The Story Behind Poor Little Thing
TNQ has asked how I chose the form and structure for this story. I never think of such things. The starting point was a news report in the mid-1990s of a man perishing in an almost impossible accident in Toronto. I simply followed my nose from there.
I wrote the first section about 1996. It has barely changed since. I love it. The working title was “Bad Dog”. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work after that grand opening.
In one version our anguished heroine wasted her nights driving an endless circuit of her neighbourhood. This culminated in her staring at the moon over a skating rink until she felt better and abandoned her compulsive driving. In another attempt the woman’s dog pointed her the way to a new life and love. My gorgeous opening had descended into genre predictability. I guess this is one of the downsides of starting without a plan.
Years (even decades) passed while I wrote and published other stories but I always came back to this one. A recurring challenge was that my heroine didn’t seem to have a reason for living as she did. One lucky day I smashed out a few decent paragraphs which solved that (key woke lesson: blame the father). By now the title was “A Little Less Reliable.” This seemed like a big step forward. Sadly, I then had my heroine flee to her garage for another of her dark drives.
I experimented with a variety of points of view. At one point, Janes, a minor player in the final version, became the centrepiece for the whole story. In another version the scene shifted to Nova Scotia where the heroine’s puritanical father and her demented brother assumed starring roles. Ugh.
Several years ago I gave up. I yanked out an entire section and used it as the basis for a new piece, which was almost immediately published by The Antigonish Review, under the title “A Little Less Reliable.” The original story seemed dead.
But I couldn’t let it go. I finally conjured up a new character, Mrs. Cade. Somehow the pivotal point of the story flew onto the page with Cade saying: “Poor little thing.” This innocent comment not only set up the resolution of the story but lent it its final title.
Soon after the story was accepted by TNQ. It would be my third appearance in this auspicious journal. But there was more torment ahead.
One night I awoke realizing that the section of the story that had already been published in The Antigonish Review was still in the TNQ version. I emailed Pamela Mulloy confessing my self-plagiarism. She suggested I try replacing the offending section with new material. I almost wished that she had canned it because I was sick of the whole business. But fortunately a new section poured out of my fingers and seemed quite good. I am grateful to The New Quarterly for finally putting me out of my misery.
Have I answered TNQ’s questions about Form? I only write short stories so no decisions to make there. I used to run marathons and the notion of a new marathon writing a novel is not attractive. My preferred format is third person limited. I do not like first person, which too often becomes prey to virtue-signalling and thence to propaganda. But that’s just me. I wouldn’t evangelize on it.
So there are pros and cons to writing without a plan. The con is that it can take 25 years to figure it out. The pros: the man focus becomes a woman focus, a straight white male writes a story about lesbians, the dogs play a role after all, and we discover that even the worst of events can yield some good. I scribble on.
Wayne Yetman’s short fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, FreeFall and Event. He placed second in the 2017 Grain short fiction contest and won the 2018 FreeFall short fiction contest.