A couple of weeks ago I woke up sometime before my alarm went off, in the dark with very little sense of what time it was but a sense of urgency clinging to what remained of a dream. As I tried to drift back to sleep, a single line popped into my head, as if my subconscious was writing a story in my sleep, and it stuck with me. I posted it on my Facebook wall when I got home that evening, so I wouldn't allow myself to forget it for future use.
"At the end, I was left with just this: Elizabeth dead, and myself out of time to mourn her."
That was all I had, but posting it on Facebook cemented my intention to turn it into something more, especially with comments from friends and family. Mom asked me about it a few days ago, and I told her I was still mulling it over in my head. I was slightly afraid that "mulling it over" would be as far as I would ever get, to be honest.
Yesterday I was even thinking about writing this post with a different focus - talking about the difficulty for someone as indecisive as I can be to take just a nugget of a thought and flesh it out into a full story.
Take my sentence there, for example. It contained the germ of a story, to be sure, but so many decisions to be made about what it meant. Obviously it is being told in the first person viewpoint, so one has to determine who "I" am: male or female? I have doubts about my ability to write a convincing story from a male viewpoint... but for a while there the story seemed it may demand a male point of view. Older than the author, or younger?
And who is Elizabeth to the storyteller? Wife? Lover? Sister? Mother? Daughter? Best friend? Colleague?
How did she die? Car accident? Cancer? Shot by an outlaw of some sort? Peacefully in her sleep at the age of eighty-something?
Even with all those decisions made, arbitrarily, I was going to have to come up with a reason why the storyteller would be out of time to mourn her, and those options seemed to lead me into the realm of a plot that would challenge my ability to write believably.The results of all these decisions would have a huge impact on what kind of story it would wind up being... I mean, consider the difference between these: An elderly man on his deathbed recalling his memories and regrets while mourning the passing of his wife of 60 years.... And a secret agent who had (perhaps unwisely) become very close to his or her informant before she was murdered by government assassins and is now running for his or her life. Both of those stories could contain the line I came up with in my sleep, to very different effect indeed.
And then, while I was coming up with potential examples of the different stories these decisions could lead to, the perfect solution hit me.
Back in college, our little gang had come up with an idea for a creative writing anthology of sorts based around a common theme: small town Southern Illinois, growing up there, and either leaving or staying. At the time, we were making our plans for when and where we would be going after college... Pablo wrote the first poem about leaving what we referred to as "Utopia, Illinois", the fictional small town that resembled any number of towns that we either lived in or had visited. I wrote one in response, which I then submitted to my poetry writing class and ended up having to revise multiple times until the character of it had changed significantly, and in the collection of my high school and college writings I kept both the original and the revised version as separate entries.
Then for my final project in my fiction writing class my senior year, I pulled an all-nighter the night before it was due and wrote a pretty decent first draft of a story that was loosely based on an anecdote I'd been told of from when I was an infant as well as a mental picture I'd captured of a young couple in their vehicle at a convenience store. The teacher really liked the story, which surprised me, as I'd let it ramble onto the page without much thought and with only the barest review for self-editing. And I, hating the process of multiple revisions and without further guidance as the semester had ended, left it as it was.
I think the story of Elizabeth is going to be part of this theoretical anthology, and a sequel to this original "Utopia City Limits" short story that I wrote for my fiction writing class, spring semester of my senior year of college. There are things I have learned much more about since I wrote that story (I've not had children of my own, but I've had friends and family that have gone through pregnancy and labor since then and given me a better picture of it, for instance)... but I believe I'm going to retype it as-is for now and share it, so I can better immerse myself in the world of Elizabeth... and her mother.
There's a hint of what's coming, and yes, I'll be sharing that one too, when it's written.
EDITED TO ADD:
Links added to the original and revised poems.... and here is the original short story in all its naivete and glory. Please pardon the rough language in the confrontation scene between Brian and the neighbor - it seemed necessary to lend the right tone to that section of the dialogue.