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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