“Change” was written a long time ago, by my writing standards. It’s been over a decade since I wrote it, and nearly that long since I thought about it. Which made posting it yesterday a nice kind of remembrance.
So how do I post a behind the scenes on a piece of writing that goes back a ten years? Especially since I don’t have any notes lying around to reference?
Pretty easily, as it turns out. Certain aspects about this one stick out even many years after the original writing.
What prompted the story is probably what prompts 99% of all fiction: a “what if”. I have a very clear memory of waking up one morning and stretching, hands way up in the air over my head, and I had a sudden visual of what it might be like to wake up with nine fingers. The “what if” filled itself in from there. What if I woke up with nine fingers, but I had gone to bed with ten?
That started the ball rolling. From there it became an exploration of how the main character, Jim, would feel if he woke up with only nine fingers. Would he freak out? Would he notice at all? Would he even care? At this point, the character’s mindset became my own. How would I react if I woke up with only nine fingers, certain that I had gone to bed with ten?
My feeling at the time was that I’d most likely question myself all day. Was my memory of ten fingers true? Had I always had only nine fingers? Was I going crazy? All of these and a ton more would go through my mind, or at least that’s what I told myself.
Early on I realized I wanted to put some more pressure on the character. It was time for the transformation to progress. Now the “what if” morphed from “what if I woke up with only nine fingers” to “what if, every time I woke up, something had changed?” This, then, became the backbone of the story, a character caught in the middle of a metamorphosis he cannot understand and cannot control. If, while reading “Change”, you at some point flashed back to your high school English torture session of having to read Kafka, you wouldn’t be far off from what I was attempting. This was my version of “Metamorphosis”, but not on the scale of Kafka. I didn’t want to transform my character into a bug. I wanted to transform him into another person.
But not just the character of Jim. Not just his body. I wanted his whole world to change. I wanted everything he thought he knew to slowly transform, sometimes before his eyes, until he and his world was completely different from where he had started. That’s how the character of Julie got introduced to the story. So that someone else could be a part of this change, so that we had the sense that this wasn’t happening just in one guy’s mind. It was inevitable that Julie change, and become Heather, and that she would have no concept of any of this happening around her. Only Jim would be able to see it. And in the end, he’d have no memory of it.
One of the tougher parts about “Change” was trying to maintain a balance between making this a fun kind of lightly scary story while trying to avoid becoming too dark. This wasn’t a work of horror, a genre I wrote in for a period of time, and it wasn’t sci-fi, though in a way, it kind of was. It was in a sense magical realism, and maybe borderline existentialism, without being heavy-handed. I wanted to avoid the heavy-handed stuff. I didn’t want my person to transform from a nice guy to a serial killer, and I didn’t want that to be a place where the reader thought it could go. I wanted to give the story a little bit of levity. That’s how the “bris” scene in the shower came about. (I thought it was funny, at any rate.)
Singularly the toughest part of the story was how to end it. This was one of those that started as a great “what if”, and then during the execution, you stop and go “Um, what now?” I was pretty stumped on how to end the story. Once the character changes, he’d have no memory of who he was before. The story is pretty deeply embedded in his point of view, and because of that, it didn’t feel right to take a big step backward and from a more distant point of view end with the equivalent of “They lived happily ever after.” I don’t even know if they lived happily ever after. They might have. But they were living as brand new people with no memory of who they were before, so the ending from their point of view would be bland, would be everyday, would be a non-event.
It was my wife who helped me end the story by suggesting that the main character (who was no longer Jim but had now become Peter) just ask Heather if she were hungry and leave it at that. So I did.
That’s the story behind the story. It was fun to revisit this one. It was suggested to me in the comments of yesterday’s post that this should be the start of something larger. I’m not convinced that’s the case. I’m not sure where I would go with it. Would I focus on how this happens to select people all the time? Would I have Peter have glimpses of remembered pasts of being Jim and have him struggle to unearth the mystery? All of these things feel too much like “The Matrix” to me, without the awesomeness of the martial arts. That, and I have a couple of other writing projects I’m woefully behind on. So for now, My feeling is to let this one go.
What do you think, Good Reader? Knowing now the background of the short story “Change”, should I mine the depths of it to see what more the story might hold, or should I call it a night?