This post is part of the new “Behind the Spark” series in which Spark contributors and editor Brian Lewis explore and discuss work that has been featured in the anthology. Here, author Brian Reeves responds to our previous post in the series.
I’m honored to be selected for the first installment of “Behind the Spark.”
A few years ago I found an idea knocking around in my brain, the kernel of a story about several men brought to a crisis in their friendship by an accidental act of violence against an animal. It took a while for the idea to become anything, as I tried on different locations, circumstances, and potential victims. The first big piece came when I settled on a Green sea turtle in the Caribbean. I immediately pictured the scene: a sugary beach, sunny and windswept, miles from civilization. In the first draft, there were way too many characters (I believe it was eight) and their motivations were almost nonexistent. I shelved the draft but continued to be inspired by the story itself. I just knew it needed more time to “ferment.”
The final piece came when my wife, Rae, became pregnant. Over the next few months I was initiated into that timeless fraternity of men whose partners are carrying their growing child in their wombs, and the experience turned out to be fraught with far more longing and fear than I anticipated. The future felt ripe with potential for joy, but also for agony—a miscarriage, an accident … I have never felt so anxious and so blissful in my whole life.
One of my most inspirational writing instructors was Robert Olen Butler, who has an almost Zen philosophy on storytelling. He believes that we all have an inner core of raw, volcanic emotion — joy, sorrow, fear, longing — that seethes deep within our subconscious. The best writing comes when one is willing to stare down into one’s “white-hot center” and draw forth those emotions. While I won’t claim to always be successful, I’ve found Butler’s approach has helped me tap into a lot of emotional energy that had been lacking from my earlier works.
Translating all that anxiety into the pain of loss, then changing the main character to someone who is broken, powerless, haunted by dreams denied, gave me the emotional link I had been seeking all these years. I sat down and wrote out “Her Fruitful Shore” in a day or so, then offered it up to my writing group before putting it through several rounds of edits.
There was never a point where I had to decide on P.O.V. or the inclusion of flashbacks—I slipped right into third-person present tense, which is a combination I find comfortable. I’ve used it in my short story “Wild Horses” (published by Sand Hill Review), in my novel, A Chant of Love and Lamentation, and I’m even using it in the novel I’m currently writing. Thinking about it, I believe I like present tense for its immediacy and urgency. And I like third-person limited in present tense because it remains neutral, privy to the thoughts and emotions of the main character, though not close enough that the narrator merges with the character. It feels like riding shotgun, sympathetic and engaged with the character, yet not in a position to view the experience through the lens of time.
Handling the flashbacks needed a light touch, but I always knew they were central to the character’s view of his present, and the key to understanding his emotional response. To a haunted man, the past lives in the present, so jumping into his memories seemed natural. In the end I’m pleased with how it all turned out.
— Brian Reeves