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Inspiration & Context, That’s The Stuff

Last week I agreed to sub at the high school where Cami teaches. Three days with middle- and high-school students always makes for an interesting week. Rarely does a subbing day go by without some snippet of conversation or a student’s story that catches my ear. It’s a great place to find inspiration.

Oddly, though, this last week I found inspiration in a different place, altogether.

Family window stickers are everywhere. Or, so I thought.

As we were driving across the Manatee River on the way to school, we followed an SUV with the owner’s family (husband, wife, two kids, a dog, a cat) depicted on the back window with a series of stick figure window clings. You know the window stickers I’m talking about, right? You see them EVERYWHERE.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I had a free period that day and I spent it doing my morning journal. That writing quickly morphed into a story-writing session. I recalled the happy SUV window-sticker family and wondered: What happens when the happy-Dad and the happy-Mom are no longer quite so happy?

It was a brief story, coming in just under 1,000 words, but when I stepped back I thought, “Hey, this is a self-contained, short-short story.”

Those of you who know my writing understand how rare this is. I rarely write a story less than 3,000 words. My average is somewhere north of 7,000 words. A ten-thousand word story makes me smile.

So, when I wrote something that could be submitted to the ever-growing list of short-short and Flash Fiction web sites AND it felt like a complete story to me, I was pretty happy. I typed up the story that morning, sent it to about ten writer friends, and sat back to let the response roll in.

Overall, the response was positive. There were several good suggestions and some thoughtful line-edits among the email replies. It was a first draft, after all, so I was interested in hearing from my readers. I THOUGHT I’d hit a home run, or, at least a solid liner into the gap. But, until the readers get ahold of it, it isn’t always possible to tell.

And, thankfully, the readers agreed.


There was a problem.

Two of my readers–both from the East Coast, I might add–didn’t understand the window decals. The central part of the story. Here’s how my New York friend phrased it:

This might have to do with the fact that I haven’t driven a car in about ten years or that I come from a place where cars come second to subway passes or rent stabilized apartments, so I don’t pay that much attention to things on them.  Either way, I felt a little disoriented when I started reading, since I couldn’t get a grip on this image that is central to the story.

What to do? Well, I know this much: I won’t be submitting this story to any New York lit mags.

Otherwise, I learned a lesson: All writing is, in some sense, regional even as it is universal. There are things we include in our writing that make sense to 80% of our readers, but the nuance of it may be lost on a substantial number of possible readers. What seems so obvious to us as writers may, in fact, be lost on the reader.

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