Archive | October, 2013

The Story Behind the Story: “Original Sin”

20 Oct

 

The Story Behind the Story: “Original Sin”

 

“Original Sin” was a story I had wanted to write for ages it seems. Within my family, which is an old, southern family that can supposedly trace the McCord roots all the way back to Boonesborough, Kentucky, we had our own Chicken George.

Many who are too young to have watched the television mini-series “Roots” or to have read the book will not remember Chicken George, but he was a black man famous for the gamecocks he raised.

My goal was NOT to get on the bad side of all the animal lovers and animal rights activists or to get into a drawn out debate over the political, legal, and criminal realities that deal with cock-fighting. But I have always wanted to write something about the sport just to acknowledge that it was a part of my family history.
Sometimes, history is ours whether we want it or not. We can acknowledge it and recognize the differences in the times and the thinking of the participants, but simply ignoring our history because it isn’t politically correct is foolish.

Daddy had a cousin who raised fighting roosters. This cousin had two wooden legs and lived like a nomad. He travelled in an old school bus with pens in the back where his roosters travelled with him. I remember once as a child traveling to his house and seeing the pens of the gamecocks lined in rows in the bedroom. The house described in “Goat and Dumplins” that will be part of the next book of stories to be published by Southern Yellow Pine Publishing is based upon my childhood memories of a visit to this home.
I have friends still involved with raising gamecocks, although they are no longer involved with the sport. These friends proved to be invaluable sources of information, with one providing a copy of the pit rules last printed in 1961.

I have also always been fascinated with the concept of Original Sin. In high school I once wrote a paper about what would have happened if Adam had eaten the apple first. If you are familiar with the story, you remember reading in the Bible that God cursed man to work by the sweat of his brow, that women would suffer labor pains, and a few other ignominies. One of the greatest compliments I have ever been paid was when my teacher, Mrs. Anderson, kept my essay for years to show other students of an example of the creativity she expected.

These ideas had been floating around for years in that murky world of potential stories that all authors carry around in their hip pockets. Then I was fortunate enough to be paired with Chicago photographer Jennifer Moore for a prose/photographic collaboration for Flying House 2012. Ms. Moore had a collection of photos titled “Original Sin” and a detailed caption of what she thought was Original Sin. These pictures were of severed heads of chickens. Here is a link to those pictures:
http://jmooreart.com/section/316227_Original_Sin.html

After Flying House, Jennifer and I agreed to continue our collaborations, and we created a short manuscript titled “Original Sin” now submitted for consideration for publication in Europe. But that is getting the cart before the horse.

I knew I wanted to create a story about Original Sin, but I still wasn’t sure exactly where to go with this. About that time, a few other things collided that helped give shape to this story.
An article I read from somewhere—I likely could never find it again—discussed the concept of nudity and nudist camps and lifestyles. The author claimed the interest in nudity stemmed from a desire to return to the Garden of Eden, to a time when all thoughts were pure and mankind still held to its innocence. He claimed, however, that once the serpent was allowed into the garden, and sin had been committed, that we could never return. He argued that nudist lifestyles should be outlawed as they promoted a hedonistic life that denigrated God and promoted sexuality. I believe this person was part of Michelle Bachman’s failed presidential campaign.

I also had a conversation with a good friend, Shawn Boone, who suggested that the Original Sin was not the eating of the fruit, but the desire to be god-like. This coveting led Eve to eat the fruit. The idea fascinated me, and I had to admit I had never considered it before.

            And of course, the issue of sexuality comes to the forefront. I was raised in a Pentecostal church where if you woke up with morning wood, you had sinned and would burn in a Devil’s Hell! If you touched yourself longer than it took to go pee, you would also burn in Hell fire! The churches I attended had no concept, no frigging clue, of how to approach sexuality with the budding teenagers. They preached about how evil it was and how dangerous it was, and they made it sound so good I couldn’t wait to try it. If the preacher’s wives were as wild as the preacher’s daughters I have known, it was no wonder they preached about how evil sex was.

But humans, after eating of the fruit, were no longer like the animals in the garden. Animals give in to their mating instincts: salmon travel thousands of miles and die in order to spawn; buck deer will not eat for days as they relentlessly chase does during the rut. Nature is filled with examples of animals whose instinct to procreate far exceeds their instinct for survival. I guess it can be argued that procreation is the most important concept of the instinct for survival. After all, if a species became too lazy to procreate, they would be doomed to extinction.

            But after eating from the fruit, man was elevated above this animalistic need for sex and required to make sex a sacred act. I believe this was the cruelest penalty god imposed on mankind. Adam and Eve covered themselves after they realized they were naked, and God cast them out from Eden and cursed mankind for eternity as a result. And we have been seeking a return to the garden ever since.

Now I had a story.
The first marriage was between Adam and Eve, and they were naked in the

Garden. I wanted to create a couple that yearned to be married as Adam and Eve had been, in a nude ceremony in a tropical paradise. I wanted to explore the raw yearnings experienced by teens. I wanted to show that conflict with religion, and the silly compromises we make.

            But I wasn’t sure how to make this work with the images Jennifer Moore had created for her concept of Original Sin. Sometimes I think writers think too much. I like to have a blueprint for my story. I used to insist on having the whole thing plotted out precisely before I ever sat down to write. But my problem was that many stories I had were not getting written. Somewhere along the line I learned to sit down and write the scenes you have, and don’t worry about the beginning or the ending, just get started writing, and allow the characters to take on a life and ideas will come. So I got started.

            I wrote about my couple and I planted the seeds for their marriage in a tropical paradise. I did research on nude weddings, and much to my surprise discovered there is a whole industry that caters to nude weddings. My idea was not as original as I thought it would be. I even found a tropical paradise—a swinger’s resort along the Quintana Roo Coast—that performed these weddings.

            I love when things get churning and research provides more ideas and you find yourself never wanting to get up from your chair, typing along until you realize you have missed breakfast, and it is 2:00 PM and too late for lunch. I had several days like this while researching and writing this story.

One of the scenes caused me problems. I had written the scene where my virgin couple had arrived at their swingers resort.  They had stepped out on the back veranda and I mentioned the “lush tropical foliage” that surrounded them. I remembered some advice from John Dufresne that such a statement would never do. I had written a story that he critiqued at the Seaside Writers Conference where I’d described the “beautiful wildflowers along the edge of the woods” in south Alabama in December. He told me to name those flowers. Do some research. I followed his advice and by accident found a botanist’s website who taught at Auburn University. She even read the story and suggested the flowers that would be blooming along the edge of the cemetery that time of the year. So I started searching the net for plants native to the Quintana Roo peninsula that would be blooming during the time my couple were there for their nude wedding. Not only did I find names and flowers, I found two special gifts. One was the La Cieba tree, a tree of mystical significance to the Mayans, and the other was the Golden Shower Tree that would also have been in splendid bloom at that time.

            For those who don’t know what a Golden Shower is, I guess an explanation is needed: urinating on one’s partner during sex.

So I found a way to name the tropical foliage and found plants and trees that fit with the themes of the story. But I still had to figure out a way to fit the themes of Jennifer’s pictures

I remembered discussions about the pit fights with the game cocks, and how they would destroy the birds right in the pits if they ran and refused to fight. The handler could not leave the pit with the bird because the bird’s genetics were inferior. The bird had to be destroyed there in front of the audience to demonstrate that it would never be used for breeding. This was done by wringing their necks, or pulling off their heads and tossing them from the ring. Now I had a way to work this into my story.

But now I faced another challenge. How can I work a cockfight into this story without it seeming gratuitous? I had my couple in Mexico, where cock-fighting would have gone on out in the open. But how could the scene fit into the themes and plot of a story about Original Sin?

The more I thought about this the more elusive the answers became. I sat and wrote the scene, thinking that maybe I could learn the answers as I went along, that perhaps the answers I sought would be more organic if they came after writing the scene.

I went back to my main character. I had created a female character based upon a composite of several different women I had known. She was beautiful, sensuous, oozing sexuality. And she knew it. She had learned at a young age how to use these gifts to manipulate men to get anything she wanted. We all know someone like this, and they are the most dangerous people alive on this earth. Someone once told me a man should never make a promise when he has a hard-on. He doesn’t have enough blood left to allow his brain to function properly. My character used this against the men she encountered, taking advantage of that animal lust that humankind is supposed to rise above to get whatever she wanted. I knew several just like her.

It occurred to me that the Original Sin was giving in to lust. Eve had yearned to be like God. The serpent took advantage of that lust—using it against Eve to get her to eat the fruit. Then God, with his cruel sense of humor, cursed us and sentenced us to an eternity of battling that lust. People believe that pit bulls and gamecocks are trained to fight to the death. This simply is not true. That bloodlust comes from genetics—years of careful, selective breeding. It is nature. The lust that drives men also allows them to be used and manipulated by women. This was no different from the handlers of the gamecocks, using the inbred fire for battle to test them in the pits. I had my connection.

The problem then became one of showing that connection.

I remembered a story titled ‘Weight” that I saw Richard Bausch read at Burkes Bookstore in Memphis. Within the story, a black man is lynched, and Bausch gives little detail of the lynching. Later in the story, an elephant escapes from a traveling circus. No one in the town has a gun of a sufficient caliber to slay the rampaging elephant, so they use a crane and mange to lasso the elephant and suspend it, in essence lynching the elephant. The scene describes in horrid detail how the elephant screamed and defecated and finally died. Bausch had given no indication of the connection between the two. He simply inserted the scene, and the connection was obvious. I love this technique. Although many will read such a story and never make the connection, the connection is there for the close reader capable of looking for such things. Bausch and his writing had a tremendous impact on my own approach to fiction.

So I wrote the scene, and placed it in the story. As I added more details, it became more and more clear to me how the handlers of the gamecocks brutally took advantage of the bloodlust inbred into their birds. The connection between the handlers and my character also became crystal clear. This was no different from the manipulation of her boyfriend by my own version of “Lolita.” By simply allowing one of the cocks to run while in the pit, I could show what happened when a bird did not suit the will of its handler–it was simply destroyed and cast aside.
I needed an image to end the story with, so as she is leaving, I have her look back and see the dead birds being pitched into a barrel outside. She never makes the connection. A character as flawed as she is would never recognize her own short-comings, no matter how obvious.

This story was one I never believed would see print outside of my story collection. It contains graphic, detailed sex-scenes and detailed descriptions of the cockfights set in Mexico, along with drug use as they smoke pot while watching the fights. But Story South maintained by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, published the story. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of a literary journal.

 

 

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Aside 14 Oct

The Story Behind the Story: Job’s Comforter

This story was one I first wrote for the graduate creative writing workshop in Lake Charles, LA., at McNeese State University. The incredible Antonya Nelson was making an appearance and I was fortunate enough to have a manuscript conference with her about this story.

I learned more from that conference than I could ever reveal in a short blog entry.

Ms. Nelson asked me to tell her in one sentence what the story was about. I sat silent. She said that she had the same problem, that she didn’t know what the story was about. I knew I had a story I wanted to tell—in fact several stories with this series of events—but I had not really thought about what the heart of the piece would be.

I tried to listen carefully to her other comments, but I must admit my mind was racing ahead to that moment when I got home and could start revising. The greatest compliment I can pay to writers/teachers like Antonya Nelson, John Dufresne, Robert Olen butler, Michael Martone, Michael Knight, Neil Connelly, Cary Holladay and others is that ability to inspire you to want to get to that chair and start writing before you even leave their presence.

As a brother to a sister who eventually died of complications from acute paranoid schizophrenia, and the son of parents who constantly bore the brunt of the consequences of my sister’s illness, as a prosecuting and defense attorney who tackled the problems of mental illness from both sides of the legal equation, I had a ton of things I wanted to say, but I had forgotten to discern the true story that needed told.But I also remembered some advice from Neil Connelly who once told me I tried to do far too much with my short stories.

I sat down and began a series of revisions. I cut ruthlessly parts that I nearly cried over I wanted to leave them in so badly. But I had an idea of the story I wanted to tell, and I had to convince myself that I would someday have a broader platform that would allow me to do more on behalf of the mentally ill.

So I ruthlessly cut the parts that did not fit the story, and began to submit the story to literary journals.

Titles usually give lots of problems, but I knew from the beginning I wanted to call this “Job’s Comforter.” I returned to the Bible and reread the story of Job a dozen times or more. Each time I was amazed at the tribulations Job endured. He had no one to comfort him. In the story, I wanted to show the never ending love of a parent—love that could be tested and bent but never broken. That was where the heart of my story would rest. The story was about a parent’s love for their sick child.

As a writer, discovering THE story you want to tell opens other doors along the revision process. The writer can then decide whose eyes are best suited to tell the story. Although I wanted to show the horrors endured by a schizophrenic mind, I had to accept that for this story, I was telling of the trials endured by a parent. “Clovis Clementine,” a story I wrote just last year and years after I finished “Job’s Comforter,” gave me the chance to write from the point of view of a schizophrenic. All the other loose ends can be edited to fit into the story or eliminated if they refuse to blend in.

I use the submission process as part of the revision process. How do you know when a story is finished? It seems to me a story is never finished, even after it is published. I always find myself editing my stories. I believe this is good, as it shows an ever evolving sense of craft. I believe my greatest weakness as a writer is in word choice and sentence structures. These are areas every writer can always improve upon, and I am no exception. If I submit a story to a dozen journals and get back twelve blank rejections, I need a major revision. But if I get a hand-written note from the Georgia Review, or the Missouri Review, that praises the story, then I have new faith in the piece.

This story is not an easy story to read. It was not an easy story to write. I received several near misses and encouraging comments on rejection notes until the story was accepted by The Julie Mango International Online Journal of Creative Expression. I had never heard of them before, and I found their call for papers online.

This story was selected to be a part of God’s Naked Will due to the religious themes throughout. In his blurb of the book, John Dufresne states: “…the harrowing story ‘Job’s Comforter,’ alone is worth the price of the book.”

The ending proved to be a problem. How can you end a story like this? I knew I needed to end on an action or image that somehow summed up the story. I realized I had a gift from earlier in the story in the picture. To her mother, Sally would always be the beautiful, little girl with the long, blonde tresses in that picture. I also like the image of the Crockpot. As anyone who cooks with a Crockpot knows, even a slow-cooker can boil over if filled too full. I thought both were strong images to end the story.

Mental illness continues to be misunderstood. The disease carries a stigma much like AIDS did many years ago. Every time we have a mass shooting we learn the shooters almost invariably are connected to mental illness and were lost in a system not designed to care for their needs. Every time something like that happens, I pray a recognition of the need for better mental health care will be recognized, but our do-nothing congress-men want to pass some kind of law banning a thirty-shot clip or adding an extra day to the waiting period before one can buy a gun, and then they crow as if they have solved the problem But as I have studied and learned more about the illness, I have learned to thank God every day for my sanity and my health.

My sister was the bravest person I will ever know. She lived her life every day in a nightmare from which she never awoke. Even to her last day, she was selfless. I no longer pity her, and I think I understand now. While we all felt sorry for her, and many still do, I believe she is in Heaven, feeling sorry for us because we still have to face life as it goes on. To me she will always embody that picture on the refrigerator door of the little girl with the blonde tresses—my first best friend, my first sibling.

As long as I have a voice, I will speak on behalf of the mentally ill, and any others who lack a chance in a country of plenty that seems devoted to giving billions of dollars away to those who hate us while we neglect those with greater needs right here at home.

The Story Behind the Story: The Execution

6 Oct

The Story Behind the Story: The Execution.

This story is probably my favorite of all the stories I have written—not because of its content but because of the process used to write the story. A friend of mine from Alabama sent me a newspaper clipping of a lethal injection execution that happened in Arkansas. This would have been sometime in 1998-99. The condemned was carried into the execution chamber at Cummins where he was rigged for death by lethal injection. The technicians had left the room and the warden had read the final death warrant, when the whole shebang was interrupted by the United Sates Supreme Court. A temporary stay was issued so the court could give a last minute review of the condemned’s petition for stay of execution. The condemned was left on the gurney rigged to die during this time. Nearly forty-five minutes later, the Supremes denied the petition and the execution was completed.

This whole scenario fascinated me, but also presented several technical problems as a writer. First off, I knew there was a story here, but I did not want to tell the story of the condemned. Far too many readers would feel no sympathy for the condemned and would declare he had it coming. And perhaps they may be right. But being involved with the courts as much as I have—both good and bad—I knew that the ones who suffer most are not the perpetrators of the act but the families of the accused and the victims. I had also been reading a lot of Civil War material, and I was fascinated at how both sides believed they were doing God’s work, and how they both prayed to God for victory. To me, the story was in the outer chamber, where the families of the accused and the condemned would be sitting on cheap metal chairs, listening to the announcement with horror and salvation, and both falling to their knees to pray, separated by a narrow aisle, to the same God above asking for diabolically different results.

The problem was how to tell that story.

Every writer has a different process for creating stories. Sometimes I want to have the complete story in my head before I begin writing, but more often than not, I will begin the story and let it take me where it will. I still had no idea of how to write this story in a way that would allow me to reveal both sides of the people sitting in the waiting room, so I decided to write the story first from each point of view (POV).

So I wrote a draft from the POV of the family of the victim—the parents of the murdered girl, and from the POV of the parents of the condemned. While writing the second version, I realized there was a third version—the POV of the law enforcement officials who investigated and prosecuted the case.

Within my story collections I had a recurring character, Sheriff Wilson Underwood. My past involvement with the courts as a defense attorney and a prosecutor had allowed me to be a part of several investigations. I knew I could use my sheriff to investigate the case. If he botched the investigation, he would incur the wrath of both sides. The condemned family could hate him for abusing the process, and the family of the victim could hate him for botching the process. After all, the stay of execution would have been issued so the court could review the actions of the sheriff to determine if he had violated the rights of the condemned. My sheriff was the perfect lightning rod for the hatred and contempt of both sides of this equation, and as an integral part of the investigation and an elected official, he would have a legal obligation to be there to represent the citizens of his county.

As with all of my stories, they are usually a combination of many different vignettes of truth, folklore, and tales. I have a cousin, who shall remain nameless, who once served as a Criminal Investigator (CID) for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. This cousin  was one of my Daddy’s favorites, and from all accounts was a pretty tough son-of-a-gun. I remembered one night being out at his house, and he was telling me of an investigation he had been involved in where a man had taken his girlfriend out on the river levee, murdered her and hid her body. The murderer had taken them out to the river, but then developed cold feet while leading the investigators around in circles, refusing to show them the girl’s body. My cousin laughed as he spoke of how he told every one else to stay at their cars while he took the prisoner out into the woods. My cousin told them to turn their radios up loud while he was gone. When he walked back out of the woods, the prisoner had shown him where the body was hidden.

I guess this story is as much a tribute to that cousin as it is anything. He never told me what happened in those woods, but I used my imagination and came up with a version I think my cousin would have loved.

So the story took shape and became a living, breathing creation. But one more thing happened long the way. In an earlier story, my sheriff’s daughter was slain when a faulty pistol he carried discharged at his house. The bullet went through a wall and killed his daughter.  This story, “The Sheriff of Jester County,” was published in Natural Bridge and was part of my original story collection. The story came before “The Execution” story, so a tremendous amount of exposition existed within my collection. But I needed this story to stand alone. So I had to figure out how much of this back-story to include.

I have always heard that a story takes on a life of its own when a character does something that completely surprises you–something you have never planned but happens as you are writing. Within this story, there is a scene where the father of the slain girl confronts the sheriff. He tells him he cannot believe that both of their daughters are dead, but that the sheriff and the worthless piece of shit that murdered his daughter were still alive. I had originally planned for the sheriff to react with anger, but as I was writing that line, I knew what my sheriff would do, because in his heart, he agreed with this man. That moment is one I will always relish as a writer, and is another reason why I have fallen in love with this story.

I was left with the challenge of how to end the story. Back in 1998, I had a dear uncle die. He was a devout Christian man, and someone I loved dearly and for whom I had the deepest respect. After receiving the news of his death, I traveled outside the city limits of Russellville that evening and sat along side the Illinois Bayou, watching the sun set, and the stars appear. And I wondered what happened when we died. Did we close our eyes simply to open them in a new dimension? Did we just go to sleep to awaken an eternity later in a new realm? Did we achieve all knowledge and truly become as a god ourselves? To me, being like a god would include all knowledge of physics, and astronomy and chemistry. I duplicated my own thought process that night to provide an ending for the story. Then of course, as my sheriff was leaving the premises, he would see the protestors who are always present at each execution.

Capital punishment is a hot political topic, and I wanted to write the story without ever revealing how I felt on the issue, but I also wanted to show the reality of the horror faced by both sides of the equation. The story was rejected by dozens of literary journals before being accepted by “Forge” which was at that point switching from a print to an online presence.

Years later I submitted the story for inclusion in a crime anthology to be published in the Untied Kingdom. I never for one moment believed I had a chance of being accepted, but the story seemed to perfectly fit the call for submissions, so I sent it, and I was later pleasantly surprised when the story was accepted. The editors, however, were not literary writers, but writers of crime genre stories, and their subsequent revisions of my story nearly forced me to withdraw from the project. I tried to convince myself that I had the benefit of all of the back-story, and they were simply trying to fill holes I did not see in the story. But I am also a Hemingway fan of the minimalist style of writing, and I don’t believe everything needs to be revealed. They agreed to several changes back to the original script, and although I still was not happy with the text, I had to decide whether allowing this project to go forward with my story would benefit my writing career more than my withdrawing because of artistic differences. I finally agreed, and the story became a part of the Crime After Crime anthology published in the United Kingdom and edited by Deb Hobz Wyatt. The book is listed for purchase on the Bookshelf page of my website: http://www.cdmitchell.net/bookshelf.html

They did a fantastic job with the anthology, and although I am still not happy with the edits and changes to the story, I have to admit I am glad I allowed the project to go forward with my work.

One of the parts of the story deleted from the anthology version was the scene where Delilah, the preacher’s wife, has the make-out session with the sheriff in the bathroom and tells him she is leaving her preacher husband because he is going back to Success and fucking the preacher’s daughter. For the anthology, I guess that was not needed. For my story collection, it is vital as it ties the preacher back to the girl he was with in the pasture at the opening of the title story of “God’s Naked Will.” This reveals more about the character of the preacher than anything, and is one of those salacious tidbits that requires a careful reader to notice.

For many reasons, I believe this story to be one where I grew the most as a writer, as I was faced with several technical challenges that I confronted and overcame, and I believe I was able to eventually tell exactly the story I wanted to tell. This story will always be one of my favorites.