Finding the Form with Heather Debling
“Count Your Blessings” started as most of my short stories do. After the initial flush of the idea and writing out the first few hurried, blurry pages, I stopped and focused on structure. I wrote down scene ideas, figured out the arc, tried to make sure it was a thing, a logical, solid, sound thing, as if orderly post-its on my wall could guarantee that this faintly-beating heart I held in the palm of my hand would one day find a life outside of me.
One of the first decisions I made was writing the story in the second person. I’d been reading the Ancrene Wisse, a manual for anchoresses written sometime between 1225 and 1240. In it, the anonymous author addresses their readers as “you” as they outline all their rules for a life of contemplation. I realized there was a quality in that voice that I wanted for this story—and that it also captured a dissociative quality that was crucial for my protagonist.
I wrote the first draft and then several more drafts, each time trying a different scene order, alternating between past and present, telling the story chronologically, having the past scenes interrupt the present, going back to alternating between the past and present but messing with the chronological order of each timeline. Nothing I tried quite worked. At one point I cut up the then 10,000-word draft into individual paragraphs and re-arranged them on the floor.
I was working on a new draft in March 2020 when my story of a young woman isolating herself from the world started to take on an entirely different resonance, but I was, still, completely stuck.
I was about to put it back in the drawer when I read some stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help and realized quite suddenly that the story needed to be written like a manual, and within an instant of having that realization, I also felt a kind of bemused embarrassment because the story, since the very first draft, had had the word “Guide” in the title. How could you not see it? I asked myself. It was right there, all the time.
But gratitude outweighed my embarrassment, and it was a reminder that a story will take as long as it needs to take, and that even four or five or more years later, the breakthrough moment can still come. It felt like one of those moments Annie Dillard describes in The Writing Life: “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”
Heather Debling is a fiction writer and playwright based in Stratford, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Room, The Antigonish Review, and Agnes and True.