Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Can You Hear Me Now? When Characters Speak through Revision, Part One (In which Mima Tipper’s writerly epiphany begins)

February 16, 2012 by Mima Tipper

***Spoiler Alert*** This blog post contains story spoilers. Read the full version of “Waiting for Alice” in the first issue of Sucker Literary Magazine at http://suckerliterarymagazine.wordpress.com/

Writing my YA short story “Waiting for Alice,” the story-epiphany moment came as I stood in line at my local public library. Here’s what happened: I was waiting to check out books I’d picked specifically to help me with my revision of “…Alice,” and imagined having the following conversation with the librarian:

Her: “Are these for one of your kids?

Me: “No.  They’re for my character… (motherly pause)…she thinks she might be gay.”

A silly idyll yes, but one that in a single, astounding moment opened my eyes, or better my mind, to what my Alice had been trying to tell me for the almost year I’d been working on her story.

I walked home in a daze, imagining myself sitting with Alice at the kitchen table. Sitting with her, as I would with one of my children, her looking into my eyes in that hesitant way that asked if I was ready to listen.  When she did speak, there was no hesitation, “It’s true,” she said, “I think I’m gay.” Her words left me speechless. I hadn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s first realization that she might be gay, but that’s where the writing path led. What held my hand, tugging me along until I could hear Alice speak (more like a remembered conversation than one imagined) was revision—a kind I hadn’t experienced before (Kaplan, 27).

My Alice-epiphany made me re-examine my knowledge of revision. David Michael Kaplan offers these words in his craft book Revision:

I think you revise for style (saying it in the most graceful way, which is often all people think revision is), and you revise for structure (saying it in the most coherent and dramatically effective way), and you revise—and here comes the way you might not have thought about it before—for meaning, for discovering what you really wanted to say in the first place, what the story’s really about. (10)

I was familiar with (and practiced heavily) Kaplan’s first two revision definitions. Regarding meaning, however, until “…Alice” I’d always presumed I knew the essential meaning of my stories before I started writing. So what had happened with my Alice?

To understand, I had to go back to the beginning.

The seed of “…Alice” came from one of my high school experiences. My best friend and I, tenth graders at an all-girl boarding school, decided to go to the first dance of the year, meet a boy each, and kiss him. Fueled by vodka-laced grape soda, off we went. There, each of us found a boy. By evening’s end, my friend had disappeared with hers, but I hadn’t even managed a peck on the cheek with mine. I watched him get on his return bus, and something in me snapped. I rapped on the bus window. He got off and, before I lost my nerve, I threw myself at him. He’d just had a huge bite of brownie, and well—yuck! Amidst raucous cheers from bystanders, both of us had a good laugh and, as the bus zoomed off, I forgot all about him and the brownie kiss.

Fast-forward twenty-some years to my fantasy novel “Faerie Games,” where in a first chapter draft, I drew from this memory to illustrate my fourteen year-old protagonist Selena’s sexual awkwardness at witnessing a friend’s behavior at a school dance:

And she had found her. Out in the hall, tucked into the dark space between a corner and a bank of lockers, wrapped around a junior she’d called “sorta cute” a couple of times. Their eyes had met over junior-boy’s shoulder, and for a long, drawn out heartbeat, Selena hadn’t recognized her best friend. It was like in that moment, Selena saw clearly that the Stacey she’d lived next door to and been best friends with forever had run away to a place where Selena wasn’t sure she wanted to follow.

But that night, Selena had tried to follow. Like a hound scenting a fox, Selena stalked around the gym until she’d spotted Edmo’s hunching back standing at the refreshment table. Without saying a word or even looking at his face, she’d grabbed his hand and dragged him out into the hall. In one swift, blurred move, Selena had pushed him against the wall and with no thought about what she was doing or how she was doing it, shoved her open mouth on his. (“Faerie Games,” 15)

I submitted the chapter to my first Vermont College workshop, and it was workshop leader Martine Leavitt’s comment “What did she see?” written in the margin next to the first paragraph quoted, that sparked me to explore in a short story what Selena saw Stacey doing.

As I began to think of this short story, I remembered Dennis Lehane’s short story “Until Gwen.” Lehane used a second person viewpoint, and I’d found the voice both disturbing and intriguing. Freshly out of prison, Lehane’s narrator was detached, yet watched himself with an intimacy laced with self-loathing. This viewpoint spoke to me as authentic for my self-scrutinizing, awkward teenager.

My story, now tentatively titled “Peer Pressure,” quickly took shape around the awkward narrator Mia and her newly sexy best friend Angie. With Mia’s second person viewpoint, her voice naturally came out full of observations about Angie’s blooming appearance and aggressive behavior; also natural was that Angie’s looks and attitude would be in stark contrast to Mia’s. Though the initial novel-flashback was morphing to a short story, the essential meaning—a young girl’s sexual awkwardness—still drove the heart of my writing. Then an unusual (for me) turn: I got two thirds through a first draft and didn’t know how Mia’s story ended.

Next week: Mima searches for the story’s ending!