Writing the first draft of “My Bad,” a short story of mine about a marriage in crisis, was as free and easy as any story first draft I’ve ever written. I was done in under a month. At that time, I couldn’t have known that I was about to face a year of torturous revision before I found an ending that worked.
“My Bad” is about a couple, Henry and Maddy, whose fifteen year marriage has reached a point where they no longer understand each other. They drive sixty miles out of their city home to see a girls high school basketball team and to attend a post-game party for the entire basketball team at the house of Maddy’s sister, Devon.
I had my main character, Henry, who, while growing up a teenager in a chaotic household, had found escape on the basketball court; I had Cadence at seventeen, an outcast on her high school basketball team and its best player; and I had Henry recognizing himself in how she played.
I knew I wanted Henry walking out into a Midwestern landscape near the home during the post-game party—I ended up setting it in one of those rural subdivisions where working farmland sits just across the road. I also knew that I wanted Cadence to appear at some point and that there would be sexual tension between them (shaded towards the awkward) and that their encounter would culminate in a confrontation between Henry and his wife.
Finally I had the title, which is unusual since I normally find titling a story torturous. “My Bad,” originally a playground basketball term meaning “my mistake,” sounded infantile to me as a term (My bad?), but I liked it as a title for the same reason. It fit.
All of that came relatively easily, spooling out at an appropriate pace. What I didn’t have was a way to end it, at least not a way that was compelling. My biggest problem was that I’d somehow worked the story to where it ended with a confrontation between Henry and Maddy’s sister Devon. It seemed problematic to end a story about a marriage in crisis and not give the final confrontation to the husband and wife (Or was it actually a bold move?). I kept it because I liked the dialogue and thought it was thematically defensible. When Devon says to Henry as if he were a child, “Slow down, slow down, take a moment, deep breath …,” I was tapping into a central idea that Henry feels emotionally stunted, a forty-year-old adolescent living in an adult world, and when Devon says in the story’s final line, “…now start over. Start from the beginning.” there was a symmetrically pleasing circular nature, a story ending that sends you back to the beginning. And these weren’t lines I could give to Maddy; they needed to be spoken by someone emotionally distant from the situation, someone like the sister. I was stuck.
Months passed. I worked and re-worked the first two-thirds of the story until I could do no more. Faulkner famously said a writer has to be willing to “Kill all your darlings,” to get a story to work. The first two-thirds of “My Bad” had become dear to me and I was loathe to make any changes with the ending that might require significant rewrites in the polished beginning. Timidity is not a welcome condition when a writer is trying to re-conceptualize a piece of writing.
What I finally did was show the story to a writer friend and then we talked about it and some ideas emerged from that. I sat at the computer and wrote down what I thought the story was about, recording every idea I could come up with. Pages of it. And out of all of that, I developed a much clearer understanding of my own story.
First, I realized the circular ending was nothing but a gimmick and not a particularly interesting one at that, with no real thematic connection to the story I was telling. So I jettisoned it.
Then I decided the story needed to end with Henry by himself and that since the text had basketball both past and present, basketball should play a part. I had already written a visual image I was quite happy with; Henry at the foul line of the driveway court, watching the net as it “sways and drops in the breeze, like a ghost is firing one perfect jump shot after another.” To that, I added his foul shooting ritual (“Set the feet first, parallel to each other, shoulder width, centered to the rim, both toes to the line. One bounce with spin so the ball kicks back, chest high.”) and ended with the words: “Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.”
I had an ending. And what’s more, this ending pretty much meant I was free from that troublesome Henry/Devon confrontation, since the power of that “infantilized” ending depended upon its position as the very last thing in the story. Which led me back to the need to write a confrontation scene between Henry and his wife.
Here’s where the “conceptualization” work I did with my friend and on my own really paid off. I realized I wasn’t individualizing Henry and his wife’s approach to their marriage troubles clearly enough. I had taken for granted that both of them in their hearts understood the marriage was over and were just waiting for someone to make a move. But what if things weren’t as emotionally clear to her? What if she still had hope? It seemed an exciting idea not only because it allowed me to add some emotional complexity to the ending, but it humanized her.
Still, I had to write it. As I’ve become more practiced at fiction writing, I find that figuring out the deficiencies in a story usually isn’t the problem; it’s coming up with a way to fix the problem, which is at least an improvement over a time when I couldn’t see the problems in the first place.
Here’s what I came up with. Looking at his wife’s sad face, he has a memory of a wonderful evening when he and Maddy sat on the hood of his car, the front tires in the water, watching a swollen river flow by in their headlights and in thrall of the memory, he realizes she is “...vulnerable, precious, worthy of the deepest possible love...in a word beautiful.”
Except a few moments later, he remembers the memory wasn’t theirs; it was about someone else entirely, a woman named Irene. It’s this realization that sends Henry reeling off by himself, existentially dazed, before finally settling in to his comfortable foul shot routine.
It worked. Not all the specific details, it still took some time to hone it into shape, but the basic idea was sound. I had a story.