I first started writing short stories my sophomore year in college, when I signed up for a fiction writing workshop for reasons I can’t even remember now. I had written a few things before—anecdotes, vignettes, not-actually-poetry poems, a sentimental essay about my kindergarten classroom that my high school English teacher enthused about enough to title “In Memoriam” (!) and publish in our school literary journal—but nothing I’d wish to show anyone, really. I kept these writings in a blue file folder, and placed the folder inside a cardboard box. Occasionally I would forget about the folder until I opened the box for whatever reason and there the folder would be, with its thin sheaf of whatever inside. Then I’d close the box, forget about the folder, and repeat the whole process a few months later.
For my first workshop I turned in a story about a teenage girl who works at a summer camp, where her younger brother also works, attracting the attention of a strange girl who follows the brother around everywhere. That was it. Page after page of the strange girl following the brother around until, I think, the strange girl got expelled from camp. The end. It wasn’t a very good story, but I sort of liked it anyway. I’d enjoyed trying to think of what might happen next. It was fun allowing the strange girl to do strange things (at one point, she destroys a camp play—that felt good, letting her demolish the set), and I liked writing the last scene, where the narrator looks back on that summer and recalls a conversation with her brother, one she still can’t quite understand. I liked leaving her there, not able to figure everything out, the last line yielding to the white space of the blank page.
The story didn’t go over very well in workshop. Why did we have to follow the brother around for so long? Why did the counselors let the strange girl ruin the play? That would never happen. Why was any of this even happening in the first place? Was it plausible? What was the conflict?
I realized I hadn’t really thought about these things when I was writing the story. Instead, I was just trying to get to the next page. But, as much as I’d feared criticism, I was surprised to discover I actually liked hearing back from readers, especially the ones who found something to admire, no matter how small. A whole new idea of writing revealed itself to me: on the other side of the story I had written, there was a reader wanting to read and enjoy it, perhaps, someone I would never know, but whose presence I could rely upon from now on. I could try to entertain that reader, or make them cry. Something I’d never considered when I’d placed my first writings in the blue folder and sealed the folder within a box. A story should go out to the reader, and every sentence could be written with a reader in mind.
I still write today, trying to capture that feeling, I suppose, when I first understood writing as something larger than personal expression, and aimed my sentences toward a reader. I haven’t hidden anything in a folder since.