Introducing Daniel James Hollis...
...a character that pushed his way into a short story I was writing and refused to let go until I told his story, until I learned a few lessons in creativity from him.
If you happen to have landed here because you wanted to know about the birth of this character, about the pain he has inflicted on me, or because you needed to learn the humbling lessons in creativity he taught me, and is still teaching me, thank you. It probably means I didn’t murder him, before he and his story made it to print.
I would also like to extend an a priori apology for the lack of detail, but I am still in class with Professor Hollis.
A few months ago, I was about to attend short story writing workshop at the QWF. This was on the heels of being published for the very first time. I needed to offer up a short story for critique at the onset of this eight-week workshop and with barely a week to write it, I scrambled for an idea.
Stephen king wrote that he usually started with a situation, a conflict or a question and just wrote from there. If it’s good enough for the King, it’s good enough for me.
I had a bunch of ideas, but worried about which seed to water. Which one would become a proper tree, a wisened oak among dead saplings? I hemmed and hawed. I couldn't know. Impossible. I needed to reframe the question, make it simpler, dumber. Time was running out. What idea did I have that might get me two thousand words and have an interesting arc? I would settle for a beginning, a middle and an end.
I chose. It was an old idea of a man who sat at his kitchen table, while his wife constantly berated him. He stared at this image of them from better times while she yelled and yelled and he dreamed of rewriting their history, of making her pay, preemptively, for his pain. I had always intended this seed to be a piece of horrifying speculative fiction, with some time-travel body snatching elements. I felt I had enough of a direction to get me to the finish line.
I wrote a couple of paragraphs, and it felt wrong. While I am not one to shy away from violence in my writing, it didn’t feel like the way to go. The last story I had written began and ended in violence and I was looking for a change. I removed the violence from this man's heart, but that also meant removing the wife's vitriol. I was left with a man sitting at his table; only sadness remained. The image in his hand became an envelope to buy me some time. I didn’t know what it held. Might still be a photograph.
I started setting up this man’s sad and mundane life through a description of him arriving home to face, or avoid, the envelope on the table.
The clock in the hallway chimed seven. It was dark now. Danny could barely see the table in front of him. He went to the kitchen and turned on the light above the stove. She liked it kept on overnight. He went back to his seat and looked around again. Nothing had changed. Not true. There was something. The envelope. It was propped up on the vase. There was a pink post-it on it, right in the centre with “I can’t. Not anymore. I’m sorry.” written on it in thick black Sharpie.
I spent a long time writing around the table, the dark apartment, the sadness. I spiralled around the envelope, hoping something would come of it, anything. I felt this character’s impatience, his judgment. He was not pleased with me. I stopped typing, looked at the tiny screen on my Freewrite and yelled “fine!” I hammered the keys.
Who are you? What do YOU want to talk about?
I didn't stop typing, but I wasn’t entirely in control. Something had split open. I wrote and wrote. and wrote.
It was clear that he had something to say. I still framed the story around that damned envelope, but now other details began to emerge. His wife had left him. They owned a used bookstore. They used to be bank robbers. Whoah! Where the hell did that come from? And his name was Daniel James Hollis.
I kept going. Paragraphs shifted on the screen. He still sat at the table, but he wanted, needed, someone to talk to. His ghostly brother appeared, then his father, then his son. We, including me, learned of his story through their dialogue. Each apparition bringing Daniel closer and closer to opening the envelope. It was his son's death certificate. It had been sitting there on the table for months. His wife had left, unable to deal with Daniel's psychotic break.
I don't mind spoiling the end here because while I was happy with it --it had, after all, twenty-three hundred words and seemed complete-- because I now know that it isn't the story, not quite.
I submitted it and forgot about it. Two weeks later, it was its turn to be flayed at the workshop table. I sat in silence while my wonderful peers ripped it apart, kneaded its guts and flipped it over looking for a way in, and maybe a way out. They meant well. They did have some nice things to say, but I couldn't really hear them. I took their notes home and forgot about them.
Another few weeks passed. I should at least look at the notes; the line edits they had given me. They were good, brutal, but good. I reread Daniel's story with new eyes. Now up to this point, the story had been titled "The Envelope." It was the whole purpose behind the story. I understood now that it had to go. I retitled it "Family Business" on someone’s recommendation, made some line edits and put it down for a while.
The comments had unlocked something in the story. It wasn't the right story. I now saw that I had to get rid of everything that I had written prior to Daniel’s emergence. I had to kill everything the very idea that had started this little journey. I did.
Daniel remains on my mind, even as I write this. His true story pushes its way out of me. He is still pissed, but patient with me, and that gives me hope.
Once I finish this post, I am going right back to see Daniel and let him tell me his story. I am finally ready to listen.
Thanks for reading Scott Anthony! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.