I have been pleased and very surprised by the popularity of my story "Shiloh." I could not have imagined when I wrote it that it would be widely anthologized and that students would be discussing it in class. I did not think that far ahead. I couldn't, if I expected to keep my attention on what was unfolding in the story.
In trying to recall how this story came about, I can share with you something of the writing process. As students, you read a finished work, and you try to read it as fully as possible. But from the writer's point of view, during the writing itself, that finished work is far from realized. The writer can only start with a blank page and a sense of wonder. The writer can't guarantee that the story she writes will match the one in her mind. Fiction has a way of happening when you are making other plans.
When I began this story, I had been thinking about two minor characters in another story, a pair named C. W. and Betty. I wondered if I could get closer to C. W and Betty by writing a story about them. I changed their names to Leroy and Norma Jean. I did not know what to expect. I kept thinking about something I had overheard someone say to a coworker, "It's amazing that I have strong feet, coming from two parents that never had strong feet at all."
These were the two inspirations for my story. These two bits did not seem to be anything to build a story on. But I like to start with something that strikes my fancy and then see where it goes. Almost immediately, I wrote the first sentence, "Leroy Moffitt's wife, Norma Jean, is working on her pectorals." Now where was this going? I let that scene go on for a bit, to see if anything interesting would happen. Then I wondered, who are they?
It came to me: Leroy is a truck driver.
I invented this. I made it up. It felt scary, as if I were going to start driving a truck myself. What did I know about driving a truck? Nothing. I wondered what I could do with these characters if I didn't know anything about Leroy's occupation. Should I go out and do research? It occurred to me that maybe he had an accident and was homebound now. Now I was off the hook, and I had found a new direction for the story. The story is not about driving a truck, it's about what happens when Leroy comes home from the road. I started to sense that this story was about a marriage. I kept going, begging my imagination to carry me through. I wondered how Norma Jean spent her time. The Rexall drugstore came to mind, because I had worked in a Rexall at the soda fountain when I was in high school. I wondered what happened to Leroy and Norma Jean in high school. I thought of the baby. The loss of their child, years ago, had defined their marriage. This surprised me. It set the tone for what was to follow. Now that Leroy is home again, they are thrown together again, as if they were starting over. Now the changes around them will appear in sharp focus, and they will have to deal with how they have changed inside.
And so I kept on in this way, taking wrong turns at times, and meandering for long stretches that had to be cut out because they added little interest, direction, or depth to the story. Then a third main character, Norma Jean's mother, whose personality casts a light on the whole story, entered the scene. Mabel is a strong force in Norma Jean's life, especially with Leroy away from home so much. The characters are talking along, when all of a sudden, Mabel suggests that Leroy take Norma Jean to Shiloh. I had not planned this. I thought of it at the same moment Mabel said it. It was as though she— an imaginary character—had said it rather than that I had written it The word "Shiloh" came sailing into my mind, out of a memory long ago of class field trips to the Shiloh battleground. I never went on one of the trips, but there was so much talk of them that the word "Shiloh" had a mystique about it. And it seemed appropriate at this point.
Now the story had a focus and a direction. This trip to Shiloh was...
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