During the first year of the pandemic, my wife and I assembled 1,000-piece puzzles, grew squash, and nursed tomatoes. We fixated on the latest Covid information and spoke to neighbors across driveways. I was privileged to work from home and tried not to complain but sometimes did. What I did not do that year was focus much on the collection of linked stories I’d written and sent to several agents the year before. The idea that the manuscript could go on to win a prize was as alien to me as a black hole.
I had tried to sell my collection as a novel told in stories because that’s what I thought it was. Agents indirectly told me otherwise. Some made lovely comments about the writing but expressed confusion about the pacing or character throughlines. As 2020 arrived, I accepted I’d written a linked short story collection and not a novel told in stories. True, the collection contained an arc of sorts, but it did not pulse with the continuous progression of many novels.
The earliest stories from the manuscript had begun in the before times, in a creative writing course that was part of the MFA program I’d begun at forty-three. After finishing the program in 2010, I put the stories aside for about three years. When I returned to them, I spent two years drafting and choosing the ones that would comprise the book and another two years revising them.
During those years of drafting and revising, I realized one advantage to writing connected stories was that they invited me to imagine characters’ lives beyond single narratives. I could peer across the landscapes of their lives and choose the stories to tell. The spaces between stories called to me as well. I envisioned those spaces filtering unspoken language and making room for readers’ imaginations, too.
But as the first year of the pandemic wore on, I made the painstaking decision to let the collection sit and focus my attention elsewhere. I found solace in a novel and returned to the collection only sporadically, sometimes to revise a story or a scene. At the behest of my wife and friends, I sent the manuscript to a smattering of contests.
Honestly, it felt both good and difficult to work on another project. Not because of my decision to let the collection sit but because of the pandemic, racial inequities and political turmoil swirling around me. Sometimes I cried and consoled friends. Sometimes I ate and picked tomatoes. But more often than not, I wrote, mostly from a belief that writing and art mattered, that writing and art could heal.
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One major change I did make to the collection in 2020 was to re-order it. A group of writing friends I’d met at Community of Writers suggested playing around with the arrangement, and I took their advice. I mention these friends because writers I’ve met along the way have been a critical part of my growth and sanity. And I hope I’ve been a part of theirs as well.
In early 2021, I asked a trusted reader to take a look at the manuscript in its new order. A few months later, she returned it with a handful of copy edits and one major suggestion. Change the title. Upwardly Mobile and Other Stories—the collection is set in Mobile, Alabama—felt incongruent to her. Although the collection deals with themes related to class, her suggestion immediately resonated. I changed the title to one found in the collection, a title whose irony seemed to fit not only the book but the state of the world around me: It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories.
Shortly afterward, I submitted the manuscript to the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. What I should say is that I almost didn’t submit. I’d read two previous winners’ collections, including one by Caroline Kim, whom I met at the Community of Writers the year I attended. Although the contest had no submission fee and I met the eligibility requirements, I hesitated to enter.
The truth is, I was afraid of more rejection, afraid of sending my work into the abyss, afraid the work might not be up to par, afraid I might not be up to par. I was afraid I was too old, too queer, and too thick around the waist to be read seriously.
Another voice reminded me that my body, though imperfect, had carried me through numerous hard times and past many obstacles. I thankfully listened to the second voice and submitted to the contest in June 2021. Mind you, except for my wife, I didn’t tell another soul about my submission, but submissions are like that sometimes, quiet audacious acts.
Months later, when the publisher of the Drue Heinz prize phoned me, I didn’t answer. Robo call, I thought. They emailed instead, and when I learned my collection had been chosen by the contest judge, Elizabeth Graver, I was utterly shocked, beyond thrilled, and certain I was being punked. But there it was, a surprise like driving out into West Texas after dark and seeing the magnificent Milky Way, unencumbered by artificial light.
Life and writing have taught me that everything can change in a moment. Yet the spaces between those moments can feel like the most stuck places on the planet. I’d felt stuck for years but kept writing. And I’ll probably feel stuck again in some place or space, some between part of life, but to me, that’s narrative structure in real-time.
Sometimes I wonder if we tell stories to remind us not only of where we’ve been and might go but also to remind us about the moments lurking beyond our imaginations. Like the story I now tell that once seemed beyond mine, how in my fifties and married to a woman and too fond of sweets, I won a contest that published my debut work of fiction.
This essay first appeared in OG Quarterly (Omnium Gatherum Quarterly) Issue No. 10 (August 2022) as “Finding the Milky Way.”
Ramona Reeves’ interlinked story collection, It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories (University of Pittsburgh Press), won the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and is set in Mobile, Alabama, where she grew up. She has been awarded an AROHO fellowship, a residency at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, a scholarship from Community of Writers, and the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize. She also has served as an associate fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Southampton Review, Bayou Magazine, Pembroke, Superstition Review, Texas Highways and others.
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