Liner notes for The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop…, published Feb. 2012 on Mormon Artist as part of the Mormon Lit Blitz contest.
This story was born out of frustration and anger. It was early June 2009. I was upset with myself because I hadn’t managed to pull anything together in time to enter the Irreantum fiction contest. In fact, I was depressed about my fiction writing in general. But after wallowing a bit I decided to buck up and see what else I could do and ran across Sunstone’s short short fiction contest. The deadline was fast approaching, but I figured if I could come up with an idea for a story, I could finish it in time. But what?
I was on the commuter bus one morning. My thoughts were on my frustrations. I had recently acquired Metric’s album Fantasies because it had been on sale on Amazon for $5. I put my headphones in and fired it up. I needed some music to get me out of my head. The first song “Help I’m Alive” came on. It has a strong drumbeat, which I love. I started drumming with my fingers. And then Emily Haines sang “Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer? / Beating like a hammer? / Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer.” I pulled out my mini yellow legal pad and wrote “Elder Russellâ€™s greenie wouldnâ€™t stop drumming.” I jotted down a few more notes.
Later — either that evening or the next — I sat at my computer with “Help I’m Alive” on repeat and listened to the song over and over again while I wrote the first draft (a similar process to what I took with my story based on Postal Service album Give Up minus the thematic inspiration). Later I revised it and then did another revision all the while listening to that same Metric song over and over as I wrote. The rhythms of the prose aren’t the same rhythms as the song, but the song helped me focus on what I was trying to do, and especially kept me disciplined, kept me paring and tinkering because I knew it was important to get the poetry of the prose right.
I submitted the story to the contest. It was 1,322 words (I believe the limit was 1,500).
I didn’t find out the contest results until January 2010. It was not a winner. So I did a revision, which brought it down to 1,011 words, and submitted it to the Irreantum fiction contest in May 2010. The revision pared down some of the flabbiness of the Sunstone entry. I also got my act together and finished an experimental speculative fiction story to submit, which made me happy. Neither entry placed, but I was very confident about both and pleased with how they turned out. Because of its length, I thought about just posting The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop… here at AMV, but decided to just hold onto it for awhile. I’m very glad I did because when James and Scott announced the Mormon Lit Blitz in November 2011, I knew I already had one entry that I could submit.
But for all that, to be honest, I wasn’t super enthused with the piece. I was more interested in the new one I was working on (The Shattered Backboard). But in late December, I did another revision (according to my notes it was the fifth draft) and brought it down to 994 words. In January, I wrote Pass Along and submitted it. It seemed to me to be more in line with the potential audience for the contest. So of the three submission, I must admit that I was the least interested in The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop… It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was a strong story; quite the opposite. It’s just that I had lived with it for so long.
When I got Nicole Goldberg’s editor’s notes I went through my normal stages of writerly reaction to editing: denial (They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do here), anger (What do they know? I have no idea how to fix this. This is stupid!), acceptance (Well, you know, I can kind of see how this part could be a bit better), excitement (Oh, yeah, I could totally do this and this. That’s gonna be much better). But when it came to actually make the fixes, I struggled. I had a sense of what needed to be done, but couldn’t get the words quite right. And then suddenly I realized what was missing. I grabbed my headphones, put “Help I’m Alive” on repeat and went to work. Everything clicked into place rather quickly. I reread the entire piece and was very pleased with the end result. In fact, I derived more satisfaction out of the final version than I had ever thought I would.
This was a long, boring explanation of the journey this story took. But I tell it to illustrate three things:
1. Adding venues for the publication of Mormon-themed short stories is very important to the field. If you strike out with Irreantum, then your only other hope is that Dialogue or Sunstone takes it (and that’s only if you feel comfortable publishing with one or both). This story would not have found a reading public without the Mormon Lit Blitz. I can’t wait for it to find a permanent home on Everyday Mormon Writer (as well as write more stories for that venue).
2. With flash fiction, it’s the polishing that makes a difference. A few changes here and there can take a piece from fairly smooth to shiny and lustrous (or at least shiny and lustrous in my eyes).
3. And related to the prior point: editing helps. It’s a lesson I have to re-learn with every piece of mine that gets published. But so far it has held true.