly put it at the top of the draft, then promptly changed it again when another, seemingly more interesting title came out of the writing. I tinkered with the story for a couple of more sessions, and then, feeling pretty good about it, I made some minor changes, formatted it to spec, put my name and address in the top left, and submitted to a journal known for quick turnaround. Five days later I had my first rejection. Nonplussed, I sent it out to six more venues within the year. Six more rejections. I sent it nowhere in 2012.
Stupid family snake photo story, anyway.
I once wrote a short short story in first person POV, past tense. It was a good story, and I submitted it all over the place with rejection after rejection. On a desperate whim I switched POV and tense to second-person present. Entered it in a contest. Won.
So I did the same with this one. I also went back to my original title. Sent it out six more times, and finally it stuck.
I wonder if there isn’t a thrilling intimacy with second-person POV? My story that won the contest had a scene with a young newlywed couple sharing a very, um, close moment in a big bathtub while listening to their upstairs neighbors have a nasty brawl. First-person POV sometimes lends itself to an incredulity in the reader, I think. Why should we trust this guy to describe how it feels to him to have sex in a tub, or have his ex-wife’s boyfriend knock a tooth out, or feel the snake he loves cut off blood circulation to his brain?
But if you, the reader, are the one, the character, moving through the text of a very short story, you can let your guard down for a moment and ache on the rough, frosty pavement of a parking lot in December; you can see your ex-wife’s bald betrayal right there in front of your son; you can feel the cold blood warm in a creature coming in out of the cold, coming in finally, and finding its hunger.