THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
December 12, 2015
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”
This is the week beginning on the second Saturday in December. As happens on the second Saturday of the month, I am presenting 99-word stories contributed by readers of this blog during the previous month. In November I challenged writers to send me stories with the following opening sentence: “I promised my parents I would never tell this to anyone.”
Charlotte Painter reminded me that this prompt was similar to the opening sentence from a book by Maxine Hong Kingston, and I sheepishly admitted that I had just plain stolen the idea, if not the exact words, from Ms. Kingston. I used this prompt often as an assignment during my twenty years as a part-time creative writing teacher, and I always gave Ms. Kingston credit for the ironic beginning of The Woman Warrior. It was a popular prompt, especially in my life stories classes. It forced or at least persuaded writers to face their monsters and dare to reveal their family secrets, which were often quite dark. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed teaching life story writing is that I’m unabashedly nosy.
The essay below is written with memoir in mind, but the bravery it takes to face the dark is a necessary ingredient to fiction as well. Stories need to be brave. Writers need to face the dark and take on the monsters from time to time.
The stories submitted for this week’s blog are not all dark. A couple of them deal with a common rite of passage in our culture: a child’s becoming aware that Santa Claus is a phony. Well, that’s an important crisis in a child’s hagiology. It’s a major step toward adulthood, which has its plusses and minuses.
By the way, for a fine example of stories about dark secrets, see the promotion, toward the end of this post, of Katherine Elberfeld’s story collection, published this year, titled Make Yourselves at Home.
And don’t forget: you're invited to send me your 99-word story for January. See the instructions, deadline, and prompt at the end of this post.
Facing Our Monsters
There are dangers and rewards when it comes to mining your past for the stories of your life. As I’ve said (perhaps more than enough), a story requires conflict, so as you look for good stories to tell about your youth or your younger years, you’re likely to come across a few monsters that you have tried for years not to think about.
I walked out of my mother’s house in the middle of an argument, and I never saw her alive again.…
My wedding went sour when I saw how happily my new husband and my old friend were dancing together.…
I trained all summer for the Grand Masters Chess Tournament, only to be knocked out in the first round by a geeky teenager.…
I should have given my son the bicycle of his dreams.…
There you have themes for potential stories about guilt, anger, disappointment, and regret. These four monsters (and others just as ugly) lurk underneath all our beds, waiting to take over our dreams. Should we continue to smother them with denial? Well, if it works to do that, fine. But maybe it’s time to face those monsters.
How? Psychotherapy? Sure, but remember that as a writer—a writer of your life stories—you have a cheaper, more creative, more enjoyable way to slay the dragons.
Remember that all good stories require conflict, so cash in on your sour memories. Remember too that loss is one of the things that has made you an interesting persons. Also remember that you’re not alone, and your readers will be on your side, because they’ve ridden in the same rocky boats.
Another thing I can promise you: facing your monsters and turning them into well-written stories will not harm you. Just as in a dream, even the worst nightmare, you never feel physical pain, when you’re writing a story, even the saddest story ever told, you will not break down. You may even find a way to make peace with the enemies under your bed.
If you’re like most people, you have some memories that bring you guilt, anger, disappointment, and regret. But most people also have memories that bring them pride, reconciliation, love, and peace. You may, and should, write stories about these experiences too. You deserve the pleasure.
Wait a minute. How can you write an effective story with no conflict?
I didn’t say no conflict. Look a little harder at that memory and you’re likely to find that self-esteem came after you faced a challenge to your pride; reconciliation implies overcoming difficult differences; love is what redeems loneliness; and peace is often hard-won.
Sure, celebrate your sweet dreams in your stories. Show them as victories over the human condition. Never forget the human condition. Don’t be afraid of the dark.
Now, with no further introduction, here are this month’s 99-word stories:
I KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T KNOW
by Cathy Mayrides
I promised my parents I would never tell this to anyone. It had to be my secret. Other kids had to hear it from their own parents, in their own time.
I had badgered them and cited irrefutable evidence. There were presents in the back of their closet. And, I reasoned an old man and some reindeer couldn't travel the globe in one night.
When they told me, I cried because they were liars. My own parents! My world was violated. I would never do this to my own kids.
But I was oddly smug in my newfound knowledge.
A PROMISE KEPT
I promised my parents I would never tell this to anyone, referring to what I discovered several days before Christmas.
Like many kids, I was curious and snooped around to learn what was hidden. As usual, the gifts were already wrapped. It was a challenge to try to determine what was under the gaily-colored paper, by simply seeing its shape.
I discovered something I should not have seen. Mom spotted me and called dad. I figured I was in big trouble. Instead, he smiled and said, “This will be our family secret.”
So I will never tell.
ELF UNDER THE INFLUENCE
by Pat Shevlin
I promised my parents I would never tell this to anyone.
I went to bed Christmas Eve ’58 worried that Santa wouldn’t come because we had no tree.
Noises in the driveway woke me. It was my drunken dad. He had waited until the neighbors were at church for midnight mass, to shop the abandoned “tree” lot across the street.
The wiry five-foot Charlie Brown balsam tree, price tag attached, was a “steal,” saving dad the $35 that he had just left at the bar.
This eight-year-old prayed God would forgive her drunken dad on this Christmas Eve.
I PROMISED I WOULD NEVER TELL
by David Llewellyn
My father’s brother was born on Christmas day. He joked about how he’d been gypped out of a birthday present every year. He died on the eve of his fiftieth birthday. I was twelve years old at the time.
Uncle Flip visited us every Christmas. He was always between jobs. We all looked forward to his visits. Especially my mom.
I was the one who found him lying face-down on the guest bathroom floor on Christmas morning. I was also the first to read the letter he had left on his pillow.
The letter was addressed to my mother.
A COSTLY SWAP
by Jerry Giammatteo
I promised my parents I would never tell this to anyone. I was the infamous present swapper.
I was seven and desperately wanted a GI Joe. My parents bought one for my cousin Mick. I was jealous. Mick’s gift sat under the tree.
One night, I tiptoed to the tree and switched the label that said “Mick” on one box for one that said “Jerry” on another.
On Christmas morning, I got the GI Joe. Imagine Mick’s surprise when he got a sweater four sizes too big for him?
My parents discovered my subterfuge. The punishment fit the crime.
Recently published by Daniel & Daniel, Publishers
Make Yourselves at Home
and other stories
96 pages, paperback, $12.00
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Order from your local independent bookstore. This book is also sold by Amazon and other online booksellers. To order directly from the Publisher, call 1-800-662-8351.
What lurks beneath the surface of small-town propriety?
Katherine Elberfeld’s stories of small-town life in the American South evoke a pleasant and polite community feeling, and some of them are blessed by strong family ties. But the stories, some comic, some dark, and some both comic and dark, all reveal secrets and resentments that fester in the past and haunt the present. Katherine Elberfeld’s characters range from a little bit odd to downright crazy, as they come to terms with what life has given them, making choices for the better and sometimes for the worse.
The short stories in Katherine Elberfeld’s first collection, Make Yourselves at Home, have an ironic blend of grotesque and comic, mannered and eccentric, loving and vindictive, which may bring to readers’ minds the spare, strong talents of other southern women writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. Elberfeld’s fiction kindly, vividly vivisects the gentility of southern small-town society.
Asked to describe her fiction, Elberfeld answered: “In the deep South, twisting live oaks and curtains of Spanish moss create a beautiful but haunting environment teeming with lushness and with menaces in the dark. Poisonous snakes hide in the undergrowth and alligators lurk in the black waters. The characters and their lives in these stories mirror that landscape with all its beauty, complexity, hidden dangers and surprises. But occasionally, a shaft of light shines on the water, illuminating the threats in its depth, and the characters can decide whether to wade into the water or not.”
Katherine Elberfeld's careers in journalism, freelance writing, and the Episcopal priesthood inform and inspire her writing. She is the author of To Speak of Love, In the Midst of Sunflowers, Jordan to Jerusalem, and the novel The Lady of the House, and has published short stories and articles in Appalachian Heritage, New Therapist, Concepts in Human Development, and Leadership in Action. A native of Georgia, she now lives in Marietta, not far from her hometown of Gainesville. She invites readers and fellow writers to visit her website: www.katherineelberfeld.com.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for January’s 99-word story submissions is January First. The stories will appear on my blog post for January 9, 2016.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story in 99 words, inspired by the words “This time I really mean it.” That can be your title, or your first or last sentence, or just the theme of the story. Reread Rule 3, above; this must be a story, not just an essay. If I receive your story by January 1, and if you follow the rules, your story will appear on this blog January 9.
Thank you for dropping by. I hope you’ll be back next week, when we’ll have a guest post by Eileen Obser, an editor, a writing teacher, and the author of the honest and provocative memoir Only You.
Meanwhile, may you find joy in reading and/or writing stories!