I CONFESS (A Sue Williams Inspiration)
Just the other day I was revisited by an event long buried in the substratum of memory: my first confession. As you might imagine, this holy terrifying experience came back with the intensity knob cranked to 11. Strangely enough it was while talking with my dear friend and Grub Street stalwart, Sue Williams about what to turn in for the column that this resurfaced. Am I grateful? You bet. See, like we often do, Sue and I were sharing our latest classroom happenings (the students, their work, typical chitchat) when the topic of ways to achieve emotional clarity in story popped up. Believe me, this was one of those fine, good talks. Because no sooner did she pass along this latest exercise and I was transported to 1983. There I was in the confessional working out what to admit to the priest. Eventually what he hears is me reciting The English Beat: “Just out of spite/I confess I’ve ruined three lives/Now don’t sleep so tight/Because I didn’t care till I found out that one of them was mine.” Honestly, I meant every one of those words. Sorry, mom and dad.
Write a story with a confession at the heart of it. It pays to choose a scenario in which the emotional stakes are high. Try to keep the pressure on the confessor (as you can see in “Read Me One” this can be done through setting as well as scenario and character). Does the character in question want to confess? Are they being pushed to do so, either by their conscience or someone/something else? Are they trying to work out how to confess? Complexity works well too. When a protagonist is confessing to a betrayal, for example, giving them a reason we can relate to will lend power to the work, even if their other motivations prove dark.
Read Me One
Across from me in the rear booth Bill drums his fingers to the soft beat coursing from the fry cook’s radio. I look at his hands, then mine: we have touched the same woman.
He pushes the boxes of letters across the table. “Read me one.” He wants to know everything: where, when, how often we did it. He can re-assemble a diesel engine blindfolded, but love baffles him.
Fishing around the bottom of the stack buys me enough time for the waitress to interrupt us. “Hope you boys are hungry.”
“Just coffee,” Bill says.
“Now there’s a man with an appetite.”
She turns toward me. “And how about you, hon?”
“I go week in the knees for a lumber jack special.”
After she leaves, Bill pushes aside the boxes of letters, maybe wondering how he could have prevented what happened.
“This has nothing to do with you, Bill.”
He coughs into his napkin.
Turns out what he wants to hear about is skin, sweat, dirty words – the side of his wife he never knew. I want to tell him how it was her sweaters I first fell in love with – solid, striped, loose, tight, cardigan, Irish wool, but there’s no reason I should.
He traces his finger along the Formica faux grain. “What couldn’t she stand about me?” He leans in, then says loud enough so everyone can hear: “Past year was like living with someone who pretends the telephone never rings.”
I follow the ceiling fan with my fork.
He slams the table. “Her birthday two years ago – what’d you give her?”
Gave her that, plus some. Made her feel good – cherished, worshipped. We used to meet in her hobby shed behind their house, and that’s what he wants to hear about. It makes me wonder if he even knows she only drinks Italian coffee, perfumes her stationery, or flushes when you kiss her neck. I miss those things.
Later when I reach for the box, he slides it away. There’s an elderly couple opposite us who haven’t spoken since we ordered. He’s probably wondering whose side of this they are on. I realize they’re sharing an omelet then see she has to spoon it into his mouth. I want to tell him that’s tenderness.
I reach across, dig through the box of letters, hoping for just the right words.
- Stephen MacKinnon
STEPHEN MACKINNON has appeared or is forthcoming in Armageddon Buffet, Cadillac Cicatrix, Carve Magazine, Fiction Attic, Kennesaw Review, Marginalia, Ontario Review, Pedestal, Rosebud, Talking River, The Belletrist Review, The Fiddlehead, The Oregon Literary Review, The Potomac Review, The Southeast Review, The Yalobusha Review, Triplopia, Underground Voices, and Whistling Shade. His work has received award recognition from Carve Magazine, Ontario Review, Rosebud, The Southeast Review and Story South’s Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2007. He is completing a novel titled Mercy’s Wake.
SUE WILLIAMS has appeared in Narrative, Night Train, Smokelong Quarterly, Salamander, Redivider, Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Hint Fiction: A Norton Anthology of Stories and numerous other books and magazines. She works as an Assistant Book Awards Editor at Narrative Magazine and is a writing instructor at Grub Street. She also publishes erotica under a pen name and has a story in this year’s Best Women’s Erotica. Sue’s awards include first place in the 2009 Carolyn A. Clark Flash Fiction Contest and Glimmer Train’s Best Start. Find her online at www.suewilliams.co.uk.
Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.See other articles by Stace Budzko