In my story, "Good, Brother," two brothers find themselves in a situation where, in the words of the brother who is doing the telling of this tale, "We didn't know what to do..." Like the brothers, as the writer of this story, I too did not, at this point in the story, know what to do or where the story was going to go. I felt that I had a good story going up until here. I had a good dramatic situation: two child characters who want to stay in a place that their parents, specifically their mother, wants to leave. Opposing desires between the antagonist and protagonists give rise to the central conflict: mother versus children. I felt, too, that I had a strong sense of place established in my evocation of the dirty river town that these two brothers feel a kinship to. I also felt that I had a strong narrative voice-the voice of the child, with perceptions that might possibly make the point of view feel a bit slippery and unreliable-driving the story. Things, in other words, were popping. The train was a-chugging along. The story felt good in my hands as I was writing it, up until a point when, about two-thirds through the story, like I said, I reached a point in the story where I didn't know what to do, or where I wanted the story to go. The narrative train that had been cruising along on its shiny narrative rail had all of a sudden run out of gas. And as the engineer of that train, as the captain of that ship, I was left stranded in the middle of that fictional land where stories oftentimes get abandoned. I didn't want this story to be one of those stories that sit unfinished in some drawer. There was an urgency to this story. I didn't want to give up on that.
I always tell my students that the story is smarter than you, that it knows where it wants to go, and sometimes, I will be the first to admit this, it's hard for us to let it go, to let it take us where it needs to go. All I knew, at this stopping point in the story, was that the characters, the two young brothers, had to do something, some act of defiance, to show, not just tell, their mother that this place, this dirty river town that is the only place they've ever known as home, is theirs, it is in their blood, it is a river rivering through their bodies, etc.--that they, in short, aren't going anywhere, no matter what. That was their fight and I wanted them to fight it, to find a way to stay. I thought of a number of things that they could do. My first thought was to wrongly have them run away, to jump on a train, or head out to the interstate, but then I thought, hey, I'm not Jack Kerouac, and why would they run away if what they really want to do is to stay? Besides, I didn't want them to become faces on a milk carton. This wasn't that kind of story. So I scratched that idea. So what, I kept on saying to myself, would two boys do in this situation as a way of saying NO! to a mother who was saying that, "It's either me or this town" to a father who is too quick to hammer and pound a handmade FOR SALE sign out front into the front yard of their house. They could certainly "act out" in any number of different ways to say, "This is our home." I pictured them kicking over the FOR SALE sign, or of even going into their father's backyard shed and taking a can of paint and painting over the words FOR SALE. But this act seemed too much of a prank that would only get them into familial trouble and wouldn't really move them toward the solution they were hoping to make a stand for. So I started asking myself questions about the characters, like "What is it about this place that makes it such a magical place in the eyes of these two brothers?" I knew that the brothers liked to fish and that much of their lives were spent in a sort of neverland-reverie down in that rivery dream-region down by the river. I knew too that early on I had described a central image in the story: that of a backyard telephone pole that the boys liked to hammer and nail the cut-off heads of fish up into the wood of this pole, making for these boys a sort of back of the yard totem pole that I viewed as being symbolic of the brothers' love/worship for both the fish and for this dirty river place that was their world (the story's scenic locales shifted from the house and the yard to the river: those were its primary settings). So I kept looking back over the story, looking into the story, reading it over and over again, and the one thing that I could see better than anything else in the story was that fish-headed telephone pole with all of those fish heads (over a hundred-and-fifty) gazing back at me, open-eyed, open-mouthed, and as the narrator says it in the story itself: "it was like they were singing to us brothers." It's true, it was like they were singing out to me. And what these fish heads kept saying to me was, 'Hey, you, look here.' As if to say, 'Your answer is here with us.' That image, of the fish-head-studded, backyard utility pole, was the one autobiographical element in the story. In real life, I am brotherless, though I do have a cousin who likes to fish and who, when we were boys, he used to take the fish that he'd catch, not out of a river but out of an inland lake (they were largemouth bass and not the marble-eyed walleye of my story), and he'd take the cut-off fish heads that he'd cut off when he'd clean the fish and then he'd nail them into a pole that rose up in the front yard of his condominium out in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a world that was and still is miles and worlds away from the "dirty river town" that I make reference to and hopefully physically and emotionally evoke in my story "Good, Brother." It was those fish, calling out to me, coupled with the image of those fish eyes staring back at me from the opening paragraph of the story, that made me realize that the answer to my story, where the story needed and wanted to go, where it wanted me to take it, was back to that backyard telephone pole. So I took my two characters there, back to that pole, and when I saw them, back in that backyard, under the moon's full light-when I saw those fish heads nailed to that wood, it was seeing this that told me exactly what it was that I had to do: what I had to do, what had to happen, to my two characters. The answer was in the pole itself, in the wood, in the nails and in the hammer that were waiting just off-stage. The tools were there. The tool in my hand: my pencil. So I did what I had to do. There was no other way for these two boys to tell their mother and father, to show to their mother and father, how much they loved this place that they call home. There was no other way for them to become more closely connected to this place than to become, like the fish in the river, like the fish heads nailed to that telephone pole, fixed to this place. And so I heard the one brother say to the other brother the words, "Give me your hand." And I saw the one brother who was doing the telling of the story take his brother by the hand and hold that hand up against that pole's creosote-coated wood. These two boys loved the fish that they fished out of the dirty river that runs through their dirty river town, so much so that they too were like fish and to take them away from this place would be like taking them and making them be like two fish out of water. So like the boys did to the fish, to the fish heads, I realized this, they would do this to each other. This I could see them doing. This would be a way of fixing the problem. This, I heard them thinking this-their voices were a voice inside my own head-would show their parents. Talk about taking a stand! These two boys weren't fooling around. And so I wrote the following sentence, "I raised back the hammer," which was then followed by this follow-up sentence, "I drove that rusty nail right through Brother's hand." The hammering of that hand into the creosote-blackened wood of that backyard telephone pole, it was the nail that kept this story from being a boat that had started to sink into the dirty river that had been struggling to keep it afloat. The story held its own answers to the characters' plight of not knowing what to do, which of course mirrored my own inability to see where the story wanted to go.
When I talk about plot with my fiction writing students, when I've heard other fiction writing teachers talk about plot too, we often talk in terms of a character's desire, which, once you locate that center and source of want, it will subsequently motivate and move the story forward on what we sometimes call its narrative rail. We talk too about the story's Major Dramatic Question, which, in my story, it was, whether or not I knew it then or not, I know it now: Will these two boys have to leave, will they be uprooted, from this town and the river and the house they love? This question would be answered, I knew, by the plot (i.e. the sequence of events), which ends with the boys saying, with the pounding of the hammer doing most of the talking, 'We're not going nowhere.'
I now realize that the story had stopped going forward, it stopped going, because I was too busy looking outside the story. I was looking outside when I should've been looking back. I've often heard it said that in order to know where we're going, we need to understand where we've been, where we come from (to know your future, in other words, you must know your past). There is a triptych by Chagall that bears a title similar to these words that I now have hanging above my writing desk. It is there to remind me of the lesson that I learned during the writing of this story. It is a lesson, a fiction-writing motto, that I like to share with my students: Do not be afraid to look back. You are not Orpheus, I tell them. It's okay to turn back around. Looking back won't cause you to lose the loved one that is your story. Instead you will see that your Eurydice is right there with you, holding your hand, waiting to be pulled forward, up out of the darkness of an underworld of half-finished stories, up into the light that is the end of your story.