This month, we feature a short fiction piece about a couple resolving a disagreement about the meaning of Christmas. Nathan Ailling Long, the author of “Holy Day” and professor of creative writing, was kind enough to answer a few questions about his writing process and his inspiration for the story.
We invite you to share your thoughts about the themes in “Holy Day” or the writing process in the comments section below.
What was your inspiration for “Holy Day”?
I don’t recall exactly the source of the inspiration, but as I reread it, I see a half dozen possible answers, or rather, parts of the answer. It’s likely that I started with the advice from one of my creative writing teachers, that it’s a good idea to have a story take place on a special day (holiday, wedding, birthday, etc.) to give it additional emotional tension. Perhaps I thought then of Christmas, and wondered if I could write a story about Christmas that wasn’t cliché.
I love the saying, “All good stories lead to questions” and believe that all good stories start with questions as well. I have always been interested in the fact that “holiday” feels like such a different concept to us than “holy day,” though they have the same origin. Now, holiday is thought of more like vacation or festival, as in “holiday season.” I know when I wrote this piece, I was interested in exploring how particularly secular people understand the idea of holy, and if they can manage to find something holy in what holidays have become.
It is quite likely that the story originated after some fight with my partner as well, though the characters are not us—I wanted them younger and hipper. The setting I pictured was the kitchen of my first grad school apartment, and Marcos was based somewhat on the sort of cynicism I adopted—and was encouraged to adopt—while studying Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon. While I wrote the story from Devon’s perspective, I tried to inhabit both characters’ perspectives. I wanted to bring in the cynical, atheistic perspective of Marcos and the more open, but perhaps traditional perspective of Devon.
But once I got to the lines “Devon thought she might have seen a spark. She inhaled, knowing where this would lead, but she could hardly let him squelch her beliefs,” I knew that this story was also about how people negotiate arguments, the psychology of each gesture. I tried to explore how our beliefs and our willingness to change are often at odds with our desire to “win” an argument or to defend ourselves against an accusation or cruelty expressed while arguing. Our ideas and ideals take second place to the ego. In the end, I worked to bring those two themes (holidays and how we argue) together.
Do you see any connections with the writing process and a person’s spiritual journey?
One of my favorite quotes is Pascal’s line,“All man’s troubles come from his inability to sit quietly alone in a room,” which is what we do when we meditate or contemplate life, and what we do when we write. I do see the two acts as similar, though distinct. Here, to illustrate this point, is a 25 word story I wrote recently, using an innovative form I discovered on the internet, a 5x5 story (5 sentences long, each with 5 words):
I lead the meditation today. I sit on the cushion. I ring the bowl bell. But I do not meditate. I am writing this story.
But I do think I learn about human nature by writing—which is really the act of observing the human condition closely and recreating it as authentically as possible. I think we have all been in an argument like Devon and Marcos, and we all wish—I hope—to find some deeper truth that leads to compassion, like Devon eventually does. I hope finding it with her, in the context of writing the story, will help me find it in a real life argument. And I think being compassionate to others is a central part of spirituality—and often a difficult one.
One of the themes in this piece is about making an effort to reach out to someone even when he or she is on the opposite side of an issue, or even the room. Is that a typical motif in your work?
I wouldn’t say my work is usually about reconciliation. But I am interested in all the stuff that happens before that moment, the way characters act based on a very personal world view, how they interpret another character’s actions based on incomplete information—speculation really—and how they react with a detailed calculation that happens so swiftly, we often can’t record or recall it. In the heat of an impassioned human interaction (which could be about love as much as anger), we can’t possibly analyze and understand fully what is happening, and so I like to try to capture that tumbling, that chemical reaction of human experience, and offer it at a slightly slower pace, on the page, so that we can look more carefully and see what’s going on.
You tend to write a lot of short stories rather than books. What do you like about short story writing? What are some of the challenges?
I tried in graduate school to write a novel and spent five years on it, but I was never able to hold the whole thing in my mind, to recall all the changes I’d made and all the elements of the world at once. I think it takes a certain skill, and I admire novelists all the more having tried it.
What I discovered, partially through writing short stories during those five years, was that I have a lot of ideas, but I get bored with them quickly. So, the short story, or shorter forms like Flash Fiction or micro fiction, is a good form for me. I can see the whole story, I can write the rough draft often in one sitting, and then I can work on it for a few months and get it close to done. I return to it to work on the remaining issues when I have interest again. My computer is like a giant laboratory, with hundreds of stories percolating in their beakers, which I keep checking back on and revising.
A challenge I like to impose on a story is to do something mechanically that I haven’t done before or I think will be difficult. As I mentioned, for this story, I wanted to write about Christmas without it feeling cliché. The only way I could figure out how to do that was to have characters talk about how cliché Christmas is.
But one challenge for all short fiction is to develop a character with a background and ambitions, as well as a setting, in a very short amount of time, and describe all that—or better, imply it—without slowing down the plot. Another challenge is writing something new each time. I’m always on the lookout for an unusual story or image or character.
A third challenge is to end in some new or unexpected way. A good writer is always thinking, just like a good reader, How is this going to end? And any idea that comes up during the writing usually has to be rejected, because the writer is no smarter than the reader, and whatever he or she comes up with, the reader will have as well. So, instead, the writer has to just follow the characters and the story, and “see” how it ends. I had no idea what would happen in this story as I sat down to write it. It would have been easy for Devon to just leave angry, or to just make up with Marcos for no good reason, but I wanted her to have an ego too, to have to use her own logic to come to a resolution, rather than just be a woman who had been brought up to acquiesce.
She reconciles, but in her mind really, she has won, because the reason she has reconciled is that this fight is proof of what she has been saying all along. In a way, this points to how tenacious the ego is, how often our kindest gestures and most gracious moments result from feeling superior. The act of asking Marco for a favor—to drive her home—is really the generous act, a symbol of her feeling close to him, of trusting him and showing that she relies on him.
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