Coen-Esque, You Betcha!

“A little less Fargo and a little more Raising Arizona,” an editor wrote to me once about a story in which I’d killed off one of the characters.

The old church I used as a model for the "old Lutheran Church" in the story "Dearest" was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies.

The old church I used as a model for the “old Lutheran Church” in the story “Dearest” was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau, Idaho, I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies. It was fun to conceive this story in Bruneau and then pick it up and move it to Moorhead, Minnesota. I moved it back and forth a couple times and finally decided that Moorhead in Clay County worked the best for the story purpose.

First the editor buttered me up by saying that my story reminded him a bit of the Coen Brothers.

I was ready to put on hot pink lipstick just at the thought of my work reminding anyone of those guys, whose work I highly admire.

The film analogy was an especially apt one in this case, where I’d veered the story in too dark a direction for its overall tone. That comment stuck with me and has been a reminder of my tendency to write dark endings, whether or not they’re the right one for the story. The dead character was brought back to life in the aforementioned story, and the story was better for it.

But I keep having to learn the lesson over and over again with each new story. Recently, the Dogpatch reviewed a story of mine, which is due out this month in Clover: A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine published by the Independent Writers’ Studio.

In the small town in which I grew up, there was a guy we kids were afraid of for no justifiable reason I’ve ever known. My friend Cynda and I would ride our bikes really fast past his house on the way to school. That became the seed of the story “Dearest,” which started as my way to understand why we kids needed a monster to be afraid of, and why it was also fun to be afraid.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story would walk. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose her money in the wind.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story “Dearest” would walk singing a tune about two cowboys who meet the devil. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose something she couldn’t retrieve by jumping into the water. It was hard to lose the Bruneau Canal, since I grew up playing alongside it and swimming in it, but the expanse of water needed to be wider and faster moving for the scene to work.

My usual flaw kicked in, and I wrote the story with one dark ending after another. It didn’t work and didn’t sell. Eventually, with the help of talented readers, I realized it was time to cross the state line into Arizona, although to be obstinate, I set the ending in North Dakota to have a little inside joke with myself and also because I love North Dakota and it’s always fun to write about it. I also have family buried there, so it was personally meaningful to have the talked-about headstone of the character’s dead mother placed there.

I just wrote a note to a writer (who is very good) that his ending is too tidy. In his effort to wrap up loose ends, he dutifully answered all of the questions in the story, leaving less for the reader to ponder over after putting down the book. This writer’s habit might be to be too neat in the end.

One of my favorite endings is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which delivers hopelessness and hope side by side and with such grace and intensity that it’s impossible to forget after reading it. I don’t know if I’d classify Steinbeck’s ending as Fargo or Arizona, maybe both. I’d classify it as about as perfect as one can get.

The writer Dagoberto Gilb said in a workshop I attended that he always knows where’s he going when he writes. I can see how knowing from the start whether you’re in Fargo or Arizona would help a lot and whether to bring a snow shovel or extra water. It must, because damn, Gilb’s stories are pretty amazing. So maybe my problem is as much about the opening as about the ending.

Then there’s the middle—Colorado? Oregon? Wherever we end up, the journey is always wildly worth it.

XO Laurel Leigh

 

 

 

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8 Comments

Filed under Notes from the coffee shop

8 responses to “Coen-Esque, You Betcha!

  1. Deanna Rose

    Laurel, I just read your story about “Anthony” in the July 2014 issue of THE SUN magazine. It literally tore me apart. Is it a true story, or based on one?

    • Hi Deanna,

      Thank you very much for reading and letting me know that Anthony’s story has touched you. Yes, it’s a true story, and Anthony is my nephew. Thank you for asking, and take care.

  2. And yes, I would say Coen-esque is the right term for some of your work. 😀

  3. Hey there,
    Nice going on a road trip with you. What you say is sooo spot on. We all have our little tendencies to do things a certain way, so we must be vigilant–and honest enough to strip away and revise the heck out of those early drafts. Can’t wait to chat with you tomorrow. Looking forward to hanging with the dogs.

    • I’m now sitting here trying to think what your tendency is. Not sure you have any pitfalls!

      Sorry I had to bolt early from the pack meeting today. It was great to get together and look over one of David’s stories again, only I wish I could have been in the car in the parking with you all. 🙂

      • Oh yes, I do! I tend to spend a lot of time clearing my throat before the story starts. And I tend to entertain myself a bit too much and end up having to remove my favorite lines.

        It was downright hilarious how the gods were conspiring against us today. First the library, then the coffee shop, then the great outdoors with its high ambient noise, before we settled into a nice car conference call. Too short with you on the line. Will have to spend more time together soon!

        • Okay, maybe you are guilty of a little throat clearing, although it’s maybe easier to write long rather than short, so it’s not the worst issue to have by a long ways!

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