Anatomy of a story ~ “The Respite Room”

I probably shouldn’t do this, but I want to write about the genesis and development of my short story “The Respite Room” since it has been on my mind recently. (The story will come out next month in the Little Patuxent Review, about which I am inordinately vain. The editor asked me to tinker with the last line, so I’ve been revisiting the writing of the whole piece since everything leads to that last line, of course.)

As you probably know from reading this humble blog, I am wary of knowing too much about my creative process. I fear that a consciousness of it may somehow slay its natural flow, the way I think some people’s slavish devotion to “writing rules” and “grammar rules” slay their own creativity (but that’s a different lament).

This story came from my experience for the last ten years volunteering in a respite room at a local hospital. The respite room is a place for the family members to get away from their patient’s room — the beeping monitors and sucking respirators, the unrelenting grimness — and take a break, have a sandwich, make some calls, watch some television, or just sit and relax.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of people pass through the room; I’ve seen the extremes of humanity because often their souls are laid bare. As I say in the story, these people are going through the worst moments of their lives, and I’m present as a mute witness. (I did not begin this volunteer work as a means to generate story material. If I had, it would have been a poor decision since it’s resulted in only a single story, one that I have struggled with for nearly as many years as I’ve been volunteering. But my personal motivation does flicker into my character’s motivation a bit, which I think gives him credibility.)

Conversely, I’ve seen a lot of volunteers who have helped run this respite room through the years. It’s tempting to believe that I’ve seen these people at the best moments of their lives, but I don’t think this is always true. I think that there is a predatory type of personality who is attracted to this kind of work. There are many types of personalities who do this work, of course, but I’m interested in the superior, arrogant person, the one who sees helping the unfortunate as a way to “straighten out their lives.” Who see managing such resources as requiring control and judiciousness. Who see the needy as “grasping” and “greedy” and the victims of their own poor choices who are lucky to get any help at all and ought to show more appreciation for it dammit! I’m not altogether fair in this portrayal, of course. I’m stressing this attitude a bit (but not very much, in my observation) in order to make it easier for me to understand and work with. And this kind of “predatory charity” is manifested in many other avenues of life in our complex society, which I think makes my story more universal while remaining specific. But I think I’m straying from my point in this post.

Anyway, this combination of seeing people at their worst and seeing others at their “not-best” has kept me reflective for a long time, and trying to write a story to crystalize my thoughts is the natural outcome, at least for me. And thus “The Respite Room.” (By the way, my original title was merely “Respite Room.” Somewhere along the way it picked up that definite article. I don’t know when that happened, but I don’t suppose I mind.)

I started writing the story as a first person reflection by a volunteer in such a room, mostly as an account of a typical day. My original goal was to suggest that the human interactions in the respite room were a microcosm of our overall society, and to that end I had intended slipping in all sorts of characters who would represent various groups who provide service in our communities: police, janitors, trash collectors, ministers.  That effort turned out to be more of a vignette than a true story, and I soon had to evolve it. I took it into third person narration so I could discuss my protagonist’s thoughts more objectively, and I found that all of the service-sector characters I had intended were drawing away from the point of the story (which was growing more clear to me as I struggled), so I dropped most of them, keeping only the police representative in the form of a hospital security guard. His presence does instigate a plot point; otherwise I might have dropped him too.

And I found I was lacking a clear representation of that “predatory charity” personality, so I added a new character. She makes an appearance at the end, though I reference her early in the story, and I think that fix is what made the difference and finally allowed me to see the real story I wanted to tell. It allowed me to pull together the fragments I had. I often get these kinds of epiphanies in my writing; they’re not necessarily some revelation a character receives but rather ones I receive about how to develop the story. When this happens, a story I’ve struggled with for years suddenly seems to flow through my fingers onto the keyboard in final form. (This recently happened with the story “Velvet Elvis” — which should appear this month in Bartleby Snopes — I had been casting about for a plot for the basic idea behind it for many years too.) The trouble with relying on this writing-through-epiphany process is that it can sometimes take years for it to happen, which tends to limit productivity.

But now I have “The Respite Room” finished and accepted. I’m enjoying all of the warm fuzzies that come with that and chiding myself for not working on more stories. But I think I needed to get through my analysis of this story, which has been on my mind as I said earlier, so I could be free to work on those other stories. Will the stories now flow? I will watch and see.

A few stray thoughts:

I had written about my struggles with this story as long ago as this post back in January of 2009. In that I discussed the placement of a single word. Curiously, in the final story I’ve chosen the wording that I had rejected in that blog post. Also curious is how my intention in the wording has been taken from me and completely subverted by current events. Back then, I wanted to suggest that my hospital security guard character was a benign, almost comical person and certainly one with no menace. (It makes sense in the story.) I speak of his menace as being seen in nothing more than the canister of pepper spray he has on his belt. The point was to suggest that he was not menacing at all. Recent events with the use of pepper spray in the Occupy movement turned that completely around. I don’t think it hurts the story, but it does add another bit of meaning to it I hadn’t intended.

I use sentence fragments throughout the story. I have no reluctance with flagrantly breaking the so-called “rules” of grammar. As you know if you’ve read my rants in this humble blog, I think creative writers get a pass on grammar if they are able to get their meaning across in some rule-breaking way. (I recently saw the adverb “hectoringly” used in My Antonia. I’m sure the writing mavens would have catalepsy over that — adverbs are bad, don’t you know. Willa Cather didn’t seem to get that memo.)

I alternate plot-furthering paragraphs in the story with backstory paragraphs. I hadn’t realized I was doing that until a recent read through. I’ve been told before that I’m pretty good with seamless flashbacks. I’ll take that on faith; I just write what I write. But I was a little surprised to see how I was telling two stories. As I’ve said before, half the tale is in the telling. It seems to work.

Some of my liberal politics do creep in. They’re in keeping with my protagonist’s ethics, and it think they give counterpoint to the antagonist’s attitude. But I’ve done it so subtly that I think you would have to go looking for my bleeding heart in the story to find it. The lack of universal health care? The lack of a national service model? The fact that every aspect of our community is tied to every other aspect? It’s in there, and sometimes a paper cut is more than a paper cut.

This is one of my “serious” stories. I do seem to write in dichotomies. My stories have either been serious, “literary” works or they’ve been snarky, comical works. (“Velvet Elvis” is one of the latter.) I can’t account for this — maybe I don’t want to know why — but it may be that I need the release of a comical story after all of the wrenching effort of writing a serious story. Or I write the serious story to persuade myself that I’m not just writing stuff to make people laugh. Whatever. I write what I write.

Somewhere along the road I also “realized” that my protagonist is married to one of the minor characters in that novel I’ve been struggling with: Larger than Life. His wife does not make an appearance in the short story — I’m not even sure he’s married yet in the setting of the story. And he is only mentioned by name in the novel-in-progress — though by then they have two children. Faulkner did this a lot in his stories and novels. (Nota bene: I’m not claiming I’m in league with Faulkner!) Characters who are the subject of whole novels are given tangential references in other of his novels. Often, this illuminates both works in unexpected ways. I don’t think this brilliance is happening in my humble scribbling. Nor was this relationship between these two characters my original intention with either work. I just sort of realized it one day. I suppose that strengthens my understanding of these two characters, making it easier to write about them and find their places in their respective stories.

As I said above, my intent on taking this perilous journey into my creative process was to give myself some closure on this story that has occupied my heart and mind for nearly a decade. I’m pleased with it, but I’m eager to move on as well. Catharsis achieved, I think.

Little Patuxent Review is a print-only publication. I won’t be able to give you a link to find the story online. After a suitable time, I’ll post the text of it here on the odd chance that you might care to read it.

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2 Comments on “Anatomy of a story ~ “The Respite Room””

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    A really interesting piece, Paul. I particularly like the fact that a minor character in the story is married to a character in your novel. Clearly your short-story writing takes place in some kind of relationship to your whole body of work, not in isolation from it. You’re carrying it all around in your head even when you’re not consciously aware of it. That’s a sign of a real writer.

  2. Paul Lamb Says:

    Thanks, Brian. I suppose I picked up that little bit of one-universe thinking from Faulkner. I owe him so much. It makes for coherency, but I don’t suppose I need to use it constantly.


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