My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

It’s a puzzle, ain’t it? How sometimes life gives you all the pieces but their edges are rough and the colors are blurry and it ain’t till you step a ways back and rearrange that you see the patterns. You know?  You asked what brought me here and I’ll tell you, but first I got to tell you something else. Since Pa died, I barely spoke, but after the ruckus in church a few weeks back my words is like a fountain. You don’t mind, Ma’am, do you? We got time. 

Anyhow, Ma and me live a ways out of town, near where the river bends like an elbow. You can see it from the train bridge, over there. Our house’s the one made of two squares, a big one and a little one, plus a shed out back where Pa kept things like hoes and threshing rakes for Ma’s garden.  The big square is where we done our eating and sleeping, Pa and Ma in a nook off the kitchen and us four children in the loft. Evenings, Pa’d tell stories and Ma’d rock by the fire knitting or sewing up the holes in Brother’s shirt. Sometimes I sat in Pa’s lap, sometimes on the floor. That was my spot, Ma tells me. Near Pa. 

It’s a puzzle, ain’t it? How sometimes life gives you all the pieces but their edges are rough and the colors are blurry and it ain’t till you step a ways back and rearrange that you see the patterns.

The time I’m needing to tell you was one of those days can’t make up its mind to be spring or winter. Ice melting and muddy, but the sun shining like a promise ring.  I remember Ma and Pa both was in a tizzy, though I did not know why. I’s fourteen now. Then I’s only six. Anyhow, we hadn’t a real preacher for longer than I’d been alive, the last one an itinerant came through for the christenings and deaths. Sometimes weddings. So Pa and the other men would do the preaching, telling stories that I thought were Pa’s stories but turns out belonged to Jesus and his own pa, which a course I thought was the same thing. That day we was supposed to get a new preacher and someone, Ma can’t remember, decided Pa should do the welcoming.

Me, I remember the kittens. Kitty had them in the shed in a little soft hole in the corner where Pa told me I could look but not touch, at least until they was weaned or their eyes opened. Which for me was the same thing. He told me I could have one when they’s grown, so I picked the runty one cause she’s little like me but I didn’t tell no one. I’d study them for hours and tell Pa’s stories to help them grow like Pa’s stories helped me. That day, four a them had their eyes open but my runty one didn’t. I knew I shouldn’t touch but I did cause the littlest one wasn’t moving and I wanted to get it to move. It was dead, which I knew but didn’t want to know. I remember running for Pa. He’d told us bout Jesus resurrecting from the dead and I thought Pa could bring Kitty’s runty kitten back alive like he done Jesus. I remember the mud squishing my toes and slowing me down like fingers grabbing at my ankles. I didn’t think I’d ever find Pa, but when I circled the house, I heard Pa and Ma telling my sisters and Joe our brother to settle, and then another voice I didn’t reckon. Both low and loud at the same time, like how thunder starts quiet then blows like a wave through the clouds. I thought, or maybe heard, I don’t remember exactly, that somehow Pa had knew and asked Jesus direct about Kitty’s kitten.

Well, I burst into the house babbling like Ma tells me I used to do and I seen a man who wasn’t Jesus at all but a man in black with a frown like Pa’s scythe and he’s helping himself to the last of Ma’s turnips. Children should be seen, not heard, he says, nodding at Ma to scoop another turnip on his plate. The only plate on the table.

I threw a tizzy, Ma says. I’s so mad cause Pa always told me I should ask when I need something, and here I was asking and he ain’t doing nothing but minding some stranger without manners enough to share. I must of said as much cause Pa said I’s being disrespectful and to wait outside till I find my own manners. I should be ashamed, he said, scampering all over Ma’s clean floor with my muddy feet and interrupting Preacher. Mind you, I did not know Preacher was Preacher until Pa’s service and then it’s too late to hush. 

The day after Preacher came, Pa died and I stopped talking to most everybody cept Ma and sometimes Schoolteacher. Miss Sophie’s the one what taught me to write my stories if I couldn’t see fit to talk them. She came year before last, after the measles took the last one. That ain’t how Pa died, though. Him and the other Pas was plowing the big farm in the hollow over there when one a the draft horses got spooked. No one seen why, least that’s what they told Ma who’s left with four children to raise, me being the youngest. Joe quit school and hired himself out in Pa’s place. Our sisters wasn’t much for schooling, not like me a tall. They stayed long enough to cipher and tally bills at the mercantile. First for us and Ma, then for they own husbands and children. Janie has two and Sarah has one, a little girl with green eyes like mine. I love her especially. She is three and fierce like a lion. Which I ain’t never seen but imagine from the books Miss Sophie let me borrow cause I take care of them and bring them back to school on Mondays and after planting and harvest. Preacher has the running of the school in between harvesting souls. The wheat from the chaff, he says, though he can’t tell a spade from a shovel if you catch my meaning. Miss chuckled when I told her on my slate. Then she told me to tell her out loud and I did. And then I told her about Pa.

Last month, I heard Preacher and Miss talking in the schoolhouse while I’s outside reading and the other children was playing marbles or some such so’s Preacher could have his word. I’d been feeling poorly, like I’d swallowed a bag of rocks, cause Miss said she’d done taught me everything she could and it was time for me to graduate. She’s planning a whole ceremony, she said. A commencement. I never heard that word before so I looked it up in the fat dictionary Miss keeps longside her desk. She’d got it wrong, I read. I wasn’t beginning something, I’s ending. There ain’t no secondary school anywhere near here and besides, Ma said it’s time I got a job like Joe and our sisters when they’s my age. I even wrote another story about it, trying to keep my innards steady, but every time I thought about leaving school, I swallowed another rock. 

Anyhow, my breath got hitchy when I heard my name cause I thought I was in trouble even though I hadn’t done anything wrong that I could remember. Mind you, I was not eavesdropping. Preacher is loud and forgets I can hear just fine. Miss’s voice was happy like sugar and she’s telling Preacher I’s the smartest she ever seen, like a dry riverbed drinking up the rain. She told Preacher she put some a my stories in the post and some school up north wants me to study there, the same school Miss told me she’d gone to. Can you believe it? Tuition included, plus a place to stay. I’d just need travel money and a few extras, which I could get working in the school kitchen once I got there, and Miss asked a course could the church help? 

Preacher, he just laughed. Mind you, there’s all kinds a laughs and you can read them like you read a book. Ever notice? Least I can, and Preacher’s laugh was like someone showed him a porcupine and told him he could magic it to a squirrel.  He said there had to be some mistake, surely one of the boys’d be a better candidate than a half-wit girl and he’d see to fix it. Well, Miss’s voice went from sugar to fire, like each word’s a match, till Preacher said something about contracts and options and how St. Paul certainly had it figured when he told Timothy’s womenfolk to hush. After all, if it ain’t been for Eve talking to that snake we’d all still be in Paradise stead a this Podunk town. Miss got real hushed then. I waited till Preacher left and I seen Miss sitting at her desk with her head in her hands and her face grim like…Well, I don’t rightly know. But she straightened right up when she saw me, she knew I heard. We’ll figure something she said, I shouldn’t worry.

But a course I worried. All Miss done was try to help me, I didn’t mean for Preacher to trouble her. It was like Kitty’s kittens when I’s little. After I interrupted Preacher’s supper, Pa and Ma shared a frown and Pa told me to get along outside, he’d be along after a bit. But the words in my throat was rushing and I did not listen. I hollered something ugly and ran to the shed for Pa’s shovel and some rocks cause I remembered the part about the angels rolling the rock away. Pa’s stories was all jumbled in my thinking, and a course I’s too little to figure the shovel. I cut up my feet something fierce and started wailing at the gush a blood. Pa and Ma both came running, Preacher a ways behind with his napkin tucked in his collar like some flag. Next day, Pa tucked one a the boss’ spare kitties in his pocket meaning to walk home noon hour to give it to me, ‘cept it got loose and spooked the horse. 

I ain’t supposed to know that but I do. I told you Preacher talks too loud.

Anyhow, try as we might, Miss and me couldn’t figure a way to raise the money. Ma had a little extra but it weren’t near enough, and Miss needs her extra for her own ma and pa back home. Miss even wrote to the school but they’s sorry they couldn’t do anything else but hold my spot awhile if need be. You’re right Ma’am, times is tough everywhere. Ma said it’s for the best but her eyes was contradicting her mouth. All this is yammering in my head in church last month when Preacher’s preaching bout prayer.  He’s saying how God is good to His children like our papas is good to us and that got me thinking about my own Pa. I closed my eyes so’s I could remember better. I’s thinking he could a figured a way, Ma said Pa could fix most anything. I missed him a course, but not as hurtful as it used to be. Mostly I missed how he used to explain things sweet and easy so’s I could understand. Pa’s why I loved school so much, least after Miss came, cause Miss learned us with stories like he done. Meanwhile, Preacher’s preaching about asking and receiving and I recollected how Pa used to tell me all I had to do was ask and Pa’d see what he could do. I also couldn’t sit on my behind, Pa said. I had to do some a the work. He said it’s kind a like when you lose something. The asking kind a quiets the yammering that keeps you from seeing what needs seeing. The rest is like walking through an unlocked door.  

But as I’m thinking this, I’m hearing Preacher and he’s telling it all wrong. Like he’s the only one can see who’s asking proper. That got me so mad, let me tell you. Ain’t no one more proper than Pa and Miss, and Preacher got no right saying otherwise. I scrabbled across Ma for a prayer book and turned to where Preacher’s railing and there it is. Matthew’s story, same as my own Pa’s name. Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you. Can’t be anymore clear than that. Anyhow, I don’t even know what I’s thinking. I just stand up and tell Preacher he got it all wrong. He’s gone around telling me and Miss and near half the congregation we ought a hush when it says right there we gotta open up our mouths what God gave us. Ain’t no way He’d of ever wanted us to hush. I said I tried hushing after Pa died, figuring keeping quiet’d fix the mess I made killing my Pa in the first place, even though I ain’t mean to cause I’s little.  I told everybody I ain’t no half-wit like Preacher says, I’s smart and so’s Miss. Miss is the one what figured out my mess when nobody else seen it. She told me Pa wouldn’t of wanted me to feel bad about his accident. She told me Pa was a teacher like Preacher ought a be, telling stories and showing me the right a things. I told everybody about Miss’ school and how I’s gone write and tell them to hold my spot, even if I got to work till next year for the money. Everybody’s looking between me and Preacher then me again, till one of the pas Pa used to work with marches up to the altar and grabs the collection basket. Everybody starts filling it with pennies and nickels, even a silver dollar, and one a the Elders says they needs a meeting bout Preacher’s contract. Ma, she starts crying and hugging me and Miss. Miss just smiles big as a rainbow. Told you, she tells Preacher. She’s the smartest I have ever seen. 

A course I cried too and then I hollered a thank you so loud it woke the babies, but the mamas, they just let em cry.

Which is why I’m heading on the train like you, Ma’am, I got a ticket right here gone take me to my new school. Everybody chipped in, even Preacher. Though I could of swore he done it with a bellyful a rocks. Anyhow, Miss says if I study real hard and practice my speaking, soon enough I’ll be even smarter. I will a course, cause telling you this I figured the last piece a my puzzle. I’m gone write me a schoolful a books, bigger even than the one Miss says is at my new school, and I ain’t never gone hush again. 

*****

ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE originally appeared in Stories That Need to be Told (TulipTree Publishing / Jennifer Top, ed.)

*****

Coming next Saturday in Book Talk…. The Road Not Taken or, How My Life Plan Got Derailed in Seventh Grade

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

— Iff to Haroun in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is the story my mother told me:

A few weeks before their due dates, my twenty-three-year-old (almost) mother chatted long-distance with her friend, Dorothy, whom she met at Fort Bragg. After Uncle Sam drafted their baby-faced husbands and shipped them off to Vietnam, Dorothy returned to Ohio and my mother to Philadelphia, where she lived with my father’s family while awaiting my birth. My mother tells me the friendship was a source of comfort despite their geographic distance. Though both women were surrounded by family, each felt an isolation that only the other could understand. Which partly explains why my mother never told Dorothy how angry and hurt she was by what happened next. Dorothy, who hadn’t decided on baby names as of that conversation, delivered her daughter first and named her Elizabeth Ann–the name my mother had reluctantly revealed she had always intended for her own child.  

So I became Michele Elizabeth. Michele with one L. Remember that. It’s important.

*****

In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories–a wonderful book, by the way. You should read it–Haroun’s father Rashid, a professional storyteller, “[runs] out of stories to tell” after his wife runs off with the neighbor. Iff the Water Genie reluctantly agrees to help  Haroun reconnect Rashid’s access to Story Water, the magical source of Rashid’s extraordinary gift, and tells him to select their means of transport. “Pick a bird…any bird,” Iff insists, which makes no sense to Haroun. They’ve met accidentally in a houseboat bathroom, and the only bird Haroun sees is a wooden peacock bed, incapable of flight.

“Iff [gives] a snort of disgust. ‘A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he [says], as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.’”

The Genie opens his fist, and Haroun’s “eyes almost [fall] out of his head.” Creatures smaller than fingernails cavort on Iff’s palm.

Names, you see, are magic.

*****

Here is another story:

When I was four and my brother was three, my mother told us we would be getting a new big brother and sister. The details arise in my memory like photographs looping through a slideshow. Me seated at my play table behind the front door, Barbie on my lap. Philip sprawled on the floor pushing a truck. My mother, hair headbanded and looking equal parts flustered and severe. My father is absent, though he could not have been. The doorbell rings. The dogs scamper and bark. A matronly social worker enters with two children. Share, Mom had told me and Philip. And be nice. So I ask my new big sister if she wants to play Barbies.

Her name is Michelle, with two Ls.

*****

Big Michelle sticks.

Little Michele does not.

I become Michele Elizabeth, all one word. Micheluhlizabeth. Then Elizabeth, but only within the family. Not in school, not among my friends, never at work. I meet my husband and tell him, I’m Michele. People who know these stories ask, Why didn’t you change your name? Surely it was confusing, a sister with the same name? How on earth did you manage?

By a P2C2E. A Process Too Complicated to Explain. This is Iff’s answer to all of Haroun’s impossible questions, and it is partly the answer to my own. Truthfully, part of me did not acknowledge the chaos.

Most of me delighted in it.

*****

The summer I meet my new big sister, the six of us, our two dogs and a turtle travel to Ohio, where I meet Elizabeth Ann. A year or two later, her family travels to Philadelphia. Eventually, our families lose touch. Why, my mother does not recall. Nor do I recall much about the girl. She was nice enough and had brownish hair. 

Now, I wonder whether she knows the story of her name. Whether her mother knows that in stealing from my mother, she magicked a unique landscape for my childhood.

*****

My name was supposed to be Elizabeth Ann.

I’m glad it’s not.

Lila starts, awakening on the family room couch, a blanket noosed about her torso and legs. In her nightmare, a monstrous tree leafed in violent red thrust skyward along their yard’s furthermost edge, its roots mounded with freshly turned soil like a grave. Her grave. She’d grabbed a shovel. Advanced, then stopped. Poison ivy, her husband Henry said. An accusation. She crossed a field of poison ivy like fingers pointing to her neglect, a dot-to-dot of failure, the tree not a tree, but a towering ivy bush throwing their house in shadows. It was her responsibility, removing the vines, yet each time she dug they grew. Multiplied. They bored through her shoes and hobbled her limbs so she could neither reach nor resurrect the buried thing coated with toxins that flamed then boiled her skin. From somewhere unseen a baby had cried, soft at first then like a wave, becoming somehow both Alicia and Chris, their children, twisted and strangling in the ivy’s red and green arms.

The crying child was not a child but her phone, its alarm a frantic reminder she has to be somewhere rather than on the couch, heavy and stiff with dread. She thumbs it off. Considers.

Upstairs, the shower runs. Henry. She runs her tongue along her achy teeth.

They’d fought again last night. He said he needed her help removing the ivy, but really he wanted to hurl accusations, none of which were true, just true to him. He’d coldcocked her, knocking her to the ground when she tried to explain. “I don’t need to justify my decisions to my wife,” he said. Wife a curse, oily with scorn. He’d misunderstood, was wrong, would not listen, and she crouched alongside their white picket fence—plastic—hair stuck in her mouth like a gag and tasting blood. He’d never hit her before. Had the children seen? She longed to tug her hair free but couldn’t—her hands were sheathed in gloves, protection against the ivy scourge she’d been digging resolutely from their yard. For him. He couldn’t do it—the merest brush or whiff a violent assault on his too thin skin—and refused to hire help. He hadn’t meant to strike her, he said. Look what she’d made him do. A fallen woman on her bed of poison. She rose calmly, talked calmly. She didn’t want to fight. They always fought. The fighting always turned her inside out, exposed. Not Henry, though. Henry never saw her. He never even talked, after. Instead he manufactured contempt like armor beyond which he retreated, deliberately mute, for days until…What? She never knew. He never said. You are a fool, she’d told her reflection, scrubbing her arms and legs at the mud room sink, after. She tasted blood and spat.

The children’s anxious whispers pierce the ceiling. Witnesses, then. Her stomach revolts.

‘The Poison Tree’ originally appeared online at Sad Girls Club Lit.

Enough. She swings her legs to the floor and checks her skin. No rash.

Last night, spine stiff and heart a pounding, angry knot, she’d studied the dark swallowing their bed and timed his snores, his breathing and snuffles, then slowly, carefully, headed to the couch, pillow and blanket and phone in hand, and made an appointment at the bank. “Money first,” the lawyer had said. “Secure it all so you’ve something to negotiate.”

The kitchen clock chimes the quarter hour. Time enough for one more step before he leaves for work. She searches Locksmith, presses Call. Above, the shower ceases. A razor hums. The children walk back and forth, back and forth, straightening their beds before school.

Lila opens the curtains. Blinks in the sunlight. Uneven hills of dirt mar the yard, but the ivy is gone, bagged like trash at the curb. “Your website says same-day appointments. How soon can you get here?”

*****

The Story of a Story: ‘The Poison Tree’

Writers are magpies, gathering story snippets like treasure. ‘The Poison Tree’ originated from one such collection.

The tree, a dying maple choked by poison ivy vines, pokes skyward through the finger woods bordering my neighbor’s yard and is visible from my deck. The nightmare is mine-ish, borne of anxiety for my husband who is horribly allergic to all Toxicodendron radicans.

However, he is not Henry and I am not Lila. Those characters arose organically in one of my Swiss cheese drafts that later became ‘The Nail Club.’ As I wrote that piece, I was unsure of their credibility and so wrote backstory scenes to determine whether their reactions to radically different settings and situations remained consistent. One of those scenes morphed into ‘The Poison Tree’ and occurs years after ‘The Nail Club.’

Bonus points if you recognize the title’s allusion to William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’ ( Read it here), which I chose for its thematic similarity: Think duality and the toxicity of silence. How might Lila’s story have been different had she not overheard her children nor asked for help?

Finally, while imagination curates such seemingly random items, critique partners provide valuable insights throughout the creative process. A special thanks to writer friends Marta Pelrine-Bacon, Judi Wildfeuer, Julie Duffy, Leslie Stack, and Neha Mediratta for their feedback and support as this story evolved from idea to publication. I treasure you all 🙂

*****

As I write, Thanksgiving is a few days away, but I’m already listening to Christmas music while cross-stitching ornaments. Usually I wait until after Santa arrives in Herald’s Square to start prepping, but this year I started early. The ornaments take awhile, and the music… I credit my son. Recently, my daughter accompanied me on my first ever train ride to visit him in Rhode Island, and one night after dinner he had it playing in his apartment while the three of us hung out.

Confession: I miss my kids terribly. I love and am so, so proud of the adults they’ve become, but I miss them and I miss what Christmas used to be like when they were little and dancing like goofs to Rudolph reruns.

Thank goodness my daughter lives nearby.

And thank goodness for music.

*****

If you haven’t already, sign up for emails whenever there’s a new post. I promise not to flood your inbox 🙂 November, I posted several new pieces to (re)introduce you to my site. In case you missed one, check out the links below. Starting in December, I’ll be posting new content the first Saturday of each month.

In BOOK TALK: How My Life Plan Almost Got Derailed in Seventh Grade

In WRITER’S JOURNEY: A Writer’s Eye Read: 5 Takeaways From ‘The Road Not Taken’

In original FICTION: Ask and Ye Shall Receive

And a bonus link, for those of you who’ve ever wondered how writers get their ideas: The Story of a Story: ‘Ask and Ye Shall Receive’

*****

Thanks for reading!

Last week, I discussed how reading Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” deepened my understanding of two crossroads in my writing journey. This week, I want to discuss how reading literature with a writer’s perspective can inform and improve our own creative writing. To do so, we’ll again consider Frost’s poem (Read it here), and I’ll show you how I tried to mimic some of his techniques in one of my original microflash stories (See sidebar, left).

What’s the difference between reading like a reader and reading like a writer? Think of it like the difference between admiring a muscle car zooming past you on the highway and popping its hood in your garage so you can maybe build your own. First, take stock of what you liked (or didn’t) and determine WHY the work created that effect in you. Second, identify and evaluate HOW the author created that effect, repeating as needed. Finally, consider ways to employ similar techniques and whether doing so will enhance or detract from the story you’re trying to tell.

SPOILER ALERT: Frost is a master craftsman, and I still have a lot to learn.

TODAY I’M PATCHING ALL MY DISTRESSED JEANS

In eighth grade, Leann’s California brother blank-check, birthday-gifted her a whole new wardrobe, accessories included.
I tried not to hate her. Tried not to worry whether anyone saw my Thursday jeans were Allthedays’, my sweater winnowed from Glad bag cast-offs, my wrists braceleted with scabs.
They healed up mostly clear, except just there. See? One pinkish edge curls like a tongue.

by Michele E. Reisinger

1. EFFECTIVE TITLES ARE INTEGRAL TO READER UNDERSTANDING AND ENJOYMENT, NOT INCIDENTAL. 

Frost’s title serves multiple functions. It hooks the reader into wondering, Why wasn’t the road taken? It introduces several key storytelling elements: plot (a literal and/or figurative journey), conflict (an implied choice), and a central image (road). It also sets up the poem’s theme regarding the value of choice. (More on this later.)

My title contains a hook (Distressed jeans are currently fashionable. Why mend them?), a plot (a literal and/or figurative repair), conflict (the damage’s cause), and a central image (clothing). I’m also trying to set up the story’s theme regarding healing, though I think my title is a bit of a cheat because it’s too direct.

2. PLACE PROTAGONISTS AT A MAJOR TURNING POINT AND FORCE THEM TO ACT. Doing so engages readers with the story’s stakes and increases momentum. 

Although a narrative poem of four five-line stanzas, “The Road’s” plot utilizes a traditional three-act story arc. Within the first stanza (act 1), we know the setting (“a yellow wood”) and the protagonist’s dilemma: Choosing a path by which to continue his journey, even though he cannot see where each ultimately leads. In line six, he chooses. This action begins act 2 (stanzas 3 and 4) in which he journeys, contemplates his path, and anticipates its impact.  After acknowledging the futility of a do-over (lines 14 and 15), tension builds in act 3 (stanza 4): Will his journey resolve happily, or will it lead to disaster?

My dilemma is implied: How will the young protagonist react to the message that she is not worthy of the love so readily showered on her classmate? My plot is also not as detailed, in part because of the genre’s word count restrictions, but I tried to increase tension by first, unpeeling her secrets in sentence three, and second, displaying her wrists in the final paragraph. I wanted readers to wonder, Will she heal internally, or will she continue to self-harm? 

However, I have no setting, which creates confusion: Readers don’t know where she is nor approximately how much time has elapsed, and therefore can’t accurately evaluate her arc.

3. USE A CENTRAL IMAGE TO LINK PROTAGONISTS’ OUTER JOURNEYS WITH THEIR INTERNAL TRANSFORMATIONS. Such metaphors enable readers to synthesize external events (plot), plot’s impact on protagonists (character arc), and the point of those transformations (theme). 

Frost’s protagonist walks a literal road that impacts his life in ways he has yet to fully understand. What readers haven’t grappled with similar crossroads? Worried whether they’ve made the right decisions? Agonized over unknowable outcomes? Readers recognize the significance of the protagonist’s journey because it mirrors our own.

The clothing image in my piece has the potential to achieve this connection but falls short.  I wanted readers to juxtapose Leann’s pristine wardrobe with the protagonist’s cast-offs AND the metaphorical ‘wounds’ on the fabric to the literal wounds on her wrists. However, doing so feels like not one but two related images, which lacks the unity, clarity, and sophistication of Frost’s road.

4. CREATE AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE THAT GOES BEYOND THE ADAGE OF ‘SHOW DON’T TELL.’  Think of immersion as a portal through which readers not only enter the story world but participate in it.

Frost creates that effect through narrative POV, tense, tone, and structure. First person POV allows us access into the protagonist’s head: We see, feel, and process as the character. Tense situates us within his world: Past tense in stanzas 1-3 indicates their events have already occurred and thus cannot be changed, whereas future tense in line 16 indicates their impact has yet to be determined. Thus, the speaker addresses readers in his present, somewhere between choosing a path and discovering its impact. Word choice and syntax create a wistful yet contemplative tone:  The roads and their setting contain recognizable milestones, and the meandering sentence structure mimics his physical and emotional journey through them. Thus, our understanding transforms with his. Likewise, the chronological structure leads us to anticipate a resolution to our earlier question: Will his journey resolve happily, or will it lead to disaster? We are vested because his success has implications for our own, real-world struggles.

I chose first POV, diction, detail, and syntax to create a confessional, yet confrontational tone, and a chronological structure to encourage anticipation: How will this event encourage or impede character growth? I also employed tense to develop character arc: Four of its six sentences use past tense. The final two, present. This shift suggests movement in time and action though not their extent, in part because I have no setting and a weak central image.

5. EFFECTIVE ENDINGS DON’T MERELY CONCLUDE A SPECIFIC STORY BUT RATHER LAUNCH CHARACTERS AND READERS INTO SUBSEQUENT ONES. They highlight characters’ transformations and/or realizations in ways that suggest how characters might behave differently next time AND how we might learn from their experiences. 

Think of endings as the final stitch in theme’s tapestry, the patterns of which have been woven by the techniques discussed above. (There are many more, of course, but such is the nature of Frost’s brilliance and the poetic form.) As I discussed in last week’s post (Read it here), we confer value to our paths by choosing. We understand their impacts by processing our choices and continuing to act. That’s why we’re still in the protagonist’s present at the end of the poem. That’s why the title alludes to the unselected path, the poem to the one selected. Meaning, like a tapestry, derives from synthesis. 

As a reader, I love those kinds of stories. As a writer, I strive to emulate that process. Here, I wanted my ending to suggest growth: Whereas at the beginning she is isolated, awash in shame,  and silent, at the end she reveals her scars and speaks her grief aloud. I imagined her ‘See?’ in the next to last sentence as a challenge. Like she’s forcing us to see not just her scars, but her. We don’t know the details of what happens next, but we do know that she has changed.  I chose the title to suggest that healing process, though it’s a bit of a cheat, as I said earlier, because it telegraphs rather than sets up theme.

Ultimately, I’ve concluded that “Today” isn’t a terrible story, but it would definitely benefit from further revision.

How?

BONUS ROUND: Don’t just read other people’s works through this perspective.

Read your own.

Comparing my story to “The Road” forced me to determine why my techniques and their effects are markedly weaker than Frost’s.

But more importantly, doing so enabled me to develop strategies to improve.

I already knew flash isn’t my métier and thought I struggled because of its word count limits.

Wrong!

I don’t necessarily need more words. I need more of my words to have more than one function. Specifically, when writing flash my central image must work overtime. Like Frost’s use of roads, it must be the keystone upon which character, conflict, plot, and theme rely. Knowing this strategy will enable me to be more deliberate when I draft and revise, rather than pantsing my way forward and making no progress.

I’ll let you know how it works.

*****

Which authors and stories do you strive to emulate? And what have you learned about your writing in the process? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below and we’ll chat 🙂

I remember meeting with my guidance counselor in seventh grade and, while I can’t recall their name or gender, I can recall knowing the answer to their VERY SERIOUS QUESTION but not whether it was the right answer. Which, when you are a somewhat bookish kid and also a pleaser, yanks your innards in a most nauseating tug of war.

The question, of course–What do you want to BE when you grow up?

A writer, I said. I want to write stories.

And so they checked off the box that said JOURNALIST, which wasn’t what I meant at all. 

****

In seventh grade, I could see into my future only as far as it “[bent] in the undergrowth.” Now, however, hindsight offers differing perspectives. 
And choices. 

In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” (Read it here) the unnamed traveler stands before two paths unspooling within an autumn wood. He must choose between them, and so considers their respective merits before continuing. Much has been made of that choice, with some concluding its message is that one’s life can be dramatically improved by eschewing conformity and crowds.

To which I say, No. That’s not what the poem is about at all. 

Let’s look.

First, the traveler’s choice of paths is neither deliberate nor deductive. He looks down one path as far as is possible, to where it “[bends] in the undergrowth,” and then “[takes] the other.” Why? Lines seven and eight offer a tepid rationale that he immediately contradicts. Both paths are “as just as fair” as the other. Likewise, while he initially believes his path “[has] perhaps the better claim,” upon closer inspection he sees they are “worn … really about the same / And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, there is no substantive difference between the two paths: They are similarly attractive, worn, and leaf-covered, neither one intrinsically better than the other. Rather, he confers value upon the chosen path by choosing it. Lines 13–15 explain why: Whereas he proposes to “keep” (return to) the first path on some imagined future day, he recognizes its improbability because “way leads on to way.” Time, like his journey, moves in only one direction: Each minute, like each step, offers additional alternatives that propel him inevitably forward.

Which is exactly what happened to me after meeting with my counselor. I wrote my way from school reporter to editor, first in junior high and then in high school. I earned my FCC license and in ninth grade began announcing a weekly classical music broadcast for a central PA radio station. I landed a coveted job with my local newspaper in eleventh grade and began writing ad copy and a weekly carrier news column. I entered Penn State University as a journalism major and began writing for the Collegian. There, I met the man who would become my husband, and I learned I loved the job of journalism but hated its lifestyle. I became an English major and, in grad school, changed my mind yet again, becoming not a college professor but a high school English teacher.

In the same room of the same district building for nearly 31 years. “Way leads on to way,” indeed.

Meanwhile, my writing languished. Half-written stories, unfinished novels… life and the demands of working motherhood stood in the way of what I meant to choose all those years ago. 

Or maybe, I allowed them to get in the way? Maybe not choosing is as consequential as choosing?

Or maybe, it’s a bit more complex than that?

In the poem’s final five lines, the traveler imagines retelling this story “ages and ages hence” but never identifies why he sighs; repeats his false assertion that his path is “less traveled” and thus undercuts his veracity; then acknowledges his chosen path made a “difference” in his life but never defines the nature of that impact.   

At least, not in the poem. Take a look at the title again. 

Frost calls it “The Road NOT Taken.” 

Why that title, when the poem focuses on the road taken? 

Because the traveler is impacted not only by the actions he chooses to take, but also by the actions he chooses not to take.  A life is comprised of both, its meaning determined and understood in part through the stories we tell in the moment and  “ages and ages hence.” That’s why we know neither why the traveler sighs, nor whether he is content or regretful: he doesn’t know yet, either. He can’t. 

Just like the meaning of the story I’m telling you here. In seventh grade, I could see into my future only as far as it “[bent] in the undergrowth.” Now, however, hindsight offers differing perspectives. 

And choices.

In June, I retired from teaching.

Now weekday mornings, I write.

Where will this new road take me?

No clue, though I’m excited for the journey.

I’ll send you postcards 😉

*****

Somehow, I acquired a dead man’s interrupted life. 

His grey stone cottage, mid-forest. Books, a barn, blank stationery veined with mold. Curled edge photographs stacked like kindling in a dusty hope chest. They claim me.

A rusted horseshoe slumbered in the cook stove. I burnish it with wire, secure its resurrected luck with a trinity of nails above the threshold. His ashes, scattered within the orchard, coalesce.  Wonder.

The locals say he lived sad and died fierce.

Me, too. 

I lower onto our front porch stoop and caress its sun-warmed face. Yes love, I say, as he approaches.

Welcome home.

*****

(“Come Live With Me and Be My Love” was originally published in Sunspot Literary Journal.)

In eighth grade, Leann’s California brother blank-check, birthday-gifted her a whole new wardrobe, accessories included.

I tried not to hate her. Tried not to worry whether anyone saw my Thursday jeans were Allthedays’, my sweater winnowed from Glad bag cast-offs, my wrists braceleted with scabs.

They healed up mostly clear, except just there. See? One pinkish edge curls like a tongue.

*****

… strolling hunched and sandalled along the highway berm. His right hand clutched a blanket ‘round his shoulders. His left, a cigarette whose smoke wafted through my car’s open window. I cat-sneezed, but he kept on walking. Didn’t say god bless. Just shrank inside my mirrors as  I slowed and braked for red.

Tuesday, I’d seen him at the lifer rally, red-faced and preaching hellfire as news cameras panned the crowd. Monday, preaching carry rights and anti-facts. One nation about him, not US, while disciples swallowed Kool-aid lies and propagated death. Never saw him while at homes or shelters, neverminding schoolyards where our babies, overfed with suffering and hate, dry-heaved hope like bitter pills.

Wednesday, I told the Universe I feel like Atlas. World-crushed, soul-weary. Why even bother?

The light blinked green. Impatient drivers honked.

Because, the Universe answered.

I accelerated:

That Jesus ain’t my savior. 

I believe in LOVE.

*****

So in August, I finally made my new year’s writing resolution.

Not for the calendar year, dear reader. The academic year.

My resolution? To write and post an original microflash every Monday. 

Three reasons. 

First, I’m a very slooooow drafter and wanted to practice increasing my productivity.

Second, I knew time would shrink even further come September and another Covid school year that would include helping to  plan my daughter’s wedding. I wanted a manageable, measurable goal so as to avoid burying my writing life within all those competing demands.

Then I got overconfident and announced my resolution to the world. 

That was either really smart or really stupid, I told my students the first week of classes. I’d made them write and post Goal Cards in the front of the room for everyone to see and figured it only fair if I shared my writing goals with them. 

Which is my third reason: Accountability. I hate letting people down. Myself included. For me, that sickish feeling of failure is a terrific motivator.

And I’m happy to report that my experiment was a success. 

I wrote and posted every Monday through mid-November, the week after my daughter’s wedding. (It  was BEAUTIFUL, by the way, and I have STORIES!!!) Along the way, I learned greater flexibility in my writing practice and how to do more with fewer writing minutes.  I grew more confident with the shortest of story forms and learned I enjoy the challenge of crafting within their restrictions.

I also confirmed my earlier suspicion that, while reading microflash requires little time, crafting good microflash requires way more. That’s why Monday Micro is now Monthly. The first Monday of each month, beginning December 6, I will continue to post an original microflash of 150 words or fewer. I’m striving to make it a good story. One you’re glad to have read. One that sticks with you far longer than the minute or so it takes you to read.

Please let me know what you think.

Until then, I have a story to write.

*****

(Want a tiny story to tide you over until then? Click FICTION, above, for previous posts.)

*****

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