Until this week, my short story, Scotch Hangover, had been read mostly by men, who were universally aggravated with the ending. The guys in my writing group didn’t think it was the wrong ending or that it needed revision; they just weren’t pleased with it.
But this week, women read it, and the response has been different. It may not be the ending you’d hope for, but women seem to recognize it as a realistic one. If you haven’t had a chance to read the story, give it a look and let me know what you think of the ending.
Funny thing about that piece: some of my readers have presumed that the character is me, and that the story was a thinly disguised version of something I have done. While elements of the Wendy character were borrowed from me, I never did do what she did. I have picked up the phone a time or two when I shouldn’t have, but who hasn’t? (In fact I completely ruined a good thing by doing so, once upon a time, but that’s a story for another day…or not.)
Fiction usually does at least start with a piece of me or an aspect of something I’ve experienced. In this case, I started the piece the day after my brother-in-law’s 50th birthday party, which my sister managed to get sponsored by the Macallen Scotch company. (My brother-in-law is a loyal Macallen drinker.) Macallen sent their ambassador from Scotland, and he poured Scotch all night long, starting with a less-aged one and ending with one aged 30 years, a different Scotch every hour. Naturally, I had to try all five varieties, and I quite liked the second one—the “cask” (I’m sorry, I have no idea that means in terms of how the stuff is made)—so I’m sure I had at least two “tastes” of that one.
I was experiencing the Scotch hangover the next day, which was supposed to be my writing day. I knew my brain was for shit, but I pulled out my laptop and tried to write anything at all. I started writing about the hangover, having no idea where I might be going with it.
A couple of weeks later, I looked at what I’d written and decided it had merit, so I picked up the ball to see what Wendy would do next. I knew what I would do next, which was check my e-mail, so I had Wendy do that and watched to see what would happen. I suppose that’s when it came to me, because I have written e-mails while inebriated, and I know how stupid they are (though I am too smart to send them). It was easy enough to put myself in Wendy’s place and figure out what she might have written and to whom. Once I had that idea in place, the rest wrote itself. At least one of the people Wendy wrote to was based on someone I might have written to if I had been stupid enough to do that. At least.
The first draft I brought to my writer’s group got a generally favorable response; the main critique was that I went on too long about the hangover and those stupid waffles. I had the damnedest time cutting it back, because it all seemed golden to me, even though all that blah-blah-blahing was delaying the start of the story when all it really needed to do was set the scene.
I don’t have the very first draft, but I do have an early one, an excerpt of which I share with you here. I’ve underlined some of the excesses that are gone from the final draft.
Wendy closed her eyes, trying to sneak a nap in between bites of her Eggos. Unable to drift off completely while sitting upright, she opened her eyes and tried to redirect her attention to the Sunday paper. Though she could make out the words—that is, her eyes could see the letters—she was unable to focus on them at some critical spot deeper in the optical system. By the time the image reached her brain, each word became its own entity, distinct from its context in the article about wine regions of France. She simply could not assemble the words into the series of cogent sentences needed for her to get the gist of the piece.
She was about to take a sip of coffee but hesitated when she realized that the caffeine would not rouse her to the level of coherence she was striving for (one in which reading the comics page could have been accomplished with ease). It would instead serve only to prevent her from falling back to sleep, which was what she really needed. But she felt almost hypnotically drawn to the liquid, so she drank. It was good—very hot and nearly flavorless in comparison to the waffles, which were soaked in the gooey sweet Lite syrup she’d bought for her sister’s children when they’d come to visit. Why had she bought the inferior product, she wondered, which she now realized was only a glimmer of an idea of what maple syrup should be? It had been thickened and sweetened with corn syrup (at least that’s how it tasted to her) and had only a hint of flavor that could be clearly identified as maple.She hadn’t tasted the stuff until today; she ordinarily did not eat waffles or anything that required syrup, starting each day instead with foods low in carbohydrates, an attempt at dieting that she abandoned by four o’clock with a meal-sized snack.
This morning her dieting inhibitions were down right from the start. She wanted food—hot, plentiful, and absorbent enough to soak up the toxins that were still dancing in her blood stream.
After she ate the last bite of waffle, she let out a groan, directed at the mess in the kitchen she knew she would not tackle today. As bad as she felt about leaving her dirty dishes to pile up, though, she knew things could be worse after a night like last night. Because, despite the mental and physical lameness that were result of the partying, she at least did not have a headache. It was true what they said: Scotch did not cause a hangover, at least not one of the pounding head variety. The Scotch hangover was sneakier than that, lurking beneath the surface, blunting her senses with the same effectiveness as any of the more forthright ones.
It seems amazing that I would have had any trouble cutting that back, but I did because I liked how it came close to evoking what I was feeling. I needed some distance to see how wrong it was.
Enough of the lesson. This week has been very relaxing. I didn’t write a new piece for Monday or for Wednesday; I forced myself not to write or edit anything, except for Tuesday when I worked. It was good to take a little pressure off and not feel as if I’m constantly working, on or off the clock. It was good to do some other things, including snow tubing with my son and some friends, bowling, reading, and attempting to learn Italian. There’s life beyond writing!
I think we’re starting to come out of this winter a little bit, so enjoy whatever is in store weatherwise this weekend, and thanks for reading.