Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bird by Bird: Shaping a Story at High Desert Journal

Q:  When is a hawk a vulture?
A:  When it’s a character gone under the knife of revision in my short story.

I’m happy to announce the current issue of High Desert Journal features a short story of mine, along with work by David Allan Cates, Pam Houston, and many others. Now called “Vulture,” my story once started out in life as “Hawk.” Thanks to the astute suggestions of editor Charles Finn, I rewrote the earlier short-short story about an injured woman having a stare-down contest with a raptor into something which hopefully has a little more depth and, pardon the expression, meat on its bones.

“Hawk” was previously featured in a “Visions and Voices” show at the Imagine Butte Resource Center here in Butte, Montana, in which visual artists and writers exchanged work, creating new pieces based on what they received from the other person. In other words, the writer gave a piece of prose to the artist, who then disappeared into the studio to create something inspired by that poem or story; the writer, in turn, received a sculpture or painting from the artist and went to the keyboard to bring the visual to life verbally.

I was lucky to be paired with Christine Martin, who truly has a knack for creating jarring intersections between man and the natural world, primarily centered around death and decay. Her painting “Fox Hawk” inspired me to write a story about a woman going over a list of regrets in her life after she’s in a car accident. The hawk waits patiently for the woman’s last breath.

Fox Hawk by Christine Martin

When it came time for the story to go to print in High Desert Journal, however, Charles Finn pointed out that a hawk might not be the right bird for this story, that it was mainly a scavenger of small rodents like field mice, and that it was improbable for a hawk to do the things I had it doing in this story. After giving it some thought, I agreed, and--not wanting to break any biological laws--I transmogrified the hawk into a vulture. Symbolically, I think a vulture works better, as well--especially after Charles emailed me with this trivia: “A group of vultures is called a committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.”

I’m pretty happy with how the story turned out (or as happy as any self-critical writer can be) and I hope you like it as well.

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