Once—just once—I wrote a story that that I didn’t need to revise.
From shining idea to fingers tapping at the keyboard to my workshop mates smiling in appreciation and urging me to send it out, capped off in short order with publication in a respected literary journal and a prestigious prize—only once did this lighting bolt of good fortune strike me.
This is what I used to tell people. I remembered it vividly: the feeling of flow as I sat at my desk writing, the flash of insight into structure, the ease with which the words and images and paragraphs fell into place. The rest of the time, of course, writing was the usual hard slog, a slow and painstaking process of groping about in the dark for structure and meaning, turning sentences around in my head, cutting and pasting, giving up and starting over again.
And then one day, standing in the shower, hot water beating on my head, it came to me that I had got it completely wrong. It wasn’t true that I had produced a perfect piece of writing—not even once. The reality was that I had struggled with a previous incarnation of the piece in question (and there they were, multiple drafts of it, stuffed away in my files) that amounted to a failure I had forgotten about, or blocked out, until now. My so-called perfect story was, in fact, a phoenix risen from the ashes of those failures, resurrected four years on.
The point here, however, is not the slipperiness of memory, or the power of wishful thinking, or even the contingent nature of the truth. What’s relevant is what happened in the process of revision (a process I hadn’t even consciously thought of as revision)—what I did with that lump of discarded raw material—that succeeded in bringing it to life.
I had been trying to write about my grandmother. I didn’t have much to go on—only my childhood memories of her and the stories she used to tell. I did some research, but the little information I could find felt thin. I tried to stick to the facts about my grandmother, but I kept writing about myself, and I wasn’t sure how to make those strands connect. The writing felt constrained, hemmed in. I gave up.
When I came back to the material, four years later, I approached it initially as fiction rather than nonfiction. I called my grandmother by a different name. I gave myself a different name as well. I opened up the gates. I gave myself permission to invent.
But what emerged was not fiction but a hybrid, a story-essay braided into three discrete narrative strands: a first person memoir; a version of my grandmother’s stories narrated in the first person in my best approximation of her voice; and an explicitly fictional section, narrated in third person, in which I imagined what my grandmother’s life might have been like.
To say that the third strand was “explicitly fictional” is not to say I lied.
Even in that third strand, which was the most exciting part to write, I either stuck to the facts or made it clear that I was deviating from them deliberately. For example, while I imagined my grandmother having an affair, even my least open-minded relatives understood that I wasn’t suggesting she’d actually had one. Rather, it was apparent that I was imagining her having an affair because I was having one at the time. In other words, it wasn’t story about a woman having an affair so much as an essay about the longing for connection, about the desire to find a reflection of oneself in a person one loves. It wasn’t even an essay about my grandmother (not biography) so much as a meditation on storytelling, on the persistence and elusiveness of the past.
What I discovered was the power of opening up a story beyond the bare-bones skeleton of fact. I learned that there’s a kind of magic portal that opens when you use words like maybe or perhaps. When you use the subjunctive mood (If it had happened this way … ), the conditional tense (It might have happened like this …). So long as you tell the reader what you’re doing (which is to say, if you are honest), I came to see, you can do anything you want.
Here is what I remember. Here is what I imagine. Here is what I think. How powerful they are, these modes of perception (truthful modes) that spread their wings beyond the narrow confines of reported fact.
So dare to bend genre, to flex the confines of story, essay, memoir. Admit what you don’t know and take off from there. When you discover the true meaning that you’re seeking, it might not even feel like the hard work of writing and re-writing at all.
Margot Singer is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She also teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., USA. She is the author of a collection of stories, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, the Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose and the Thomas Carter Prize for the Essay.