After spending my 20’s and early 30’s working, writing, and making films, I ended up revisiting my education at the age of 34. Within three years, I completed my undergraduate studies and immediately matriculated into a two-year MFA program that focused solely on creative writing. Every semester I was expected to participate in a craft class and a workshop.
In autumn of 2018 I attended a craft class lead by author David Ryan. This guy is total rock n roll. Literally. In a previous life, he was the drummer for the Lemonheads, a mid-80’s to late 1990’s alternative rock band out of Boston. In his later years, Ryan became a professor of creative writing for the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Ryan's lecture-based craft class was highly spiritual–in a non-religious sense. We sat and listened as he mused about art, writing, creativity, and tapping into the subconscious for writing material. Now this isn’t a promotion for the college or the writing program. In fact, I received my MFA despite having enrolled there. I couldn’t stand the place. But several classes stood out as outliers to my overall experience. These were the classes that surpassed my best expectations. David Ryan’s craft class was one of them. Every time I left one of his lectures, my neurons were firing with so many ideas that I couldn’t drive home immediately. I'd often find seating at a café on campus and write everything down as CNN blared in the background.
On one of the last days of November I sat and listened to Ryan's lecture. But nothing came. Nothing. He lectured. I listened. Nothing. I made a couple notes during the class, but ultimately didn't feel I had much of anything. When the class wrapped, I got into my car and started north on the Hutchinson Parkway. While enrolled in the writing program, I had the good fortune to stay in a cottage in the woods in upstate New York. This is where I turned out a lot of my MFA work, including my thesis. As I drove north that evening, the most overwhelming language started emerging from my subconscious. Language, imagery, some memories, emotions... The idea of a dog’s purpose to save the souls of men… boys… children… it was all very tattered–but powerful. There was this elusive idea of growing up, that doing so is an assault on childhood… that the very act of teaching a child how to function as an adult is a destruction of some true nature that no one ever truly experiences… The idea of religion and Sunday School forced upon me as a child… a slicing of the soul… or maybe growing up is a slicing of the soul… it was all so confusing and it kept coming and coming and coming… and where do dogs lie in all of this? My mind kept circling back to a truth that I had somehow managed to forget all these years: when I was away at film school, my parents put down my dog. No explanation. No remorse. I was in tears as I pulled into the driveway. But why? This shit happened 20 years ago!
Usually when I returned to the cottage in the woods, I’d go straight to bed. I tended to function between 3AM and 7PM throughout most of my MFA. But I couldn’t sleep. When I got in, I started writing everything down. I was excited, emotional–scribbling furiously at first, but I wasn’t fast enough with the pen so I opened a word processing document on my laptop and kept going. Faster and faster. I had not experienced flow like this in a long time. Usually it happens with verse, but this was obviously a short story. From the start, it was apparent what this was, even when it was still an onslaught of confusion. Before I went to bed around 10 PM, I had a 9-page first work-up. The next morning, before breakfast, I completed the draft, finishing it off at 11 pages and packed with 4,988 words. It was structured like a symphony: 1. sonata/allegro, 2. adagio (slowing movement), 3. minuet or scherzo, 4. rondo. Of course, this structure was nothing more than a mechanism to keep me pushing forward through the initial work-up. It didn’t live on into the second draft. In fact, nothing of this work-up exists in the final version of the story except maybe the spirit of the story and some scene ideas.
The opening paragraph of the first workup was something to be desired:
We all come from somewhere.
When we talk in terms of our origins, we either come from a terrible place or a pretty good place. These are the places we can track back to, places within our plane of existence as we know it. The place where we didn’t exist yet is never discussed because no one thinks of it as a place one comes from. You either exist or you don’t.
It doesn’t really tell you anything about what the story is, although it’s clear how this might lead into Fritz, eventually. There are a handful of scenes that would be refined into the various scenes in the short story: the day Fritz arrived, my inability to pronounce his name, the Mrs. Plaisted material (misspelled as Plaistaid). Towards the very end of the manuscript, I imply that Fritz is archiving pieces of the boy’s soul. It wouldn’t be until the next draft, in February 2019, that this would become the linguistic staple of the entire story.
I’m big on the Attack Line. That first bit of text on the page, from which the energy of the story flows. When it comes to fiction or creative non-fiction, I can’t write without one. I can outline, sure. But outlining isn’t writing. I can jot down scene ideas, dialog… but that’s not writing either. Writing, at least for me, is a psychological event from which flows a concoction of language that can’t be achieved with the intellectual brain. I need to be in a zone and the best way to maintain that zone is by writing from an attack line.
When I wrote the second draft of Fritz, I wrote from the following attack line:
Mom slices my soul with the precision of a seasoned heart surgeon. She’s the bolt fired into the brain of a steer, her dear son. She’s the cartel hitman taking off the head of an unfaithful lover. Muchas gracias muchacho. Talent misused. Intelligence misguided. She says this is life, and that, over time, I’ll adapt to her ways.
“This,” she insists, “is the way life should be.”
This would evolve after several drafts into:
Every night before bed, Mommy slices my soul with the precision of a seasoned heart surgeon. She’s the bolt fired into the brain of a steer, her dear son. She’s the cartel hitman taking off the head of an unfaithful lover. Muchas gracias muchacho.
I say, “Why Mommy? Why must you slice up my soul like this? Isn’t it stealing?”
For most of the winter/spring of my final term at the college, the opening of the story looked like this:
Every night before bed, Mommy slices my soul with giddy cheer, lacking in accuracy, the precision of a seasoned heart surgeon. She’s the bolt fired into the brain of a steer, her dear son, her little boy. She’s the snuffer to the candle of individuality, suffocating the blazing fire of inspiration—one flame at a time—as she sits high upon her altar of absolute, parental power. I say, “Why Mommy? Why must you slice up my soul like this? Isn’t it stealing?”
Most of the editing and re-writing took place between November 2018 and May of 2019 (when I finally finished the story). The editing was mentored by another professor on campus, one of my favorite authors, David Hollander. Hollander is the author of L.I.E. and the 2020 novel Anthropica. Hollander’s workshop was among the best experiences I had while attending the program. It was one of the outliers I previously mentioned. Without him and Ryan, I don’t know that Fritz would have been possible.
For the final workshop of my MFA career, I asked Hollander if it would be okay if I focused solely on refining this one particular short story, rather than moving my attention back and forth across a multitude of work-in-progress pieces. I really wanted a mentor to guide me through it, since it was turning out to be something truly special. He approved the idea, with the goal in mind that I'd have something to submit to literary journals around the time I was due to graduate.
The very last edit I made was on the attack line, the final of which now looks like:
Every night before bed, Mommy slices my soul with giddy cheer, lacking in accuracy. She’s the bolt fired into the brain of a steer, her dear son, her little boy. She’s the snuffer to the candle of individuality, suffocating the blazing fire of inspiration—one flame at a time—as she sits high upon her altar of absolute, parental power.
I’m not sure how I feel about this edit. Linguistically it reads fine, but I’m fond of the version prior to this. Something about the ‘heart surgeon’, maybe.
There were several scenes extracted from the final version, more or less to keep the wordcount down and the story moving forward. While most of it I do not recall, there is one moment I truly miss: a scene where Fritz attacks a little girl who lived next door. In reality, she often harassed Fritz, egging him on with taunts. He’d often growl when she approached the house because he sensed her hostility towards him. At one point, he attacked, and chased her across the yard and onto the hood of her parent's car.
It took 24 drafts to work through the completion of this short story. I am proud of it. Short fiction isn’t usually my medium, but I knew from the beginning that it was the best medium for whatever was cycling through my brain as I drove upstate on that fateful evening in November of 2018. I don’t know if I’ll write another one like it. It’d be just fine if I didn’t. I achieved what I set out to, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.