The end of the beginning
by Kyle Callahan
In June of 2006, a few weeks after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in Theories of Writing, I decided to apply to an M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. The only school I wanted to attend required a longish writing sample (20 pages) as part of its application. Because most of the stories I’d written in the past few years were unfinished or less than 10 pages, I needed to write something specific for the application. I decided on a short story whose concept had obsessed me for months: the secession of Vermont from the United States.
My plan for the story was simple in form, but complex in execution. The general idea was to capture the secession in both its planning stage and its aftermath, and to allow the reader to imagine how the secession moved from one period to the other.
But the execution saw me creating a larger cast of characters than usually belong in a short story, with the perspective of the story shifting to a different character with each individual paragraph. Some of those characters were in the present day, but others were two hundred years in the future. The effect, I hoped, would make the reader feel like they were caught in a tornado (which was tied thematically to the idea of secession by way of The Wizard of Oz, i.e., secession leads to a new world of possibilities, and by the concept of the moment, i.e., the ever-swirling influences that come into and move out of each individual moment, including the moment of secession).
After I finished the first draft of the story, which was titled, “If you walk away, I’ll walk away,” something strange happened. I started crying. I remember being so happy with the story, so proud of it, that, all of sudden, it felt like everything I’d ever done, every decision I’d ever made that put me on the path towards being a writer, was validated. It was a pretty great moment, and my emotions were caught in the swirl of it.
After revising it once or twice, I sent the story off to grad school as part of my application, and a few weeks later, I was accepted. For my creative thesis, I decided to turn “If you walk away, I’ll walk away” into a novel. And for the next two years (minus a few weeks at the end of the first semester when I flirted with starting a completely different novel), that’s what I did.
Except I decided from the get-go that I didn’t want it to be a novel. A novel would have followed a relatively straight path from the origins of the secession, through the eventual battle(s), and into their aftermath (perhaps doing so as a trilogy). But I wanted to stay true to the form of my short story, which went “around” the secession rather than through it. I also wanted to use my creative thesis to engage (in a fictional way) with all of the strange, philosophical ideas that I encountered during my undergraduate career. The end result wouldn’t be a novel, per se, but a fictional exploration of political philosophies, utopias, and ontological states of being.
To highlight this, I gave it the working title: The Gods of the Hills: An act of creative non-philosophy.
At the end of the two years, and after receiving feedback from some incredible advisors at the college and from some incredibly supportive friends, I completed the book, now titled (to erase the academic flavor), Gods of the Hill: An Act of Secession.
And then I let the book sit. Didn’t touch it. Didn’t think about it. Completely let it go. For five months.
When Spring came, and I finally picked it up, I sat down with a few glasses of wine, and over a couple of days, read through the whole thing, at the end of which I said to my wife, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I like that book.”
And then I got to work rewriting it.
This process went on for three more years. I’d finish a rewrite (which, in my process, involved not only cutting and adding scenes, but also a wholesale retyping of every single page), then I’d let it sit for about five months, then I’d give it another read, after which I’d declare how much I enjoyed it, then get to work on another revision.
And then, on Thursday last week (one day before my fifth wedding anniversary), I finished it. That’s right. Finished it. Gods of the Hills: An Act of Secession…is…finally…done.
And on Monday, I sent it off to an agent to see if she’d like to represent it to publishers. Within two hours of receiving my query letter and the first group of the book’s pages, she asked me to send her the whole thing. I can’t tell you how excited that’s made me.
What’s kind of scary, though, is that the agent will be the first person in three years, besides myself, who will have read my book. I completely suspect that she will not want to represent it (it is, after all, a piece of experimental fiction that actively prevents a “traditional plot” from breaking out), but still, the fact that she wanted to read the whole book is a good thing indeed.
Even if she does choose to represent the book, I completely suspect that she’ll have some suggestions on how to improve it, which means, of course, that the book isn’t “done done.”
But sending it off to an agent…it’s a big deal. Because it means that the beginning stage of seeing my manuscript turn into a real book is…truly and completely…done.
There were no tears this time. Just a sense of resoluteness.
Because any way you slice it, five years is a long time.
Oh, and did I mention that my wife and I, after five years of marriage, will be having a baby pretty soon?
It’s the end of the beginning in oh so many ways. And I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.