â€œI read your story as if the main character was a mutant baby, some sort of hybrid kid-dog monster.â€
I am quiet. I am prepared for this; I am getting workshopped.
â€œAnd even after I got to the line that told me it was actually a grandmother with dementia, I read your story as if the main character was a mutant baby. Iâ€™m not sure what you want to do with this information, but I thought that it was something you should consider during revision.â€
Consider main character as mutant baby. Check.
Consider spaceships, rockets, robots, incest, magic, cowboys. Check.
Do not consider mayonnaise. For a multitude of reasons, they will not like it.
I write small character pieces. They are quiet pieces. Melodrama scares me to my core. (ClichÃ©s are not quite so frightening). In first drafts, my openings often require further clarification and their ambiguity is not always cleared up fast enough. I do not write about mutant babies, cowboys, or rockets.
I find my workshop is filled with experts on strange and inapplicable philosophies, experts on the expiration of jarred foods and the number of bites of a cookie fresh-from-the-oven one can take.
â€œI don’t understand what â€˜Grandmotherâ€™ the idea, the phenomena of â€˜Grandmotherâ€™ means to the main character.â€
I tell myself Iâ€™m going to wait to read the comments on their copies, but I donâ€™t. I read them as Iâ€™m walking out of the room and next to a section in the story where the couple makes chocolate chip cookies, there is a note that says: â€œWhat does this have to do with the price of eggs in China?â€ There must be an egg-pricing expert in my workshop too.
But this copy doesnâ€™t have a name on it. I search my story for any reference to China. There is a section that takes place at a Chinese restaurant. No eggs there. I flip back to the comment itself. There are no further clues to its meaning. The comment seems to proclaim that all stories should have something to do with the price of eggs in China, as if the writer of the comment would have been similarly shocked had I written a story without words at all.
With the stories Iâ€™ve written since, I ask myself â€œWhat does this have to do with the price of eggs in China?â€ To me, it sounds like â€œIf a tree fallsâ€¦â€ or a phrase for the inside of a fortune cookie. Profound and without meaning.
But after enough times repeating the question to myself, Iâ€™ve done exactly what its author did to amaze me. Iâ€™ve invented an entire meaning for it that seemingly has nothing to do with the actual words that were on the page. It now means that not everyone is going to understand what my intention with a story is. Sometimes they will not understand even such crucial aspects as the species of my main character. It reminds me to make the openings of my stories more clear and to find a balance throughout where I am only saying just enough.
â€œWhat does this have to do with the price of eggs in China?â€ is something I tell myself after an especially harsh or negative comment. It puts things in perspective like only a fortune cookie-esque phrase can. It reminds me that the best stories can be read and felt in multiple ways, even if that means accepting that some readers will be right there with me while others are reading egg prices in China when Iâ€™m trying to bake cookies.
Lauren Schmeer writes and studies fiction at the University of Pittsburgh.