Note: before you read today’s piece, you should read the short story I published last week. Otherwise, this one won’t really make much sense. I’m quite proud of the story and I was blown away by the comments I received (both publicly on the post itself and in private).
A couple of hours after publishing my short story last Saturday, I was sitting on my couch reading a book and periodically pushing my daughter Em’s meal through her feeding tube when I received a text from my mom.
“Do you have time to talk or FaceTime?”
After saying hi and showing her to Em, she told me how much she enjoyed the story I wrote. I don’t write these pieces every week in an effort to gain my mom’s praise. I’m sure there are plenty that she’s not into. But it’s always nice to hear that she likes one of them.
She then started asking me questions about the story itself and how I came up with different aspects of it. It was fun unpacking it for her and remembering how I came up with the premise and whatnot.
And then someone else replied to me via email and asked how the hell I came up with the idea, especially since I had never written a proper fictional short story like that before.
I thought it would be interesting to take all of you through how it came to be.
My goal isn’t to make this some pretentious, narcissistic exercise. It’s partly selfish so I can remember it all later on down the road. But I also love hearing about the process that goes into creating art—from writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, etc.
So here’s a completely made-up Q&A about the story (which if you haven’t read yet, you should do so now by clicking right here):
Where did the idea originate from?
I was on a plane headed to a writer’s retreat with some other core contributors from Foster. A Southwest plane, to be specific. I was somewhere midway between Dallas and New York, eating their Chex-ish mix and sipping on a Diet Coke, when I noticed my napkin.
The more I thought about it, the more the word “gonna” sounded weird to me. It made me think of the word “wanna” too. Then I thought it would be funny to put them together. And, almost immediately, the title You’re gonna wanna see this popped into my head and I jotted it down in the notes app on my phone.
I knew I wanted to do something with that title eventually. This actually happens to me quite frequently. I’ll be out and about doing whatever and a clever title will come to me.
What’s with the character names? Why Joel, Steph, Pam, and Lisa?
I don’t know many Joels. The only one I can think of who I kind of know is my mom’s neighbor, but I barely interact with him. The name quickly came to me when I started writing the story—on my phone on another Southwest plane headed back home from the same trip actually—and it was something I gave little conscious thought to in the moment. I kept it because the name Joel is sufficiently normal enough for it to make sense for his character without being too overtly normal (like naming him John or something) and also because of the line later on where one of his therapists kept calling him Joe on accident.
By the way, a therapist of mine actually did briefly doze off while I was talking one time. She’s no longer my therapist (not really for that reason, but still, it was hard not to laugh at the time).
I don’t know any Stephs. But, for some reason, that name came to me fast too. Then when I came up with her dating a guy named Steve and their friends messing with them and switching their names I thought that was too funny to not keep in the story.
As an aside, that whole part about Steve’s party is a great example of how weird the creative writing process can be. I jotted down other small bits and pieces in the notes app on my phone as they came to me on the flight back home, including the brief intro description of Joel without anything after it. The next night, I was on my computer and I thought maybe I could fast-forward to college, which made me think of college parties, and how he’d probably have a tough time getting noticed by women. But he’d also really want to be noticed by them since that’s basically how most straight guys are during that period of their lives. The next few paragraphs came pouring out of me in a completely unexpected way, including Steph’s name, and the Steve/Steph joke, and the gut-punch line where Steph doesn’t remember Joel’s name. It was wild. I love that feeling of flow.
Anyway, quickly back to the other names.
I only mention Pam a couple of times in the story. It just sounded like an office lady’s name to me. It seems like there’s always a Pam at the office, you know? It was only a couple of days after publishing the story that I remembered there was a character named Pam in a show literally called The Office. So, uh, yeah. I’m guessing some circuitry in my brain brought that reference to the surface.
I also don’t know many Lisas. And it was another sufficiently normal-sounding name.
Why does Joel talk to himself without cursing?
I just thought it would be funny if he was so inoffensive that he couldn’t even bring himself to swear to himself.
I also struggle with negative self-talk sometimes, which is why he does it at the beginning of the story so much, although mine usually includes a whole host of curse words. By the way, I’m not saying I’m Joel, per se, but I certainly have some Joel in me—as do many of us, especially men (more on that in a bit).
Why does Joel see a woman (Lisa) and why isn’t he romantically interested in her?
When I was at that writer’s retreat near Woodstock NY, we went through several sessions with the somatic coach Andrew Thomas.
Here’s how Foster describes his work:
Andrew facilitates containers that guide people to their truths, so they can write and express for their truest sense of self, purpose and message.
[His] work invites us to go past the place where fear blocks us, to find the parts of us that we must share with the world.
He believes that how we impact others is the greatest currency on earth, and it’s our truths that impact others.
It was from those container sessions—and an incredibly impactful one-on-one session he and I did—where my truth eventually got refined into a simple sentence: “I choose to feel.”
Men learn very early on that they’re supposed to be tough, not emotional—and they certainly shouldn’t cry. I can’t point to any specific occurrence where this was said to me as a kid—maybe I heard an off-hand comment from a coach about toughening up or from a parent who told a friend to stop crying. It’s a patriarchal and societal thing that’s pervasive and generational. It has all definitely improved over the decades, but we still have a long, long way to go.
At best, this type of society can produce someone, well, someone like me, I suppose. Someone who’s reasonably well-adjusted and can even write about emotional things like I do in this newsletter frequently.
At worst, it creates toxic masculinity.
But even someone like me can be out of touch with the feminine side of myself. In other words, out of touch with my true emotions.
Even though I might write about my emotions, sometimes in a very specific and detailed way, it doesn’t mean that I truly feel them. I still sometimes find myself holding back tears when it would probably feel 10x better and cathartic if I just let them flow. I wrote a bunch more about how I deal with (or don’t deal with) emotions—grief, in particular—in my piece It’s got no place to go.
This is all a long way of telling you that it was important for Lisa to be a woman. And it was also important that Joel wasn’t attracted to her sexually. It was more about him finding a way to connect with his repressed emotions.
Why not make Lisa an actual person?
I liked the idea of leading readers down a path and pulling the rug out from under them in a (hopefully) delightful way at the very end.
It was inspired by the book Fight Club bywhere (spoiler alert, I guess? Although the book was published in ‘96 and the movie came out in ‘99 so if you haven’t seen it by now, I mean, c’mon) the unnamed protagonist narrator meets Tyler Durden who does all kinds of insane stuff, including starting a bunch of underground bare-knuckle fight clubs, but ends up being revealed as the narrator’s own alter ego.
Huh, I just realized that book’s also about toxic masculinity.
What were the hardest parts to write?
I had the idea for the diner and Joel seeing Lisa through the window early on. But I didn’t know what would happen when he went in and what they would talk about. It took me several weeks of thinking about it and jotting down random lines if something came to me, most of which I scrapped. Let’s put it this way, writing dialogue is way harder than it seems.
I also wanted Lisa to eventually say something that nobody else should know besides Joel. But I didn’t know what that thing was. At first, I was thinking it could be something from his childhood, but then I’d have to create some backstory to explain it. Then I thought maybe it could be Steph’s cute mole, but I couldn’t find a way to not make it weird, especially since Lisa’s not a romantic interest for Joel. Finally, literally the night before I published the story, I came up with the idea that he hadn’t mentioned Steph’s name.
And that was the final puzzle piece.
Will you write fiction again?
It really was like assembling a puzzle. Except I could just make up whatever puzzle pieces I wanted to.
I always used to think writing fiction was too daunting, precisely because I could write whatever I wanted. There were way too many options. At least my creative nonfiction writing is based on some semblance of reality. Fiction could be anything.
But once this idea came to me from that Southwest napkin, it felt as if the puzzle started forming in my head and I just had to finish it.
Now I’m on the hunt for the next puzzle.
Now I have some discussion questions for you to sound off on in the comments.
Have you ever written fiction before? If so, share a link to your favorite piece and tell us something interesting about the process of writing it.
If you’re a regular fiction writer, is my experience typical? What surprising or counterintuitive things have you learned from writing fiction?
If you’re a writer and you’ve never written fiction before, why haven’t you tried it yet?
What’s your favorite fictional short story or book? More links, please!
Are there any other parts of my story you’re curious about? Ask me anything!
If you liked this piece, could you please let me know by giving the heart button below a tap?
Reading about your writing process was truly enjoyable! I recognize similar things in my own creative process. When you got to the part about emotions I began to reflect on how I tackle my characters' emotions. These lines by you resonate with me:
"Even though I might write about my emotions, sometimes in a very specific and detailed way, it doesn’t mean that I truly feel them. I still sometimes find myself holding back tears when it would probably feel 10x better and cathartic if I just let them flow."
Love that you included prompts at the end of this post so your musings can be expanded on! This is stuff I'm personally interested in. The writing process itself and how we discover our stories and characters - and what they feel.
To find my own characters' emotions, and to truly explore them, I attempt to tap into the scene as if it was a movie or real event. I watch it unfold and allow the characters to say what they want. Sometimes I stop them and make them say things again. I have never fully written this 'out loud' before but I think this is how I work. Sometimes the characters surprise me, and I might burst out laughing. Sometimes they drive me to tears, or they become annoying. I allow myself to accept what the characters say and do, mostly out of pure curiosity. Some cool stuff might come out of it.
Usually a scene or story idea appears to me, accompanied with a mood. For example, my short story 'https://acabinetofcuriosities.substack.com/p/green-velvet appeared to me after I saw this lovely green velvet dress (pictured in the link). More and more I find myself trying out different settings and voices, purely to once again see what will happen. I like setting traps for myself to see if I can get out of them. I've always enjoyed reading stories like that. I want to build up a certain mood so that they reading can smell it. If I achieve that, I feel I have succeeded.
Thanks again for inviting us to read about your writing process! Definitely keep writing fiction. It's freeing, isn't it? And publish it.
If anyone wants to see more of my stuff, click on my Substack. I published a sci-fi anthology of short stories called 'No End Code' and I enjoy experimenting with everything from micro-podcasts to writing about classic movies, being human and that time I wrote a letter to Brian Wilson.
Oh, and here's a peek into my writing process if you'd like to read: https://acabinetofcuriosities.substack.com/p/they-wore-jeans?r=bu9kr&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web.
I really enjoyed this follow-up post. I also love to learn about the behind-the-scenes stories of how things are made so I appreciate you pulling back the curtain for us.
I’m curious how many attempts it took you before you posted this story? That always strikes me as the most vulnerable, yet exhilarating, moment - when you choose to put something out in the world you feel wholly unqualified to do (speaking for myself, not you - you can clearly write good fiction). I’ve written fiction as part of a songwriting exercise to try to get inside the story a bit more. But, I always got squeamish reading any of it again. I agree with you that it’s hard to decide where to take a story and hard to make dialogue that doesn’t make me want to gag. Did you find it easier when you put constraints on yourself or was it more like “the puzzle” emerging over time?
BTW - I was going to ask you about why Joel never cursed but balked thinking it was inconsequential. Thanks for scratching that itch.