Chauna Craig lays to rest a rhythmic line of her short story “High on the Divide” in this week’s In Memoriam:
First lines come to me when I walk to work, sometimes in a slow gathering of words in my head, sometimes in a flash, a complete first sentence that yearns to stretch into story. In the latter case, I repeat the gift sentence to myself, sometimes aloud, afraid I’ll forget it before I can write it. I’m not surprised that many of these first lines emerge or evolve rhythmically. The beat of my feet on the sidewalk, words chanted to hold them in place.
See? Even there, I sneaked in some dactyls: BEAT of my FEET on the…
Rhythm is as natural as a heartbeat. It slips into every day speech, often unintended and unnoticed. Terrance Hayes once mentioned at a poetry reading the beauty of hearing perfect iambic meter from the mouth of a man ogling a woman at a gym: I’d like to get me some of that.
Rhythm, especially when you pay attention to it, is powerful, powerful enough that my language-loving self can silence my feminist self awhile to appreciate the irrepressible rhythm and energy of that line. I’ve never forgotten Hayes’ example, and I still share it to sensitize students to the rhythm around them (though I let my feminist self make a few comments too).
Of course when an editor agreed to publish my short story, “High on the Divide,” with a few changes, one of which excised an intentionally rhythmic line, I balked. That’s a bloodless way of saying that as I reviewed the suggested kill, my heart fluttered erratically while a voice in my head screamed “Nooooooooo!”
I always let that voice finish its tantrum in the privacy of my own head. It comes from a child raised on Dr. Seuss, a girl who would soothe herself to sleep by repeating sentences with a different emphasis on each word to test how the meaning changed. That girl sprang out of bed one night to tell her mother that if someone said, “I’m not not going to bed,” it meant that she was going to bed, that two nots cancelled each other out! “That’s called a double negative,” her mother answered. And the girl was crushed to realize that her own private discovery had already been identified, catalogued, and put on display in the Museum of Grammar, Useful and Otherwise.
I cut that passionate word-loving girl a lot of slack. I listen to her because she keeps me connected to the visceral wonder evoked by language.
But I know my own tendencies too. Every writing Hyde has its Jekyll, and every Jekyll needs a Hyde to rein in the monster of excess. When I was in graduate school, my Jekyll was a professor, an expert in postmodern literature and the backhanded compliment. He summarized one of my critical papers: “You let a fine turn of phrase stand where more sustained thought would serve you better.” Ouch. While I mocked his stuffy arrogance, the comment stung most because I knew it to be true. I switched to creative writing. But there is no excuse for flab or showiness in any genre of writing.
This first line of “High on the Divide” came to me on a morning walk when I was thinking about Butte, Montana: The men are descended from hard-rock miners, their lungs gone to granite, their hearts chunks of ore. I distinctly remember repeating it as I walked, in part for the sheer pleasure of the sound and rhythm. By the time I sat to write, I continued in the same vein. Next lines: “On the rocks,” they say when they order their bourbon. “On the rocks,” they say when I give them their Cokes.
The editor cut that last line. I’d created it for the parallel structure, the repeated words and rhythm, the variation at the end that demonstrated the bartender narrator’s caretaking role as she tries to protect these drunks from themselves. That opening paragraph reads aloud beautifully, in part because of the hypnotic effect of the rhythm and repetition. I could have made a form/content argument to keep that line, and that’s what the little language-lover inside begged me to do. Remember, she likes sentences that sound good, that soothe her to sleep.
But if that were my purpose with language, I’d write lullabies. Just as the narrator of that story needed to be jolted out of her hypnotized state, so did I. That lovely-sounding sentence didn’t even make sense. If you order bourbon and someone hands you a Coke, there are a lot of things you might say, but “on the rocks” isn’t one.
I knew the editor was right. There was something sharper and faster about the first paragraph without that line, and in a story of a thousand words, I didn’t have the luxury of indulging in rhythmic nonsense. It always hurts to say goodbye to pretty things that have outgrown their usefulness, but I’m finally ready to bury this one. Rest in peace, original third line of my story. I raise my glass of bourbon—on the rocks—to your memory.
You can find “High on the Divide” here, in Damselfly Press Issue 25.
Chauna Craig’s stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, GreenMountains Review, Quarterly West, Seattle Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her fiction awards include descant’s Sandra Brown Short Fiction prize, the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award in Fiction, and Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. She has also received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook, and the Heinz Foundation and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She teaches creative writing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.