On Betting the Farm
[a piece about writing from Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh]
I used to be stingy with my ideas. From my creative bank--my folders full of articles clipped from magazines, my notebooks busy with images and overheard conversations, my electronic files clotted with first lines and characters and metaphors that needed a home--I would withdraw one thing, maybe two things, when beginning a story. I was like some coupon-clipping grandma who eats dinner at 4:30 for the senior discount and refuses to leave a tip even though she's got stacks of money in the bank.
And then I overheard a writer I respect very much -- Tony Earley -- say that when he wrote a story I respect very much -- "The Prophet from Jupiter" -- he put everything he had into it. Every last thing. All his energy, all his best tricks, all that had been lying in store. And after finishing the story he felt completely tapped. For two weeks he laid on the couch and wondered if he would ever write again. Of course the well filled back up, but the point is, he was willing to throw himself fully into his work, to write with complete abandon. The result is one of the greatest short stories of the past twenty years.
I didn't have the courage to pull a Tony Earley -- to go the
distance, to put everything I had on the table and risk failure
-- until a few years later when I wrote "Refresh, Refresh." This
was late 2005, and though I was writing and publishing stories with regularity,
I didn't feel like I was challenging myself. I was hungry for a big fight. I
found it in the war. I had read so many articles about Iraq
Keeping this concept in my crosshairs--boys without
daddies--helped me write a story that was political without being polemical.
The war is a character in the story, yeah, but the emotional circumstances
I remember when my agent, Katherine Fausset, called to
say The Paris Review had accepted the story. "This is a
game-changer," she said. And she was right. It opened a lot of doors. It
got in a lot of anthologies and won a lot of awards I'm still shaking
my head over, wondering how a dumbass like me got so lucky. But more
importantly, it moved a lot of people. I still receive, on average, three emails
a week about the story. From ROTC cadets, Vietnam
It's so rewarding to see "Refresh, Refresh" take on a new life through the screenplay adaptation by James Ponsoldt and now the graphic novel by Danica Novgorodoff. They've been infected, I think, by a similar energy in making the story their own -- and I'm hopeful that this will carry over into new audiences who will be as impressed as I am by the power of Danica's vision and artwork.