There was a time where I wasn’t writing anything, and it was a nightmare.
I had written a 100K manuscript, ran it through critique groups, edited it heavily, and bled about three years into this inflated opus. Surprise, surprise, not a single agent was interested in it. I was crushed.
I had just said goodbye to a hundred thousand words, a hundred thousand hours, I would never get back. So that’s why I wasn’t writing. I started reading instead. And since, yes, I do worship at the altar of Plath in times of trouble, I picked up her collection of short stories, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. My goal was to read each story, one at a time, and reread that same story until I wrote something.
And that’s how “Lisa Sees the Buffalo” happened. Granted, there were some messy abortions before I reached the particular story that spawned it. “The Wishing Box,” is about Agnes, who is jealous of her husband; he has vivid and magical dreams. Her dreams are nothing special, not since she was child and dreamed of a fantastic wishing box. In order to jump-start her own imagination and experience the wonder of dreams again, Agnes reads: magazines, novels, circulars, travel brochures, “anything from facing the gaping void in her own head.” She goes to the movies. She starts drinking sherry. All in an effort to escape that ‘vacancy’ of everyday life. Nothing works.
Needless to say, it struck a chord.
In classic Plath fashion, Agnes eventually seeks fulfillment in death, with a “secret smile of triumph” on her lips at finally having escaped the mundanity of life. I feel in love with the feel of the story, but am strongly opposed to suicide. I had read that particular story every day for two weeks, puzzling over my polarization. I strongly identified with the main character, but not her ultimate decision. I botched a few stabs at writing a short story, and inevitably, went to sleep.
Good thing I have dreams. About buffalos and missing twins and Twilight Zone house-parties.
The next day, I lied about where I was going, sat down at the local Panera, and didn’t get up until 2,000 words were solid on the page. The more I thought about Plath’s story, I realized it was about living inside that box—doing the same things, the same way, every day, without that ever-powerful element of the unreal—that was the monstrous thing.
In my opinion, “Lisa Sees the Buffalo” is one of the few short stories I’ve written with what can be called a happy ending. I feel it also retains the ambiguity of “The Wishing Box,” wherein the main character essentially get what she wants. At a price.
My Johnny Panic experiment has taken me pretty far, about three quarters of the way through the book. Eight stories I consider strong successes, with “Lisa Sees the Buffalo” being the last of them. It’s a good place to take a break—until I need to escape, into dreams, once more.
Samantha Pilecki’s short stories have been published in El Portal, Five 2 One, A Prick of the Spindle, Ricky’s Backyard, Typehouse, and other literary magazines. More of her work is forthcoming from New Lit Salon. She is the winner of Haunted Waters Press 2017 Short Shorts Flash Fiction Competition and works as a librarian.
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Photo Credit (c) “Child’s Magic Box” by Seshat22