I purse my lips at the blank spiral notebook page in front of me. I planned this block of writing time at The Backstory Cafe today so I could begin another short story, but so far all I have accomplished is munching down a chocolate chip muffin.
I look around the crowded room and study the faces I see, some familiar, some new. All look appealing in a “new short story material” kind of way, but I’m drawn to a woman holding a newspaper and choose study her more closely.
She’s in her thirties, I would guess, and the bag at her feet suggests youngish kids at home (big enough to carry games and books, but too small to be a diaper bag). Her back is stick-straight one moment, hunched over the text another. I watch as she zeros in on attractive-sounding ads, only to dismiss them and straighten up again.
She’s well dressed, in the designer daywear of a housewife who doesn’t need to work, and the ring on her wedding finger gleams. Why is she looking for a job, I wonder? I watch as she checks her ringing cell phone and ignores a call. She’s avoiding someone I decide, and the story begins.
The process of writing a short story is always the same for me. An idea forms, perhaps from something I’ve overheard or witnessed, and I work at it until the story is complete. This mystery woman looks like she desperately needs a job, but doesn’t need money. I’m intrigued. I want to know more. I know this is a good place to begin.
I finally pick up my pen and add some words to my page, mostly a description of the woman I’ve been spying on, complete with details about her family and where she lives. As I write, the woman collects her newspaper and joins me at my table. She sits down in a chair and her body sags with the weight of an emotional burden, but she has a wry smile and a gleam in her eye.
“Rough day,” I ask?
She smiles back, and I sense she has something funny to share. Introductions are made, I open my laptop, and I ask her to tell me her story.
Her name is Kay McNeal, she says, and she needs to find a job so she can avoid the PTA bully, Lenora French, who will surely be calling for another favor soon. Kay recently applied for a job at a local candle boutique, but it ended in disaster.
Kay leans forward and rolls her eyes, “You should have been there,” she says laughing. “I started the day just fine, excited to start spending my new employee discount, but I ended up on the sidewalk with an epi pen sticking out of my arm.” I listen closely as she tells me about the “too-young-to-be-my-boss” manager and the panic she felt filling out her application. She tells me about giant splotches appearing on her face and hands, and the fireman with the blue eyes. I will my fingers to keep up as Kay fills me in on all of the details.
At around five pages, my newspaper holding friend Kay smiles at me and tips her head. She is finished, she signals.
I reread my first draft and search for the good stuff, trying to identify the deeper story here. Kay is battling with her self-esteem, I decide, even in this funny tale. I tinker with the first line, the transition between the last two paragraphs, and wonder if Kay should tell this story, or if I should I step in as the narrator.
I have Kay begin again so I can write the next draft. When she is done, I adjust the tone based on Kay’s motivation, realize Kay is the best person to tell the story, and eliminate two whole paragraphs. Then Kay begins again while I layer in a secondary story line that just occurred to me. And again so I can clean up the dialogue.
Now again (yes AGAIN) with a better opening sentence. And again with fewer words. And again just to check for flow. This rewriting period can last for hours or days or weeks, but with each new draft the story improves, and I’m happy to keep working on it. Then, at some point, I’m done. No real way to describe it, but I know the story is ready, and I stop making changes.
I finally stand up and walk over to my new friend Kay. She reaches out to shake my hand, and I hug her back instead. I’m ready to say goodbye, and so is she. Kay smiles as she walks over to the long farm table that runs down the right side of the cafe. She joins the other stories waiting to be published. I wave to them all and assure them I’ll find the right editor for each.
Then I return to my own chair, and face another blank page.