|Credit: Jimmy Brown, via Flickr Creative Commons.|
Self-assessment is always a tricky, maddening thing, I get that. It's why I asked. You can never be objective about your own work, of course. It's a curious fact of life that sometimes you will do things that you think are brilliant and no one else will notice, and sometimes you will produce what you know to be a tremendous load of crap but which others, bafflingly, adore.
I want to know about the thing that you love--whether or not anyone else agrees is irrelevant.
I’m saying YOUR favorite. The one that makes you feel proud for one reason or another, despite its lumps and imperfections. The one where you back and look at it and you recall the effort that went into the story, you know how all the parts fit together, you have the commentary track in your head, and it ends with, "Yeah, I WROTE that."
* * *
Personally, I never go back and read my stories after they're published. Lordy, no. Are you kidding? The very thought fills me with dread. It's too late to fix anything, and I know I'll only see the flaws--This structure's a DISASTER, that joke's a dud, and what's up with this dangling modifier?! Who wrote this crap?! I could never be a spy, because making me betray country and cause would be too easy. I picture a James Bond villain grinning maniacally and waving a ream of print-outs. "Now, Meeester Mack, you can either or give me the nuclear codes ... or read these stories you wrote years ago." Sorry, world.
Most writers I know are equally self-loathing, their own harshest critics.
But. There are a couple of pieces that I not only reread but return to pretty often. And what's interesting to me is that my favorite pieces are not my most high-profile stories, or the longest ones, or the ones that have big ideas. If you were skimming through my list of clips, they're not the ones that would instantly stand out.
I'm guessing it's the same for other writers, and I want to test this theory. I'm curious to see how we all curate our own "best of" list, and to see if there's a common thread between them.
* * *
So here's my call to all the scribes who read this, whether I know you or not. What's your favorite story you've written? (If you have a few, just pick one.)
Why do you like it? Go on, boast. Don't be humble this time, don't apologize for the flaws, just tell me why you're proud of it. What are the behind-the-scenes details--the reporting, the sheer effort--that makes you fond of this particular piece?
Here, I’ll go first.
* * *
SEVEN TRAVEL RULES FROM A BROODING TEENAGER, for World Hum (2007), was one of my first published pieces. It's a short essay and it doesn't show anything about, say, reporting skills or big ideas. It's not a resume-builder of a story. But it still makes me smile.
I reread it when I need a reminder that I’m capable of painting a scene and establishing a voice in just a few sentences—I don’t need pages or paragraphs. It’s a tight piece, by my typically digressive standards. And it has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with a bit of an emotional punch and universal insight at the end, while staying entirely in scene. I struggle mightily with that, and it doesn't always work; this time, I think it does.
More than anything, I think the humor works really well. The jokes keep coming and coming, and they’re not superfluous—they build on each other and move the story along and fit cleanly with the voice. I find it very hard to be efficient and funny, but in this case, again, it works.
I’m also proud of this because I took some risks with the structure and voice. I initially wrote this as a standard first-person, past-tense essay, but it sucked. It was just another first-person, past-tense essay set on the road. There are a million of those, and they can be great (and, hey, that's type of story I write most often even now) ... but I wanted to try something different. I'd never written in second person before, or done a story built around a list. I'm not sure it works completely, but I'm glad I experimented; it's helped me get a little bit weird, in a good way, in other stories.
* * *
... Right, who's next?