Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Few Words about "Flip Cards"

I am going to say a few words about my personal essay "Flip Cards" for my friend Steve Smith, who asked me to. An English class he teaches at Manchester High School will be reading it in the Fall of 2009. When I think of what to say about it, I first think about the experience of getting it published, and only after that what it was like writing it, so that's the way I'll go here. I think these notes will be best after you have read the personal essay.

"Flip Cards" first appeared in The Georgia Review, was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize and then again in my book of stories, Private Acts. I never really thought much about whether it was a story or an essay, and when I first sent it to Stanley Lindberg, at The Georgia Review, I didn't identify it. Stanley told me he first thought it was a story, but then it lit up when he realized it was a personal essay. I had sent him a few things before, and he had published an essay of mine already, but this time he sent me a rejection saying he wanted to publish it but felt the ending needed to capture and reflect the whole essay. I had ended with an image of my friend Danny's father wandering around their house playing the accordion, which seemed to me to do everything I wanted, but then I am strongly oriented toward the visual image rather than excess talk or reflection.

This rejection found me at the end of my rope. It exasperated me more than I could say, enough to write out, by hand, a rather frustrated response that stated that I thought the reflection and any conclusions that could be made were already obvious from what was there. I told him what these reflections and conclusions might be under the force of my anger that even my best work, which this seemed to be, was being tested like someone sticking their toe in the ocean. I laid it out for him. What did I have to do, walk on water? I let him have it. And this is a testament to how frustrating it can be to send out your work, because he was the smartest, kindest, most gentle editor with whom I have ever had the privilege to communicate.

A few days later I got a phone call that I never expected. Stanley asked me if I had a copy of the note I sent him, and I said I did not, a little embarrassed that I had sent it at all. He said, "Let me read it to you," and then I felt like pure crap. But he read it to me, and then he said, "Bob, this is what you need at the end of your essay. Now, I'm going to send this back to you and you see if you think you could work it in. Don't do it if you don't want to, but I think this is exactly what you need." As he said it a light came on in my mind. I could see exactly what he was saying, and that what I had sent him was in fact the true end of the essay. I could not wait to get the note back, but by the time it had arrived I had already been working on the end. I rewrote it and sent it back to him, knowing this was the right way to end the essay. You can see how it ends now, and this is the result of Stanley feeding me back the note I sent him.

Once he had the finished essay in his hands, he called me on the telephone, at a time he had already set up, and we read the essay to each other over the phone. He said he wanted to hear it. He asked me questions about the essay and we talked about it for over an hour--he had a meter on his phone. We didn't change the essay, just read it aloud, perhaps the best experience I have had with an editor. I did make one change from the conversation. For some reason, I had decided to make one of my paragraphs one long sentence. I had seen writers try to make long sentences before, and I always thought they weren't really sentences, that the reader knew most of the time that this one had been patched together for effect. I wanted to write a really long sentence that worked perfectly and that no one would notice. Don't ask me why. Probably pride.

Anyway, Stanley was reading at this point, and when he reached the end of the sentence he paused. "I just noticed," he said, "that sentence is one, two, three....thirteen lines long." I told him what I had tried and he said, "You did it. Now, can we put some periods and commas in there?" I laughed. "Sure," I said, "now that I know I did it." The paragraph was just a little better, and there were no splashy effects after that one was removed.

And then, some time after the essay appeared, Stanley called again. "The Pushcart wants to use it. This is firm. They want to publish it." He was very happy about it, almost as happy as I was, it seemed to me. But all this took place after the essay had been written.

When I wrote it, I experienced delight, not so common for me. I can't remember how the idea entered my mind, but the first thing I did was to describe a game we played when I was a kid, involving baseball cards, and how much I loved these cards, and how they smelled, and how good I was at playing flip cards. Sometimes you discover a talent you didn't know you have and you have no reason for possessing, and it's a high experience, so you go with it. Asked once why she wrote, Flannery O'Connor said she wrote because she was good at it. I played flip cards because I was good at it, and because it became the mode of the day, the thing we did, the expression of our desire.

I spent a very long time one bright morning writing that first section and then I went home. I wrote it at my office at the university, and I didn't think there was anything more, until I returned the next morning and started thinking about my childhood friend Danny Gary, and his parents, and where they lived. I thought, there is more to this, and so I wrote the next section. Every morning I returned I had something more to say, more to remember about this time in my life. What a wonderful period this was, living on the edge of the ocean! Delight filled me as I wrote, and then I spent some time putting it all together. I just laughed when I finished it, a little embarrassed about the way I had been spending my time, feeling foolish about writing so much about my own childhood.

When asked to give a reading on my own campus, I decided to try it out. This seemed like a safe forum, but I was deeply embarrassed to be sharing such private moments, and to talk about who I was at that young age. But I read it aloud and the response was overwhelming. My colleagues might be polite a great deal of the time, but this went beyond politeness, and it surprised the hell out of me. I went back to my office, put it in an envelope, and sent it to Stanley Lindberg with my heart beating. So when I got that first rejection I was dashed.

This was the process of writing, a pure joy, an exploration of memories. In an earlier story, "Beth," I had discovered that once you began to remember a period of time, the memories came back with greater fluidity. You remember what happened before and after, and then before and after again. It spreads, it opens up, before it finally closes again, and the story is finished. This happened with "Flip Cards." And the memories were so bright, and so filled with delight for me, that even the darkest moments were mitigated. The essay made me happy like a piece of music, and it had taken two weeks to complete!

I immediately started another autobiographical piece, one that I had been thinking of for some time, about the year I was seventeen and a paper boy in Maryland. Six months later, worn out, pleased, and still engaged, I sent out a completely different kind of personal essay that had come in three parts. The first, "The Friends of a Stranger," appeared in The Missouri Review, again the first place I sent it, and the third part appeared in the alumni magazine under the title, "Lucky Bob." All three appeared as the last entry in my book of stories, under the title "A Million Billion Trillion Stars," a title taken from an e.e. cummings poem about the good Samaritan. This one was darker, but, I thought, in the long run richer, but readers have always like "Flip Cards" best.

I wondered why this one made such a hit, and for a while I thought it might be the baseball stuff, with the baseball card material, and then I thought it might be the delight with which it was written, the glow of light from another time. Finally, I just let it be and stopped rereading and revisiting it. I moved on, but it was back there, the spot of light, that landscape and seascape with the sun rising or setting over it. It was there just a surely as that time in my life had been there, as magical in the experience as it had been in the writing.

About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.