Tracy Alig Dowling, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference short story winner, blogs about the revision process. Her award-winning short story, “To Live Without Air,” will appear in the Potomac Review Issue #52.
To Live Without Air is a short story I’ve been bedded down with for a long time. Originally, it was over 8000 words, however most of the editing was done by the time I did the final paring. 3000 words was the limit imposed by the F. Scott Fitzgerald contest, and I had to get rid of about 500 words for it to qualify.
Not all short stories are short. One of my particular favorites is Rose by the elder Andre Dubus. Rose is over thirty pages, with a lengthy introduction that on the surface seems to have little to do with the story. Nevertheless, as we are carried into the story’s despair, we realize that Dubus’ introduction has provided context – we join the narrator in his empathy for this desperate woman while simultaneously experiencing her own despairing self image. Rose is a good story to read on Good Friday, providing the reader with the stark reality of one woman’s Via Dolorosa.
The leisurely reading that a story like Rose deserves and demands is a luxury most people no longer enjoy. We want our short stories short! Part of the reason is practical: publishers have less space and readers have less time.
Ironically for the writer, short takes time. The laborious part of writing is the re-writing, the re-writing, the re-writing. Editing one’s work is like sorting potatoes into piles of small, medium and large: it’s those damn decisions!
My earliest version of To Live Without Air, the story I wrote for the F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference, began with a rather lengthy travelogue-description of Bogota, the story’s locale. In a later revision, the first paragraph had its protagonist and narrator, Lydia, sitting on the airplane to Bogota saying ‘This is a trip I have planned for a long time.’ That scenario soon became extraneous too.
Each time I picked the story up, the question became ‘what is extraneous?’ I learned that context – there’s that word again – could be conveyed in a few broad strokes: Bogota is a high altitude city thus the thin air, a few striking landmarks, a Catholic country in a backward place where men still occasionally wear the native garment, the ruana.
The cultural clash is important in this story, thus the setting had to be described. Its subject—sexual abuse—is something that can and does happen anywhere and everywhere, but pain can never be generalized—it always involves real people, people who emerge from a particular family, a particular culture, individuals each having a particular viewpoint. Lydia, the narrator is such an individual, and explaining the culture does put her viewpoint in stark contradiction to what that culture expected of women.
The energy, color, and drama of this story was created on the right side of my brain; when I emerged from that process and proceeded to my brain’s left side to prune the raw material I had created, the primary question became What can I leave out?
How does one pack for three months in Colombia if only a backpack is allowed? One packs only the absolutely necessary. Rewriting is the same process. Everything else goes.
Lydia, the protagonist of this much revised story, emerged from a plethora of unnecessary and discarded details to become a strong and memorable character.