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October 01, 2009

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, but no fiction, so I set out with that express purpose. In particular I was inspired by a small town in Ohio, where overnight several dozen men and women had died in an ambush. I grew up in a rural community and I couldn't imagine the cavity that kind of loss would leave behind. And there was my story: the battleground at home: a town without fathers.

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 transcend Iraq. Into "Refresh, Refresh" I unloaded all of my treasured images and metaphors and snippets of dialogue. Bet the farm. And afterwards I, too, laid on the couch for two weeks and wondered if that was all I had, if I would ever write again.

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 vets, mothers and wives and daughters of soldiers alive and dead. From students. From teachers. From journalists. From housewives and truckers and ranchers and insurance salesman and even one stripper. Some praise it. Some criticize it. Some criticize me, calling me alternatively a liberal pantywaist and a conservative nutjob. The range of emotions pleases me, because I know I've touched a nerve that belongs to all of us -- I know I succeeded in writing about more than the war. Sometimes I wonder how I did it. And then I remember that feeling -- that whitewater rush of emotion that came at the keyboard, when I decided to hold nothing back and lay it all out there, to tell the best story I could possibly tell -- and it's maybe one of the most important moments I've had as a writer, not simply because I wrote this particular story, but because I bullied my way into a different place artistically.

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. 


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Benjamin- Add me to the list of those moved by your story (via Danica's graphic novel). Great advice about not holding back -- applies to so many things in life we sometimes ration as if they are limited quantities, but in fact the more we tap, the more we have.

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