Inspiration & Context, That’s The Stuff

Last week I agreed to sub at the high school where Cami teaches. Three days with middle- and high-school students always makes for an interesting week. Rarely does a subbing day go by without some snippet of conversation or a student’s story that catches my ear. It’s a great place to find inspiration.

Oddly, though, this last week I found inspiration in a different place, altogether.

Family window stickers are everywhere. Or, so I thought.

As we were driving across the Manatee River on the way to school, we followed an SUV with the owner’s family (husband, wife, two kids, a dog, a cat) depicted on the back window with a series of stick figure window clings. You know the window stickers I’m talking about, right? You see them EVERYWHERE.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I had a free period that day and I spent it doing my morning journal. That writing quickly morphed into a story-writing session. I recalled the happy SUV window-sticker family and wondered: What happens when the happy-Dad and the happy-Mom are no longer quite so happy?

It was a brief story, coming in just under 1,000 words, but when I stepped back I thought, “Hey, this is a self-contained, short-short story.”

Those of you who know my writing understand how rare this is. I rarely write a story less than 3,000 words. My average is somewhere north of 7,000 words. A ten-thousand word story makes me smile.

So, when I wrote something that could be submitted to the ever-growing list of short-short and Flash Fiction web sites AND it felt like a complete story to me, I was pretty happy. I typed up the story that morning, sent it to about ten writer friends, and sat back to let the response roll in.

Overall, the response was positive. There were several good suggestions and some thoughtful line-edits among the email replies. It was a first draft, after all, so I was interested in hearing from my readers. I THOUGHT I’d hit a home run, or, at least a solid liner into the gap. But, until the readers get ahold of it, it isn’t always possible to tell.

And, thankfully, the readers agreed.

Except.

There was a problem.

Two of my readers–both from the East Coast, I might add–didn’t understand the window decals. The central part of the story. Here’s how my New York friend phrased it:

This might have to do with the fact that I haven’t driven a car in about ten years or that I come from a place where cars come second to subway passes or rent stabilized apartments, so I don’t pay that much attention to things on them.  Either way, I felt a little disoriented when I started reading, since I couldn’t get a grip on this image that is central to the story.

What to do? Well, I know this much: I won’t be submitting this story to any New York lit mags.

Otherwise, I learned a lesson: All writing is, in some sense, regional even as it is universal. There are things we include in our writing that make sense to 80% of our readers, but the nuance of it may be lost on a substantial number of possible readers. What seems so obvious to us as writers may, in fact, be lost on the reader.

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7 thoughts on “Inspiration & Context, That’s The Stuff

  1. Hey, Eric. Those stickers always crack me up. I think they’re fun. I lived my whole life in NYC. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 32 and that was only because I started riding horses and I had to get out to the suburbs on Long Island. If you submit to lit mags based in Upstate NY or other suburban areas in the area (NJ, CT, PA, etc) I’m sure editors and readers will understand the visual. I’d imagine many NYC residents would, also, especially if they came from an area where they may have seen the stickers. Sounds like a very cool story simply based on the visual! 🙂 I look forward to its publication.

  2. That is quite interesting. I never really thought about people who *don’t* drive cars. In suburbia, cars are the rule. I can think of ONE non-driver that I know (over the legal age).

    I was thinking about your comments here (and via email) on writing with high word counts. I, if you’ve ever noticed from my average comment length of 258 words, tend to be a bit verbose. I’m “practicing” being brief with the 100 word pieces. Mind, I don’t usually find them to be a complete story, but I set the goal of eliciting the correct response/reaction (or having a definite set-up) within the word limit. It’s slowly helping. So, maybe that’s a good exercise for you too.

    • I don’t mind doing exercises or work to write tight. I’m actually pretty good at cutting the fat in later editing passes.
      But, I don’t find many shorter pieces (and by shorter, here, I’m talking in the sub-1500 word category) that feel like full stories to me. Slice of life, maybe. Something interesting to read, sure. But I often don’t read the super-short pieces as STORY.
      Word limits are fine, to an extent. But, since I rarely read and enjoy the hyper-short fiction, I don’t see myself spending a lot of time practicing there. It’s like practicing non-stop for a 100-meter dash with the idea that I’ll suddenly be able to run 26 miles when the Boston Marathon comes around. It wouldn’t hurt me to run 100-meters now and then, but running it over and over isn’t what will get me where I want to be.

      • That is a very interesting line of thought. Since I’m not “trained” in writing, I need to practice thinking about HOW I put the words down & their effectiveness. So, for me, it is a good tool for practicing.

        Then again, you’ve done a whole program on this, so I can see why you’d feel that way.

        Very interesting.

      • Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with doing exercises like this. Or, taking a 26-page event in a novel and condensing it down to one page just to see what is really important. Or, taking a three-sentence event and stretching it out to two pages, etc. Playing with the elasticity of fiction is a great way to learn and to find the “white hot center” of what you are doing.
        What I have trouble with is seeing a 100-word piece as a complete story. There are a few very short pieces that work that way, but generally speaking, that’s not how I experience the micro- and flash-fiction I run across. It’s not my cup of tea. Other people like it, enjoy reading it, it’s all they have time for, or whatever, and that’s fine. It’s just not where I spend much of my energy.

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