Monday, January 05, 2015

"Cottonwood"--Evolution of a Story

Last month, my first fiction publication came out--a short story called "Cottonwood" in NonBinary Review's Oz edition. (NonBinary Review is an online publication put out through Zoetic Press; download the app here and read my story!)

I wrote this story a year and a half ago, while I was still working on my dissertation. I was planning to spend much more of my time and energy writing fiction once the diss was done; I even had a novel mapped out. But then I saw a call for papers put out by Fairy Tale Review, looking specifically for Oz retellings that intersected with the ideas of the environment and being "green." So I thought I could work up a story on that, just to get my fiction feet wet.

 At that time, I lived in Tallahassee, FL. I took my dog for walks around the neighborhood, trying to figure out what part of the Frank L. Baum stories interested me the most. Honestly, I hadn't given them too much thought. The classic film is one of my favorites, but the original stories? I hadn't read them in years and when I picked them up to re-read, I found them a little saccharine, a little wooden for my taste. I much preferred Gregory Maguire's darker, character-driven retellings in Wicked and subsequent novels.

One day, on a walk with Sam, he stopped to pee on a neighbor's flower bed, which was planted next to a gnarled live oak tree. And I saw a face in the tree, like the faces in the apple trees that Dorothy encounters. It reminded me of another tree I used to stare at as a child, back in the woods behind the fence at our house. The bark had been burned off by a lightning strike, and the shape of the wound in the tree looked like a girl with long dark hair kneeling down. I have bad eyesight and, before I got glasses, I would squint at this tree a dozen yards off, pretending that the girl was a fairy or a wood elf, and that we were friends. I think I even drew a picture of her once.

This makes me sound a lot lonelier than I actually was. Really, I just thought I was Anne of Green Gables. I even named all of the plants around our house and said goodbye to them, by name, every morning before I got on the bus . . . really creative names, like "Sandy," "Mandy," "Andy," "Candy," and "Randy" (although I did name our Japanese maple "Ichi," which means "one" in Japanese).

So there I was, with this memory of a girl in a tree. And the girl became Dorothy, and I had to figure out why she was in this tree, how she got there, and what it meant. The story had to happen many years after the original stories; I didn't want to fight the canon wars or defend my version of Oz against someone else's. And Dorothy couldn't be the paragon of sweetness and innocence that she was as a child, either. So I made her a deranged religious despot who happened, in her zealotry, to hit upon a frightening truth at the heart of Oz. And I made the Tin Woodsman, sentimental soul that he is, the courtier and confident who has been silently in love with her lo, these many years.

And then several good, kind, thoughtful people--fairy god-people, really--read my story and gave me lots of comments, most of which said, "Cut it down." (It was 27 pages single-spaced, which I now realize is totally inappropriate and I worship at the feet of those kind enough to read my long, wordy, meandering story.) So I did.

The story was rejected by Fairy Tale Review, although it was a positive rejection which means that they said good things about it and encouraged me to submit other stories. But NonBinary Review picked it up about a year later, earning warm place in my heart for all eternity by giving me my first fiction publication credit.

I would change several things about this story now, a year and a half later. But mostly, I'm happy with it. There are moments in it that still are beautiful to me, which may be as good as it gets for most writers. (We can't all be Toni Morrison, after all, who recently sat down and read her own novel Beloved for the first time in years and thought it was great.) And I'm working on lots of other things. I have three other stories that I've sent out for consideration to various journals, and I'm working on two more right now for which I already have venues in mind. Most exciting of all, I get to take my first fiction workshop this spring, with Jilly Dreadful at her online creative writing workshop, The Brainery. I hope it will develop my story-sense, the lyricism and creativity of my prose, and the thickness of my skin.

My writing goal for 2015 is simple: to write a little bit of fiction every day. I can't commit to a daily word-count yet; I'm basically working three part-time jobs and also book-blogging and wedding-planning and trying to chip away at some academic projects. But if I carve out a few days a week where I can devote a couple hours to it . . . and, if every other day, I make myself sit down at my computer and open up the Word document for my current project--even if I tell myself, "just twenty minutes," or "just one paragraph"--I know I'll get work done.

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