Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Calling the Train—Jeff Stehman

Calling the Motivation

The prompt: "Write about a musical instrument that controls life and/or death." Short, simple, to the point. And it fell into my brain like a stone into a dry well. No splash, just a dull, distant thud.

Winter is my favorite season. It brings cross-country skiing and the Codex Writers' Group Weekend Warrior flash fiction contest. Five weeks, five prompts posted on Friday night / Saturday morning, a story with at most 750 words due Sunday night. Voting is open until it's time for the next set of prompts. Each writer's top three stories add up to a final score, winner takes all. (Since we're writers, "all" means the rest of us saying, "Hurray! You've won!" It's very prestigious.)

Competition, tight deadlines, an underdog against high-caliber opponents. This is my element. I look forward to each set of prompts with great anticipation, postponing any writing for a day or two beforehand so my brain won't get distracted with unfinished work.

At last the prompts go up, and I pounce! Which is to say I stare at them for 10-15 minutes, a sense of impending doom slowly building in my gut.

No lightning. No inspiration. Nothing to even pique my interest. My muse is asleep in the next room, and I'm not sure she'll ever wake again.

What am I doing in this group? Any moment now someone will point and say, "But he's not wearing any clothes."

To stave off depression, I immerse myself in something that will keep my brain occupied with anything other than writing. I don't actually vacuum the cat, but I sometimes vacuum up leftover pieces of the cat; futile, but time-consuming. A few hours later, my muse's unpaid intern will politely knock and say, "I have a few notes I thought you might want to look over." Yeah, I might be able to work with this.

By the time I go to bed Saturday night, I have a rough draft. And it's brilliant. Or clever. Or funny. I go to sleep happy. But in the night the writing gremlins come, and when I read the story again Sunday afternoon, it's dreck. Can I salvage anything from this? At least enough to submit a coherent story and avoid humiliation? 'Cause let's face it, after the trauma of reading the prompts and drawing a blank, not sucking is my primary motivation.

Fortunately, Sunday tends to be a long, slow day, and I can usually submit a story I'm satisfied with before going to bed. (Voting might imply my standards are low, but after-submission neuroses are a whole different kettle of fish.)

"Calling the Train" was my first flash fiction and my first Weekend Warrior entry, written in response (eventually) to the first prompt listed. It set the stage for all the entries to follow: blank stare; I'm doomed; distraction; well, maybe I can use this...

I can't wait until next winter. I just hope we get more snow.

--Jeff Stehman

No comments: