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.

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