December 20, 2015

Victory Tastes Like Butter


It’s been a quiet few months here at the blog. Most of my writing efforts since the end of August have focused on the first-ever championship tournament at TheWriter’s Arena. For those of you who don’t know, The Writer’s Arena is a weekly one-on-one writing competition in the spirit, say, of Iron Chef.

I’m usually involved in the Arena as a judge, though I have competed twice before. In round 3, I lost to Arena regular Albert Berg. In round 34, I lost to JosephDevon.

So I was extremely flattered when I was asked to compete in the championship tournament, one of four outside writers against the four Arena regulars. I accepted without hesitation, thinking that, win or lose, it would be a fun time. But, in the back of my head at any rate, I did go into the competition with a great deal of writerly insecurity. I serve as an Arena judge, but I’m not a famous author. I don’t have a novel to my name. I hadn’t even won a round against one of the Arena writers.

What right did I have to sit in judgment on other storytellers?

The second week of the championship again paired me against Albert Berg. Not only had I lost to Al before, I also consider Al to be probably the best all-around writer in the Arena. It’s a delight to see how he rises to every challenge, varying his writing style to suit the story. He’s good.

The semifinals paired me against Joseph Devon. Joseph is, to my best knowledge, the most published of the Arena regulars. His comments on my second-round story floored me. I knew I was taking a risk with “Snapshots,” but I had to submit that story. It split the judges, and I narrowly won thanks to the audience vote.

“Snapshots” put me in the final round of the tournament, pairing me against David Webb. Dave and I have gotten to know each other over the last year thanks to The Writer’s Arena, the Human Echoes Podcast, and several insane Twitter conversations. A very weird experience finding myself matched against a friend.

There’s not a lot one can do to prepare for the Arena, so I just tried to keep myself as open as possible for anything. But no matter how open my mind was, there was no expecting the diabolical specificity of the final prompt.

I think I spent the first couple of days in a fugue. How does one write a story about butter? How does one make butter the star? “Snapshots” had been praised as a story about the prompt using the prompt itself as a narrative technique. But I figured that there was no way on earth I could write a “buttery” story. (More on this later...)

To use a culinary metaphor, I soon decided to write a story I categorized in my mind as “Butter Three Ways.” The idea of a horror story involving butter as a survival food in arctic conditions came first. Knowing of the importance of ghee (clarified butter) in Hindu rituals, my next thought was to have a fantasy section set in India. The third strain was to have been a science fiction story with a female lead, and perhaps cooking a buttery treat such as butter tarts or chocolate croissants. I even had the idea of giving Dussala two children, with the protagonists of the other two narrative strains being reincarnations of these children.

The more involved my research became, the more I realized that I had way too many balls in the air. (Or dishes on the stove, I suppose.) The science-fictional thread was the most nebulous in my mind, so I dropped it.

This set up a narrative strategy that, as David Webb so perceptively saw, is very yin and yang. There is a depiction of male versus female energies. The two storylines contrast a rationalistic view of the universe with a faith-based worldview. The Antarctic part of the tale might be considered a descent into Lovecraftian despair. (I had less The Thing in mind than Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.) I mean Dussala’s story to be a magic-realist depiction of the birth of hope. The title of the story is meant to evoke this dichotomy: the mystery story of what happened to the butter versus the invocation of Krishna, one of whose tradition titles is The Butter Thief.

While I wanted the connections between the two stories to have been subtle, I wanted them to be there—like the drop of black or white in the opposite color in the traditional yin-yang symbol. Sometimes, to paraphrase my wife, I’m too ass-oteric for my own good. Maybe if I had had another week, I would have been able to draw out the connections better.

Knowing myself as I do, I probably would have just procrastinated for that extra week.

Anyway, here are the points of connection between the two storylines as I see them: I deliberately chose names that began with D for both protagonists. I envision the world of Dussala’s story to be the direct result of the events that happened in Drake’s world—thus Dussala’s story is set in Drake’s future. The biggest point of connection was meant to be Drake’s dream. I meant for the dream to suggest how Dussala’s world came to be. The soldier that chases him is meant to be the same guard that Dussala kills.

I think that the fun I had writing the story does come through, but yeah. “TheButter Thief” is ass-oteric. When I read Dave’s story, I knew I was in trouble. I was completely drawn into the taught mystery that he wrote. I admire the aplomb with which he pulled it off. While I liked my story slightly better (an opinion I shared with only two other readers), I understand why twenty-one people voted for his over mine. I spent most of the week after the stories went live steeling myself to be gracious in defeat. If I had to lose, how awesome to lose to a friend.

Except my story edged out Dave’s in the opinions of the two judges. I won.

I’m still in shock over the verdict. I did not expect things to turn out that way at all. Thank you again, not only to the judges, Rich Alix and Thomas Mays, but also to Dave for being such a great competitor. A big thank you to everyone who read all of the stories throughout the tournament (all fourteen of them!), and especially to everyone who took the time to comment.

I especially want to single out Arena creators and regulars Albert Berg, DannyBrophy, Joseph Devon, and Tony Southcotte. I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to be part of this experiment celebrating the short story since almost the beginning. It’s been a crazy ride, and I’ve loved every moment—even on days when I’ve gotten my judgment in late.

Thank you all. Here’s to many more years celebrating creativity under pressure!

Oh, and the night I turned in my story, the following thought occurred to me. Without consciously intending it. I had in fact written my butter story in a buttery way. Butter is an emulsion, and one might consider Drake and Dussala’s stories to be similarly united without being compounded.