I once took a short story workshop in college with a really eccentric writer, Robert Guffey. I’d never written a fiction piece before, so of course I was nervous and insecure about 1) writing a story and, 2) sharing this story with the entire class. I had a bland idea of a girl coming to grips with the aftermath of an assault. Even a week prior to the due date, there wasn’t a full story but only a single scene that I knew I wanted to capture:
A girl encounters her attacker some months after the incident. She screams at him.
The scene swells into its own world.
Those watching think she’s crazy. They’re reminded of a screeching animal. She runs back and forth, begging people to see the man as she does: a monster. This would be a theme: Running away from her attacker. Running toward her attacker. Running from the incident, and the running straight into the reality of it.
Then Guffey said something that helped me figure the rest out: “In a good short story, the main character starts and ends the story as a completely different person.”
But how could I transform this girl? Will she be another feminine figure that starts the story as a girl and ends up a victim? Is that the transformation she deserves? Or will she defy the odds and go from victim to victor? Is there such a thing as a “victor” after an assault like this? I had a strange authorial responsibility that compelled me to write her a happy ending, but I couldn’t see one.
Guffey taught me that it’s possible and preferable to not just think outside the box but to set up residence outside this box. Outside of the box of convention, a girl who screams at her attacker doesn’t just resemble an animal—she becomes one. If the world interprets her shouts as meaningless screeching, why not just add hair and a tail? I decided, then, that I wanted an invasive, transformative, flagrant metaphor. In page four, I turned her into a monkey.
With each day in 2020, I find a new sense of appreciation for the concept of the “decade.” In today’s musings, I find a parallel between the beginning of a decade with the beginning of a story—one that will, if successfully executed, render the subject completely different by the end. And this seems appropriate to me because I never could have imagined that I’d be who what and where I am on this side of the decade-story. In so many ways, the February 2020 Julie embodies the exact opposite of who I was in January or February 2010.
An example: I couldn’t have known when I stepped into January 2010 that I’d fail to graduate high school. The summer of my peers’ emancipation from high school and preparation for college was actually, for me, the summer of so many lies and so many secrets.
I couldn’t have imagined–
Two nervous breakdowns.
Three years in the music industry.
Four years of leaving the church.
Five drivers licenses and work authorization permits in eight years.
I spent a good part of the first half of the decade with no ambition and no hope. What I had instead were very aimless (some very illegal) jobs to veil the hollow ringing of a dreamless life. I had no interest in going back to school but also no skills, resources, or connections to find a good job. What I did have instead were toxic habits with drugs, alcohol, and men. An unyielding addiction to escape and autonomy.
But like I said. In a good short story, the main character starts and ends the story as a completely different person. And this story, the story of a decade, is a good one.
Six years ago I finally put myself back in school. I chose English as a major to stay close to books, thus commencing the redemption story of my education. I’d heard God calling me all my life, and for a time I’d become a natural at drowning out the sound. But six years ago his call became impossible to ignore, and five years ago his call became impossible to refuse. With that I entered into a renewed commitment to God.
If in 2010, 2011, 2012 I was a girl with destructive coping mechanisms, boundless self-pity and self-hate, and an equally endless sense of hopelessness and isolation, today in 2020 I’m the hero I wish I could have seen when I was younger. This ex-high-school-drop-out is getting a second masters. This undocumented Korean is teaching America’s youth. This prodigal daughter gets to learn, speak, and sing about God. Running and running. Running from goal to goal, from grace to grace.
The main character of this story fought hard. It’s true.
It’s more true that I’ve failed many many times, in ways I’m still too ashamed to share. And the fact that the end of my decade-story is a happy one despite my inherent inclination toward failure is proof that there was a loving Father and loving community who fought even harder. For that reason I wake up into the reality of God’s goodness and closeness everyday. When I look back ten years ago and I don’t recognize the girl I see, I’m reminded to be grateful for the constant authorship of a God who cares and intervenes. His authorial responsibility over his work is one that cannot and will not be thwarted by the decay of this world. Where I see hopelessness, he sees opportunity. And where I see confusion, he sees redirection.
And for that reason, though I worry about the changes that will inevitably come with this new decade, I don’t despair. This year, 2020, is the year of new places. It’s the word I’ve been hearing again and again since the closing months of 2019, and regardless of whether these places are easy or difficult, painful or pleasant, I fully intend to see this promise fulfilled with hope and gratitude.
Back to my story: After a long bout in the jungle, the monkey turns back into a young woman and returns home. Page 11-13.
Even as the author, I can’t explain to you why she turned into a monkey then back into a human. Maybe it’s magic realism? Or the result of an unbelievable, nonsensical assault from the beginning of the short story? from the beginning of the decade?
If that’s the case, and if the fantastical and unimaginable still reigns, then in the same vein of magical thinking, maybe this decade I won’t run. Maybe I’ll fly.