Notes on “A Pamphlet for This”

A Pamphlet for This” was originally set in 2037. That’s because the spark for the story came from the idea that electric cars will someday render obsolete the practice of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning from sitting in an idling car in a closed garage. From there, I figured that it might be fun to check in on Patrick, the 15-year-old antagonist from “Applications in Mathematics,” and see how he had turned out, settling into middle age after the angst-ridden turbulence of his adolescent years.

It felt natural to give him his own daughter–one whose self-confidence and vivaciousness served as a polar opposite to his own teenage character traits, but still caused the same sense of parental disconnect. And I also jumped at the chance to exploit what I felt must have been a strong fear of abandonment in the character.

There wasn’t much in the way of futurism in the story–fossil fuels were a thing of the past, smart devices were a little more ubiquitous, fast wifi was universally pervasive, and global warming was very close to changing the coastlines. Those elements were just color to the story, though. I didn’t want to write sci-fi. I was shooting for literary fiction that just happened to be set in the late 2030s.

So into the world it went, and the rejections started rolling in. Many of them were of the higher-tier, just-missed, try-us-again-please variety, but in the end, those are still rejections. And in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if the futurism was distracting. It made sense to me, but I knew it was ridiculous to imagine that anyone outside of my immediate family who might read this story would have also read “Apps in Math” and recognized it as a sequel. On the other hand, I was also very enamored with the idea of bookending a collection with those two stories, where the connection would be more easily realized. And I was too stubborn to let that go.

Eventually, I discovered Tahoma Literary Review, which offered a submission tier that promised a few lines of editorial feedback. I jumped at the chance, because this was a situation where I needed to know for sure if that little nagging voice in the back of my mind was right. And sure enough, Yi Shun Lai, the prose editor at TLR, confirmed what I suspected. She told me she liked the story, but the world building did not ingratiate itself into the story enough for it to stand alone.

I talk about this sort of thing in my classes a lot when we discuss the revision process. We all try to tamp down that little voice that tells us something isn’t working because we’re so attached to what’s on the page. It’s never the obvious problems with a story, and it’s often the type of thing we’d be able to justify if we have the opportunity to put a footnote explaining our line of thinking at the bottom of the page. But that’s not how stories work. They need to stand on their own. We can’t sneak something through that “no one will really notice” or settle for “close enough.” We have to learn to listen to that annoying little perfectionist that tells us to take yet another swing at that line/paragraph/page/entire story. Sometimes it takes a while for that message to sink in.

This is what they mean when they say “kill your darlings.” True enough, some of my favorite lines in the story got the axe in the final version. Sheriff Herb’s allusion to an oil war in his anecdote became the gas price hikes shortly after 9/11. Patrick’s Ether terminal went back to just being an iPad. But the heart of the story remained, the same heart that drove the original version, and that’s what I really cared about. XiuLi’s “starry-eyed class of 2037” became the class of 2018, and no less starry-eyed for it. And the human connections I explored, those never change.

So thanks to Yi Shun Lai for telling me what I needed to hear, as well as my cohort at the 2018 Tin House Summer Workshop who had some great feedback for this story, as they were the first to read it in its present-day form. Thanks also to the judges and readers at the Tribune who picked this story as a finalist for the Algren award (I read the story that won today, and it’s pretty damn good, so no hard feelings). I was blown away to hear the news, as I always looked at that contest as a real long shot. This was a story I had high hopes for, and I’m glad it’s finally seeing the light of day. If you didn’t see the earlier announcement, you can read the story at the Tribune’s website.

And don’t worry. When I do get my collection published, I still have the 2037 version of Pamphlet ready to go. Hopefully that will happen while 2037 still seems like the future.

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Algren 2019 Finalist

I’ve been submitting stories to The Tribune’s annual Algren Awards for about as long as I’ve been writing them, so I’m beyond excited to share that my story, “A Pamphlet for This” was a finalist in this year’s contest.

I’ll post about how this story came to be sometime tomorrow, but in the meantime, check out the story (and the other finalists and winner) at the Chicago Tribune website.

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Bob Ross Took Over My Life

I’m a passable musician. I like to think I’m a pretty good writer. But before February, I wouldn’t have imagined I could paint a wall in my condo, much less a canvas. I never took an art class, never drew much more than doodles. I took one intro to art history course in college and the only thing I remember about it is that the lecturer got angry when we left at 11:50 because she didn’t seem to understand that the ten minutes before the top of the hour was supposed to allow the students to get to their next class.

So if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may be puzzled that my social media has been less concerned with literature and more focused on painting. First things first, I haven’t given up on writing. There just hasn’t been much to brag about lately (though keep your eyes peeled. I’ve got a bit of good news coming soon that I can’t share quite yet….). But the truth is, Bob Ross has taken over my life.

I’m not sure what prompted it, but I came across a Bob Ross video on YouTube and was captivated. In 30 minutes, without any edits, he painted a snow-capped mountain, a glistening lake, and, of course, a forest full of happy little trees. It was mesmerizing, and moreover, he made it look so easy. A few taps of a fan brush, a quick stroke of the knife, three hairs and some air, and you’ve got a gorgeous landscape. I suppose part of the impetus was the combination of my alcohol-free new year (I made dry January last through most of March) and the never-ending winter we had. I needed something to do on the weekends, and I was in a writing lull. So I bought a Bob Ross starter set–an assortment of brushes, 8 tubes of oil paint, a palette knife, and a small bottle of magic white. I bought a cheap canvas, a cheap easel and set up shop in our guest bedroom. Then, I covered my laptop in Saran Wrap so it wouldn’t get painted and queued up “Portrait of Winter” from Bob Ross’s 24th (!) season. Five hours later, I had a painting that looked kind of like what I was trying to paint.

Painting 001 - Portrait of Winter - Cropped

The snow didn’t quite break on the mountains for me like it does for Bob, my trees and bushes aren’t quite as happy, and I couldn’t begin to tell you what’s going on with that cloud. But damn, that water looks good, and the distant trees look like distant trees, and Bob wasn’t kidding. I could do this.

The obsession took hold.

From there, I watched dozens upon dozens of Bob Ross videos and tried a few more paint-alongs, then moved on to Kevin Hill, Michael James Smith, Stephen Conway, Andrew Tischler and everyone else I could find on YouTube who did oil painting landscape tutorials. I’ve been painting about one per week, and trying all sorts of different styles.

A few months ago, Kathryn and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum I’d been to many times before. But this time it was different. I looked at these paintings with a fresh set of eyes and a whole new appreciation for the craft. And I know I have so much to learn. But I’m excited for the process.

And no, I haven’t abandoned writing. In fact, I’m learning a lot about writing from my approach to painting. But that’s for a future essay.

So if you like, check out the Painting section of my website. I’m only posting the original compositions (even though the paint-along videos I’ve done have turned out great, and I’ll still share them on my social media as well as my painting-only instagram account, @stevetrumpeterpainting [follow me!]). And wait until you see the painting I’m working on now. Masterpiece!

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Notes on “The Vagabond”

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When I tell people I’m a writer, after all the caveats and disclaimers that go along with such a statement, I often get the question, “What kind of stuff do you write?” I’ve never been able to come up with a better response than “literary fiction,” despite that being a dissatisfying answer to anyone who doesn’t have an English degree. It lacks the clear definition of genre nomenclatures like “romance” or “sci-fi” and carries an inherent snootiness that my bare modicum of success can’t even begin to justify, as if I aspire to high art that will only be appreciated long after I’m dead.

Similarly, I kind of roll my eyes when a lit mag is asked what kind of stories they tend to accept, and only instructs its submitters to read a few issues to get an idea for the kind of stories they publish. I’m all for encouraging people to read more lit mags, but I can’t think of too many I’ve read that go beyond “literary fiction” as an overall aesthetic. That is to say, most lit mags I read seem to publish a wide variety of thematic content, voices, styles and subjects. Moreover, if I read one that doesn’t have a similar kind of story to the stuff I write, I tend to think I would be a good fit for precisely that reason.

Would that I could get everyone who asks me what kind of stuff I write to go read a few of my stories and figure it out. Because (and I suspect that many of those lit mags suffer the same problem) I’m not sure that there is a good answer to that question.

The Vagabond,” however, is one of those stories that is very much like the kind of stuff I write. It started with a premise I found interesting, but one that didn’t necessarily suggest much of a plot–that’s where the hardest work came in. It features a character who can justify all the wrong decisions he’s ever made. He’s a character who is at a point in his life where he must wrestle with the question of what it might amount to in the end. It’s a story where the antagonist(s) also love–or at least sympathize with–the main character.

I think those are the kind of stories I write. I have no idea how to distill that down to a quick label, though.

I hope you do get a chance to read the story in issue 13 of Tahoma Literary Review. They seem to be a true writers’ journal, and they do a lot of cool things that I don’t see other journals doing. For one, they offer feedback on submissions (and had some pretty good advice for the story I submitted before they accepted “The Vagabond”). They also publish their issues in handsome hard copies (seriously, check out that cover) and reasonably-priced .pdf/EPUB/Kindle formats.

Even cooler for the writers out there, if you submit a piece to them, part of the Submittable fee includes a free digital copy of the latest issue. They re-open in January, so take advantage of that if you’re not tempted to rush out and buy a copy right away.

They also host a SoundCloud page where authors can read their work for the audiobook crowd. You can hear me read “The Vagabond” at https://soundcloud.com/tahomaliterary/steve-trumpeter-the-vagabond. I suppose being on SoundCloud means I need to go get a couple of face tattoos now, so let me know if you have any recommendations.

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Notes on “Applications in Mathematics”

My story, “Applications in Mathematics” is out this week in the Spring 2018 issue of Beloit Fiction Journal. I’m so excited to finally see this one in print, and I can’t wait to get a copy in my hands. I was a finalist in their annual contest last year, and one of the perks of submitting to these contests it that you typically get a subscription included in the entry fee. I read that issue and really loved most of the stories in it, so I was pretty excited to take a swing at this year’s contest. Unfortunately, a conflict-of-interest situation prevented me form entering with my ethical standards intact, but I took my chances with the regular submission slush pile, because I was convinced that I had a story that would fit. For reasons that will become clear later, the room must have been a little dusty when I got the acceptance in my inbox. You can order a copy of the issue from Beloit Fiction Journal’s website. It’s only $10, and it’s full of stories from writers with pretty impressive pedigrees–Iowa Short Fiction Awards, Flannery O’Connor finalists, etc.

“Applications in Mathematics” is hard for me to write about. For starters, I think the story speaks for itself. It’s shorter than my typical literary endeavors and surprising, and I don’t want to spoil it (you should read it!). Also, I wrote it almost 5 years ago, and I don’t remember much about what the spark for the story was. I do know that my initial outline for it looks nothing like the story it became. For example, the protagonist’s father, Elmer, is described in my initial outline as:

“Crew cut, fought in the war. Patrick [the protagonist’s son] has no idea which one (it was Korea). Elmer thinks Patrick is a pansy because he is soft and always needs to be entertained and it’s Julia’s fault. Exclaims phrases like ‘cripes’ and ‘balls.’ Lives in Menominee and loves the Packers. Staunch Lutheran, because why not. Really disappointed in his late wife; probably thinks she’s in hell. Always keeps the garage door open. (Things to read up on: Lutheranism).”

In the final version, Elmer is mentioned briefly, but never physically appears or even gets to say “cripes.”

Instead, I started what I thought would be a long, complex, layered story and derailed it almost as soon as it got underway. It was the perfect decision. My wife read the first draft in the first week of April, 2013, and when I pull up that version, it isn’t drastically different from the final one. I tightened the language and pacing a bit, sharpened the characters and whatnot, but as far as structure, narrative arc and all those other elements go, I got it right the first time (this is not at all typical). I think this was one of her favorites–believe it or not, she doesn’t like them all.

When I gave this story to my writing group at the time, most of them said that it was the best thing they’d ever read from me. There wasn’t much to fix. And while I did my best to shrug off such effusive praise, I admit that I kind of agreed (this is also not typical). So imagine my surprise when I started submitting this story and watched the rejections pile up. In my defense, a lot of those were tiered rejections, the kind that say “we really liked this story and hope you’ll try us again soon.” There were even a few highly reputable journals that told me I’d made it to the final round and just missed. But close only counts in certain things that start with an “H,” and after 4 years, I had amassed over 60 rejections.

Now, rejection is a part of the writing life. I’ve mentioned that more than a few times on this blog. But I really thought this story would be easier to place. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trying to put lipstick on a pig, here, that this is some inferior story, because I’m not kidding when I say it’s good. (Order a copy. You’re going to love it). My point is, so much of the writing life is trying to beat the odds. Sometimes it boils down to the idea that, for us “emerging” writers, the story has to land in front of the right reader for the right publication at the right time, and that can be impossible to predict. The last story I had out was rejected 50 times before it wound up in a great journal and scored a Pushcart nomination. Sometimes, those rejections mean a story just isn’t that good. But sometimes, that story is worth believing in. “Applications in Mathematics” took forever, but I’m thrilled where it ended up, and I hope you’ll agree it was worth the wait. I’m so grateful I can finally share it with you.

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Notes on “Puro Yakyū”

Today, a few copies of “American Fiction 16” arrived in the mail, which included my story “Puro Yakyū.” This anthology is part of an annual contest, and my story came in 3rd place. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. You can order your own copy from New Rivers Press. There are 19 other stories in a handsome 300-page paperback, including 2 that were somehow judged to be better than mine. 😉

 

 

Short stories can be a strange beast for a writer. I started writing this story in Jan. 2014 and finished the first draft in Oct. 2015. That’s a season shy of 2 years. I set it aside a couple times and worked on other things, but this story was always on my mind. And for the most part, I understood exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I had plot points, I knew the characters well, and (in a rare occurrence) I was crystal clear on the thematic elements I wanted to convey. But still, I wrestled with this this one.

In my first swing at this story, Henry Fischer, the disgraced baseball superstar, was the protagonist. The story opened with him in the batter’s box facing down a rookie pitcher in the waning days of the Japanese professional baseball season (Puro Yakyū is the Japanese term for professional baseball). If you will forgive my lack of modesty, I will posit that the few pages I came up with were pretty good. but I struggled with where to go from there. I knew I had to introduce the hotel maid, Natsuku, Henry’s paramour during this expat season, but she felt like a prop, a character who only existed to serve another. This is not what I wanted from her. I had envisioned a character that turned the starfucker archetype on its head, but as a character, she had no agency with which I could achieve that goal. She was a baseball fan, but no mere groupie. Knocked up, but not trying to entrap the famous slugger. Someone who was enamored with Henry yet knew better than to ask anything of him.

When I tried opening the story from Natsuku’s POV, the story started to click. In her introduction, contest judge Ann Hood was kind enough to say “Through her point of view, a whole world is cracked open . . .  an ordinary character made extraordinary by the magic of the short story.” That really encapsulates the way I felt upon unlocking Natsuku’s voice in this story. In doing so, the story gained it’s heart, something Henry could never have provided. I loved all the Japanese-centric baseball stuff and how it existed alongside the ideas of legacies and connections, but those were questions that were so much more interesting to explore through Natsuku’s proximity to them.

With a 3rd person limited POV, I was free to go back and forth between the viewpoints, but Henry always felt distant to me. He’s a man who protects himself, and there’s less nuance in his motivations and subsequent actions. Natsuku, keeper of secrets that she is, offered depths to explore. Henry’s sections should serve to complement Natsuku’s, a vast departure from my original plan where she only existed in support of Henry’s quest. So that opening section I was so enamored with got moved to later in the story, about four pages in–our first introduction to Henry in the flesh. Trust me, it works so much better that way.

In February, I’m going to teach a class at StoryStudio called Radical Revisions. This is the sort of thing we’ll be trying to do: approaching our stories from completely different craft angles. Unfamiliar POVs, new settings, characterizations that challenge our norms and voices and styles that take us out of our comfortable ruts. I want to explore the sort of approach to rethinking and revising that finally made “Puro Yakyū” the kind of story that was ready to go out into the world. I’m really excited for this one.

On another topic, I was honored to learn that the editors at Salamander nominated my story “The Floatplane” (from this summer’s issue #44) for a Pushcart Prize this year. They had 2 stories in O’Henry and 1 in Best American Short Stories this fall, so it’s pretty much empirically provable that their taste in fiction is impeccable. Hundreds of stories are nominated for the Pushcart every year, so it’s a long shot, but a shot nonetheless. And many thanks to the editors at Salamander who gave that story a great home.

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Writing Advice

Better a shitty first draft than a nonexistent final one.

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