Why We Write | Stephen V. Ramey

The genesis for Love Seat was a prompt at Show Me Your Lits. The image showed a young couple seated upon a love seat, arms entwined. There was something surreal about their pose, at least to my eyes, the way they seemed so physically connected, yet emotionally detached. Their expressions lacked the passion of their pose. That seemed like the core of something worthwhile to me, and so I began. Should I open with this image or end there? I wasn’t all that interested in the people, but in this dissonance between action and emotion. That the couple held each other . . . wasn’t that an indication of their desire to love? But faces do not lie, do they? What is keeping these two from experiencing the love they long for? Better, what has pushed them away from what was once real? And then I thought how married people often drift apart over time. They change, and grow, develop new priorities. Maybe I could do something with that. In flash, however, I don’t have time to develop complications, or to deal with multiple threads. I have to focus in on what matters most, create the specific details that convey character and place and time, and move efficiently toward emotional resolution. At least that’s the usual way a flash plays out for me. How to simplify this story of love’s long drift… What if I were to make the abstraction literal? What if one or both of these people had ACTUALLY changed? In that moment, Jade became a love seat. The story firmed up in my mind.

That was the easy part. One thing I have learned over time, is that I am not ready to begin a story until I find an interesting way into it. By this, I do not mean finding something flashy or active that will pull a reader in, but finding something, some vivid image, a new technique, a way to compact something very large, that interests ME. If I’m not invested in a piece, my passion for it will not develop. Usually, I’ll try out sentence after sentence, maybe even a paragraph, before the opening clicks. When I do find that magic key, I know I can trust the process. I don’t have to know the details of the story at that point, don’t even have to understand the ending (though I did in this particular case). I’ll create something of worth now because I’ve intrigued myself.

In this story, the magic sentence proved to be, ‘The Steak ‘n Shake booth’s plastic seat crinkled under Alexander like a mouth chewing.’ Bingo. We have setting and mood, and the first hint that I’m going surreal. From there it was a matter of finding someone to interact with my character — the waitress stepped into the light almost at once — and a hint of back story to set up the revelation. Thus the anecdote about Jade running off to New York and the main character’s blind devotion (which helped me to understand him). And, because I believe it’s important to play fair with the reader, I added, ‘The anachronism struck a funny bone. Alexander imagined a stepstool tap-dancing on linoleum.’ While this isn’t totally honest, it does plant a clue that Jade may not be your typical wife. Total honesty would demand that the main character think of Jade the sofa at this moment, but there’s always a tradeoff between honesty and distraction in a short story. I tried to convey that while the character reacts to the waitress’ comment in an unusual way, the conversation itself does not afford him time to follow that reaction through to concrete thought. The rest of the story came fairly easily. I did, of course, have to revise and polish, and the editors of this fine journal pointed out a couple places where I needed to clarify a concept or change a word. Stories are almost never finished the first time through.

— Stephen V. Ramey | Love Seat | Issue 1

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