lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

Let’s Talk About How Stories Get Started: A Lesson With K.C. Mead-Brewer

Let’s talk about how stories get started.

No, let’s not talk about that. Let’s not even pretend I understand how that happens. There are accidents and murders and introductions and wrong directions, yes, but let’s not pretend there’s “a way” or a “how” that stories get started. Ridiculous.

If there was “a way,” though, and if someone knew it, it’d be Dale. This is a trick I learned from Twin Peaks, back when Agent Dale Cooper’s Diane was still a mystery, someone who maybe wasn’t even real, maybe just a name he gave to his voice recorder. Dear Diane instead of Dear Diary. For me, it’s Dear Dale instead of Once upon a time.

No, Dale isn’t a muse. He isn’t exactly Agent Dale anymore, either. Over the years, he’s just become Dale. The one I write to when writing feels impossible.

Dale doesn’t always talk to me, though. No matter how I approach the conversation.

Dale, what should I write about today?

Dale, if I started writing something, what would it be?

Dale, what are you wearing?

Dale, I’ll give you whatever you want if you’ll just give me a story.

Let’s not talk about Dale not talking to me. That’s awkward. This is awkward.

Let’s talk instead about how to get out of an awkward conversation at a party. Let’s talk, first, about how to make parties bearable at all. Games are always a strong option, as Aimee Bender’s narrator in “Off” well knows:

At the party I make a goal and it is to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blond.

Now that’s an opening line. Humor, character, staging, game rules, the challenge, the rule of three—it’s all there.

But let’s be real: in times like these, kissing strangers isn’t a luxury we can indulge in. You really shouldn’t be out and about at all.

Let’s go back to talking about how to get out of an awkward conversation. If you’ve got a clever host, they’ve likely provided a Dickensian-style punch with matching punch glasses that are, by their nature, very small. This means you’ve got a built-in reason to duck out of any conversation within a single gulp—Must go! Needs a refill.

Let’s talk, then, about swallowing.

Coffee, let’s talk about swallowing coffee. Like the gentle brother character of Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death”:

In an armchair at the center of a Starbucks, nearly hidden by its arms, a young boy reads, perplexed but concentrating hard: Once upon a time, there lived a man of little importance.

Would you look at that—an opening line within an opening line. Heralding a frame story, perhaps? Or is the boy meant to be me, the reader, sitting in my own armchair with my own coffee, reading, perplexed but concentrated? Both? A beginning within a beginning. Not unlike a cup of coffee, which isn’t necessarily the start of anything but might very well feel like one to the person who’s just woken up, the person who’s just sat down, the person at the party who’s switching to coffee already, angling to head home at the first opportunity.

Let’s talk about the person who doesn’t have a home to go back to this evening. A person like Yoko Ogawa’s narrator in “Tomatoes and the Full Moon”:

I checked in at the front desk and picked up my key, but when I opened the door, I found a strange woman and her dog in my room.

Poor soul. Even when they leave the party and all its awkward conversations, the awkwardness follows them back to bed. But what a beginning! “I checked in at the front desk and picked up my key”—a room like a story, and here’s the key, we’re ready, let us in. But was this ever truly your room? Your story? Who is this? Who are you? Already we know we’re in for a surreal time. Already we know things are not what they seem. Already we have three characters established (the third is the dog; you must always count the dog). Already we have desires thwarted and at a crossroads, immediate conflict. Immediate awkwardness. Delicious.

Let’s talk about awkwardness, because that’s what I’m best at. How do I start a story? Awkwardly. I never learned how to mingle, I don’t have this talent, so when I approach a single idea out of the many in my brain, I almost never end up making a good first impression. I spill my drink all over myself or them or both of us, or I say the wrong thing, or fumble my words, or I tell a stupid lie that I’m immediately discovered in.

I try talking to Dale but, well. Dale is ficklest, most secretive friend I’ve ever had.

He’s always at the parties, though. Dale’s great at parties, unlike me. It’s awful. Sometimes it feels like everyone in the world is friends with Dale except for me. Sometimes he won’t even meet my eyes across the room in silent greeting. Sometimes being friends with Dale is the loneliest feeling in the world.

Almost as lonely, I imagine, as Stephen Graham Jones’s narrator in “Broken Record”:

What Jaden remembered of the wreck was screaming and water drops hanging in the air and the thin white mast at a diagonal and then breathing cold water deep in his chest, shrieky regret about too much stuff at once, and now he was here.

A desert island.

What a way to begin—with an ending. The wreck of a ship. The wreck of a world. Screaming and wet, like a birth. Perhaps the story will be about sons and mothers? But lonely island or no lonely island, at least Jones’s narrator has the reader to keep them company. What do I have, Dale? Who’s here for me if not you?

Dale, please.

Please.

I’m begging you to get me off this fucking island.

Let’s not talk about Dale anymore. Let’s talk about the starts of things because that’s how I keep from crying in the middle of parties when Dale leaves me behind so he can talk to someone else. Let’s talk about the starts of things because anything’s better than staring silently at Dale’s back and knowing—knowing—he isn’t about to turn and smile and say, Just kidding, get over here, you.

Let’s talk about the starts of things other than stories. Like dawns. Like awakenings. Like turning to the camera and declaring, “Today I am a dedication.”—that’s xTx’s narrator in Today I Am A Book. A dedication as the start of a book, a story that we only get this teasing hint of. Something devoted and loving and loyal and all the things Dale clearly isn’t, so why can’t I just give him up? Why can’t I just try being a professional and start a story without him? When will he finally break my heart into fine enough pieces that I won’t be able to scoop them back up for him in offering?

Let’s talk about getting out of there. Leaving the party. Step quickly now. I’ll show you where I go when Dale isn’t there to walk beside me:

  • Your character walks into a tattoo parlor. What tattoo do they want and why? Where will they place it on their body and why? How easily can they afford it?
  • À la Brandon Taylor, begin with a character’s outfit, their clothing and style choices, and build outward/inward from there
  • Where are the animals?
  • What are you feeling pettiest about today?
  • Describe your mother’s makeup
  • À la Kelly Link, make a list of all your favorite things to read about in stories
  • Scroll through tattoos online and write something in dedication to them
  • Give us a vampire; vampires are eternal
  • Read one of Emily Carroll’s comics in a candlelit room
  • Write an anonymous complaint to your neighbor
  • A breast, a flower, a fox, a match, a knife
  • Read something you love and steal from it shamelessly
  • Make coffee
  • Make tea
  • Write a break-up letter
  • Write a break-up email
  • Where are the ghosts?
  • Where are the games?
  • There are always some dark woods somewhere—go find them before you come back

Sometimes, though, if I’m honest, these don’t work either. Sometimes, despite everything I want to believe about myself, the only thing that helps is Dale. He’ll be back eventually, I know. He’ll bring flowers and promises. He’ll say the right things and I’ll give him whatever he wants. He only hurts me when he leaves. He only leaves because I call it leaving. He only comes back because I turn, I look, and it’s as if he was never gone at all.

K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Ithaca, NY. Her fiction appears in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, CutBank Magazine, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Tin House’s 2018 Winter Workshop for Short Fiction and of the 2018 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.