blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
print icon


Usually, it’s a line. Though not always. Sometimes an image. Sometimes a conversation overheard, and I imagine the possibility of story. Because I grew up in the foothills of Appalachia, when I hear the word tracking, I think of the boys in high school who spent their evenings in the summer and fall spotlighting deer. This spotlighting involved them loading up in their trucks after football practice and driving out to some piece of property where the owner let them hunt come fall. As night fell, one boy drove the pickup while another stood in the back with one of those big box-shaped 12-volt flashlights—those who were more advanced had spotlights mounted on their side mirrors, like highway troopers. Headlights off, engine barely above idle, they crossed over fields to the edge of the woods, stopping at the edge of the forest, waiting for the moment when a deer wandered into their darkened view and then they flipped on the flashlight, spotlighting it. Instead of buckshot spreading through the night, a single concentrated beam fell on a doe or buck’s onyx eyes.

I wasn’t much of a hunter and early on I disliked and abandoned it. The point of hunting seemed to be about the end product: killing a deer. But my friends were often just as thrilled about this spotlighting of a deer as they were in killing one. They told me it gave them a sense of where they should set up their tree stands when the season opened, that it was scouting but with a little more edge and adventure.

When I started writing, I thought it was all about getting the story down on paper. I didn’t like revision, thought it unnecessary and that to go back into a story took away what was most instinctive, and therefore beautiful, in the first place. I thought if I had good characters and a good situation I had the makings of a good story. In short, I thought I only needed to spotlight those things and then the reader would see what was in front of them and get that charge of life the same way my friends got charged by simply seeing the deer. I was only half-right.

Good characters and a good situation may make for a compelling story, but what the reader craves is always more. The reader wants motivation and honesty, not just action. I grew up in this small town and what I saw there was the way lives are woven together simply by close proximity and limited choices. Even as a boy I think I knew this, that it was the thing I was spotlighting without knowing it, and it showed me the force of human emotion and how those competing emotions either within ourselves or between two people drive us—or shut us down. To get at those deeper things, for the story to rise up on more than just the emotion of the moment, it needs intelligence, and that intelligence must be masked or it comes across as a moral platitude. Armed with this knowledge, my process has become more laborious than it once was.

Wherever the kernel of the story arises for me, it’s important I put it down first.  After that, it’s often pretty slow-going. I’ve read that writers like Ann Beattie write a first draft of a story in a day and then go back and hammer at revisions. I long for the day of writing in which I have a first draft done in a single setting. First drafts take me a long time. I write a paragraph and reread it. I finish a page and reread it. If I leave a work unfinished and come back to it the next day, I reread it in its entirety—even the two novels I’ve drafted. Along the way, I cut and polish, add and subtract, amend and condense. By the time I get a full draft, I’ve usually completed five or six versions, at minimum. Then comes the heavy lifting. If the story is to be “any count,” as we say back home, then it’s got to be put through at least twelve more drafts, which get saved on my hard drive like this: “DeerStory.v1,” “DeerStory.v2,” etcetera. If I take all those mini-drafts to get to the full draft, in which for each separate version I essentially do the same thing I did in the original composing phases, we are looking at a potential of seventy-two drafts. The story in this issue of Blackbird lives in fifteen different versions on my hard drive across six years. All this sounds obsessive and particular because it is. What I’m tracking in each of these versions isn’t just the right word or phrase, the right emotion and counter force.  I’m waiting for the story to tell me what it wants to be. My process may make it seem like I’m all “Hand of God” in the process, but I know that any story that’s any good has to teach me something first about life on planet earth. The story has to tell me what it wants to be. I know, I know. Break out the medicinal herbs, the chants, the healing crystals. That sounds very new age considering the work I’ve detailed that writing is for me, but that work, that drafting, is so I get to my spotlight moment. It’s when the story becomes something that is both part of me but also apart from me and the knowledge that spills forth is not from my conscious mind, it seems. This extra-sensory feeling is what draws me back in again and again through draft after draft. It’s the reason the Greeks believed a Muse inhabited our bodies. And just like the deer lit up in the night, illuminated in full, stunned splendor, it stares back only briefly before it bounds back into darkness.  end