The Story Behind the Stories: Goat and Dumplins

5 Feb

The Story Behind the Stories: Goat and Dumplins

As a teacher of creative writing, I have always encouraged my students to keep a journal. In fact I keep several different journals, one for each project I may be contemplating or working on. As I get older, I become more forgetful. When I have ideas, or notions as I sometimes call them, I have to write them down. John Dufresne had a series of blog posts titled “Today’s Short Story Waiting to be Written” and I made a series of entries with that title. I was so impressed with his series that I now require my creative writing students to make at least a weekly entry in their journals by that title.

But simply writing down your ideas still isn’t enough. One must go back through those old journal entries and browse for material or ideas on occasion. The story “Goat and Dumplins” came about as a result of these practices.

Living in northeast Arkansas has given me plenty of material to write about.  I come from a family of storytellers—perhaps that is why religion is a family business. But I remembered an event that happened when I was a kid, and Daddy happened to retell the story in such a way that I immediately went to my journal and wrote a description of what he revealed that day. Nearly five years later, I was camped out during the Fourth of July celebration of 2001 on the Spring River in the Arkansas Ozarks when I had some extra time and thought I’d write a new story. I immediately went to my journal and read through the whole thing.

Daddy had told the story about going out to the St. Francis River to buy goats for us kids. There is a picture on my website of my sisters and me in our barn riding the calves bareback. The two goats Daddy bought that day are also in the picture. https://cdmitchell.net/cd-mitchell–creative-nonfiction.html

I remember loading up with Daddy and driving out to the river to buy our goats. As you drove over the St. Francis River Bridge going east towards Kennett Missouri, you could see dozens of goats on the north side of the bridge. I don’t remember how we got there, but I do remember Daddy buying us a nanny and a kid.

But on this particular occasion Daddy got to telling about the man he bought the goats from. The guy was famous, perhaps notorious would be a better word, for leaving his house doors open so the goats could walk through the shotgun style structure to get to the back yard. He didn’t want them to have to walk too far because it worked the tallow off them. Daddy said when he walked into the kitchen to have the man write him a bill of sale for our goats, the man’s wife was in the kitchen cooking dumplings. On the counter was a white leghorn chicken scratching in the flour.

The day Daddy told that story I went straight home and wrote the tale into my journal. A couple years later I was returning to Paragould from a trip to Destin, Florida. We had stopped in one of the small Mississippi towns along the highway between Hattiesburg and Jackson because one of the girls with us wanted some doughnuts. While in the store, I saw a woman like I had never seen before. She had one gold tooth, right in the middle of her top row of teeth, and she was the perfect description of Doris in the story. The entry in my journal had to wait until we got home and unpacked, but before I went to bed that night, I described that woman perfectly and made a note that I would use her as a character someday.

During my senior year of high school, a man named Joe Thompson used to run a little bar just across the Missouri State line. On Wednesday’s he had free fish fries. He ran gill nets on the St. Francis River and caught loads of buffalo, and he’d cook them up and salt the hell out of them so you’d buy more beer. He’d load up a beer carton full of fish and set out some dill pickles and you could eat all the fish you wanted. All of those Thompson boys were fine people! Joe was the inspiration for the character Bobbie Joe Willie. Although I never met him, Mike Thompson, a nephew to Joe, was killed at Halliday when his vehicle was struck by a locomotive. I mention this accident in “The Mayor of Delbert, Arkansas” as a tribute to the family.

So during that July holiday I found myself with some spare time.  I thought I’d pull my journal out and do some writing.. Thumbing through the pages I went back and reread all of my old entries. The idea for “Goat and Dumplins” was hatched.

I knew I couldn’t just write a story about going to buy a goat. I needed to have some type of a legitimate plot. Earlier that same day I had been engaged in a conversation with some fellow rednecks sitting around a bonfire, drinking beer and discussing the merits of our respective ex-wives. The discussion had boiled down to two-types—the Barbies and the real women. My new friends discussed heartily the merits of each type, and split perfectly down the middle on which type they preferred. It was the basic “Ginger” or “Maryanne” argument. If you have never watched “Gilligan’s Island” and have no idea what I am talking about, simply goggle “Ginger or Maryanne?”

The original draft of the story ended as Jimmy Lee and Bobbie Joe Willie were driving to Puxico. I had workshopped this draft at McNeese where it was roundly trashed. One of the senior members of our workshop even left a rather nasty note, in essence saying if this was the best I could do he’d rather not read anything else I wrote. That kind of pissed me off, but I knew the story still had potential, and I knew just what kind of jerks some of my classmates could be when critiquing stories. So I stuffed it away and waited a year or two before returning to it.

I honestly can’t remember if Kristen Iversen or Cary Holladay at Memphis or Neil Connelly at McNeese had made this suggestion, but someone believed the story ended too soon. I went back and reread the story several times looking for a different way to write the ending. One thing I learned from this revision is that many times, the key to your story is already there. I focused on the rift between Jimmy Lee and Rachel over correcting their child. That was another of those plums I had made a note of in my journal and just threw into the story because I thought it sounded like the kind of thing couples would fight over. But it occurred to me that was the theme of the whole story—doing right for fear of punishment, or doing right simply because it was the right thing to do. The light switch went off. In the story, Bobbie Joe Willie was humping Doris and stopped only because he knew if Claudie Walker ever saw him again, he would kill him. Jimmy Lee had every intention of going to see Gayle, but didn’t after he saw a first hand account of what might happen if Bull Anderson found out about the affair.

The ending came easily after that.

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One Response to “The Story Behind the Stories: Goat and Dumplins”

  1. Kerwyn Hodge February 9, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    That’s a simple, yet powerful point, CD. After all, if we create journals and produce reams of notes but never take the time to review them, it diminishes (though not entirely eliminates) their effectiveness. This post about the “Goat and Dumplins” story is a perfect example of the benefit reviewing our journals brings!

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