I’m in the process of reworking a story I wrote several years ago, back when I was at OSU. I think it’s the first complete story I wrote there, and probably the third or fourth complete story I’d ever written at the time. I can remember writing it, very clearly. I remember what inspired me and I remember that I wrote it almost from beginning to end in one sitting. I was under a deadline and had to get something together for workshop.
I had a corner desk and my back was to the kitchen. As I wrote I could hear this mouse scurrying back and forth across the linoleum. I was too afraid to turn around and look at him. That’s what kept me writing, that little mouse who’d found his way into my apartment through a hole under the sink. That little mouse who crapped in my cupboards and who never seemed to find any food.
I never saw him. I just knew he was there. The landlord finally sent someone over to seal up the hole and I never heard him again. I felt much safer when I wrote after that.
But anyway. I am looking at this story that I wrote back then and I am still just as attached to it as I was when the characters first started talking to me. When I look at it now, though, I can see its flaws. I can—finally—see the things that folks in my workshop pointed out, and I see how the story just isn’t working. So I’m taking it apart and reassembling that. And I’m finding this to be a hellish process.
I’m finding I don’t know my characters’ motivations as well as I should. One of them, June, an 11 year old girl who’s scared to death of turning 12 is about to get baptized because her parents and her congregation tell her it’s what she’s supposed to do. She’s almost 12 and it’s time to commit herself to God, to wash away her sins and begin again.
But June hasn’t sinned, at least, not that she can remember. So why begin anew? She’s fine as she is. Why not just walk into adolescence as she is? She hates the idea of the whole thing, but she cannot show her fears to her family. Thing is, I can’t locate that thing she is afraid of. She fears drowning, and the idea of being dipped under water terrifies her. But there has to be more than that.
I know that June has latched on to her youth and rather than being weaned off, she finds herself in a variety of circumstances that cause her to move into young womanhood. Baptism is one of those circumstances.
Another thing I’m considering: this piece is one of several June stories. It’s a standalone piece, but they should be chronologically placed.
So when should baptism occur? At the beginning of a process of turning towards young womanhood, or as the final thing in that process?
I’m stuck. I could write about how working on this story is like a baptism of sorts for me. A way to wash away my sins—being a lazy and only semi-occasional writer; being a hack; allowing myself to forget that I want to, need to be married to my writing. I could write about that mouse and how I want him to come back and scamper behind me to keep me from looking around so that I can stay focused on story writing.
But I need to think less of myself as writer and more of June. I need to let her write the story. I feel like I am trying to force it, like I am searching for theme and losing track of my characters. Forcing the story would be like baptizing my characters without asking if they are ready.
My job, as I see it, is to listen to them and let them tell me when they are ready to move into the next phase of their lives.