Title of Work and its Form: “About to Drop,” short story
Author: Chad Simpson (on Twitter @sadchimpson)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Spring 2004 issue of Sycamore Review. Mr. Simpson has been kind enough to republish the piece on his web site. You can find it here.
Bonus: My, my. Mr. Simpson’s site is fantastic. Here is the page that lists his many publications; check out more of his work! Here is an interview Mr. Simpson did on the Ploughshares blog. This is beyond cool: here’s a “napkin story” Mr. Simpson wrote for Esquire.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Epiphanies
Gwen has been dating Lucas for quite some time. Her mother-in-principle, Deb, has been pestering the pair for a grandchild. When the couple refused to oblige, Deb bought a cockatiel and named it Baby. (After the death of Baby, Deb bought Baby Too.) Deb is telling the story as a way to reflect upon the fact that the phases of our lives don’t always end as they wish we would.
I think that what I love most about the story is the way that Mr. Simpson structures the narrative. The story begins with A SIGNIFICANT AND (SOMEWHAT) UNUSUAL EVENT THAT SERVES, IN RETROSPECT AS A KIND OF OMEN. Here’s the opening sentence:
My boyfriend Lucas and I were thirty-seven minutes into the trip when our cat Moonshine Eyes shit in his carrier.
If you’ve taken a long road trip with an animal, you can likely attest that the cat poop isn’t surprising in and of itself. What DOES matter is that Lucas and Gwen were on their way to a significant and unpleasant Thanksgiving weekend.
Mr. Simpson ends the story by placing Gwen in the literal position of narrator; he allows Gwen to describe how Lucas would construct the story of their lives in comparison with her idea. I’ll illustrate the principle with the same kind of example: the ending of a romantic relationship.
THE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED IT WAS OVER: When he or she texted you at midnight, saying, “Thx 4 fun. We R over. Don’t txt me. <3”
THE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED IT WAS OVER…AFTER YOU’VE HAD A COUPLE OF MONTHS TO THINK ABOUT IT: When he or she forgot about your birthday so you went to Applebee’s alone, but you ended up seeing him or her there with a “work friend.”
I suppose that what I’m saying is that I love Gwen’s explicit consideration of the process by which we understand ourselves and our lives. Writers are in the interesting business of thinking about epiphanies in a number of ways. We must consider the following:
- How the epiphany affects the character.
- How to communicate the epiphany to a reader.
- How to demonstrate the before and after of the character in a felicitous manner.
- How OUR OWN self-understanding comes about and how we can communicate changes in self-understanding to most human beings. (We’re all different!)
Okay, so maybe it’s a small thing, but I always wonder about how to include the name of a first-person narrator. You can’t always have your character say,
They call me Jim Gumshoe. I’m a private eye. My name’s on the smoked glass window in the door: Jim Gumshoe’s Private Eye Agency.
I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks about this, but I like knowing what to call the narrator. (I think I can truly date this desire to grad school. I didn’t want to keep typing synonyms into my critiques: “your protagonist”…”your character”…”the main guy”…”you know, what’s-his-name.”)
Shoehorning the name in can be difficult because we don’t think or say our own names often, do we? Those with whom we converse don’t often say our names either…unless they’re very happy or very angry with us. Let’s see how Mr. Simpson gets Gwen’s name in the text. The name comes near the end of the story:
“Aww, Gwen,” Lucas said. He leaned back in his little-kid desk, and its hinges creaked. “There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.”
Does Lucas have a logical reason to say her name? Sure. This is a crucial moment in their lives. What does Mr. Simpson gain or lose by including it where he did? Well, we need to know the narrator’s name if we’re going to write a 900-word craft essay about the story. Why didn’t he simply give us the name along with the rest of the introductory exposition? Withholding the name means that Mr. Simpson does get a little more of a “punch” when he DOES release it.
What Should We Steal?
- Contrive a structure in which characters (and the reader) reflect upon significant life events. What’s the difference between that moment when your character realizes he’s going to get a divorce and when he realizes he SHOULD have gotten a divorce? When should he know? What should the reader think? How do you get the reader to think that?
- Think carefully about how (or whether) you will release the name of your first-person narrator. Naming a character is one of the ten thousand choices you make when writing a story. Have a justification for the choice you make.