Monday, October 24, 2011

My First Time: Elizabeth Stuckey-French

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.   Today's guest is Elizabeth Stuckey-French, the author of two novels--The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and Mermaids on the Moon--as well as a collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa.  She is a co-author, along with Janet Burroway and Ned Stuckey-French, of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.  Her short stories have appeared in The Normal School, Narrative Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Five Points, and The O’Henry Prize Stories 2005.  She was awarded a James Michener Fellowship and has won grants from the Howard Foundation, the Indiana Arts Foundation, and the Florida Arts Foundation.  She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.

My First Editorial Confab

Before my father died, he told me an amazing story.  When he was younger he’d been a student of the novelist Caroline Gordon, and as the years went by he and Ms. Gordon became good friends.  When I was a child, she was hired as a visiting writer at Purdue, where my father also taught in the English Department.  (She was a frosty woman who disliked children, so she’ll always be Ms. Gordon to me, even though my father named me after her—my middle name is Caroline.)  While Ms. Gordon was at Purdue, another of Ms. Gordon’s mentees, Flannery O’Conner, living in Milledgeville, Georgia, was revising her short story “Revelation,” and had sent a copy to Ms. Gordon to be critiqued.  She was an amazingly generous and helpful reader, and her letters to Flannery contain some of the most useful bits of advice about fiction writing I’ve ever read.

Ms. Gordon showed my father Flannery’s story "Revelation” and asked him to read it and offer some suggestions to Flannery, which he did.  And, he informed me, after the story was published he noticed that Flannery had taken his suggestion and changed some of her wording and used his!  Being a huge O’Conner fan, I was thrilled. Which wording?  He couldn’t remember.  How could he not remember?  I badgered him about this for awhile, but he was speaking the truth.  He couldn’t remember, and so, for both of us, his contribution to “Revelation” remains a mystery.  But it tickles me to know that some of my father’s words are part of one of the greatest short stories ever written.  Or so he said, and as he wasn’t prone to brag or invent, I believe him.

I read “Revelation” over and over again, each time with the intention of trying to ferret out my father’s words, but I’d always forget my ridiculous mission after the first few paragraphs and get caught up in the seamless beauty of the story itself.  And, when I finally turned the last page, I’d once again realize that since “Revelation” seems like it sprang out of the ether fully formed, what difference does it make which words were suggested by whom?  It all works together, and that’s what matters.

I learned this lesson from a writer’s perspective when I was revising my own far inferior short story, “Blessing,” which was collected in my first book, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa.  It was one of my earliest story publications—appearing initially in a small magazine called Indiannual—and the publication process for “Blessing” was the first time I’d ever worked with a smart, serious and obsessive editor.

What a gift that editorial experience was!  My afternoon dissecting “Blessing” with Jerome Donahue was life changing for me.  Jerome and I spent hours on the phone, combing the story paragraph by paragraph.  We spent the longest amount of time on the last paragraph of the story--four sentences--considering different versions of one sentence and the effectiveness of one word.  We talked about the rightness of that particular word for half an hour or more, speculating on the ramifications of replacing it with one word or another.

I’d never met Jerome—although we later became good friends--and from the sound of his voice I imagined him to be a tall imposing African-American man, when in actuality he was a short white gay man.  As we debated, inspecting words and sentences as if we were spies carrying out a desperately important mission, as if we’d been charged with sending the most accurate dispatch we possibly could back to the motherland, my ear hot and aching from holding the phone against it, I attempted to act like I thought such intense scrutiny of a mere short story was par for the course.

But all along I was thinking, Really?  One word is that important to you?  And it should it be that important to me?  Is this what real writers have to do?  Discuss EVERY LITTLE WORD???   Are they—we—really this neurotic and obsessive and compulsive?  Do I have go through these gyrations with everything I write?  I’d had no idea.  The marathon session with Jerome was eye-opening.  I was beginning to get an inkling how much work, and…yes, okay…fun, revising could actually be.  Fun if you’re neurotic, which I realized, talking to Jerome, I am.

When I set out to write this piece, I’d intended to talk about which word, in the last paragraph of “Blessing,” that Jerome and I went back and forth about endlessly.  The word that gave us so much trouble.  Was it “heard”?  Or “think?” or…but I have no idea which word it was, even though I was certain I’d never forget.

When I read “Blessing” now, it feels like someone else wrote it, and I couldn’t tell you who suggested what where.  I no longer remember what Jerome said, or what I said, because all traces of our tinkering and haggling have disappeared, and that, of course, is how it should be. Writers and editors crack a piece of fiction open to examine it for flaws, and after careful analysis and meticulous changing and rearranging and adding and subtracting, if they’ve done their work well, the surface closes over and the story is whole again.

The world of a fictional story is understood by readers to be merely an illusion, but I’d say that the way a story can appear to be effortlessly formed, springing right out of the ether like a gift from a benevolent goddess, might be the biggest, and coolest, fictional illusion of all.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful piece, Elizabeth - I'm going to share it with my students! Melissa Pritchard

  2. Thanks so much, Melissa! xxoo esf

  3. What a nice and insightful story. Thank you for sharing.


  4. Elizabeth, I just found this and I loved it. Jerome was a beloved friend of many years and in reading this I felt I could almost hear his voice. Thank you.