Like all good and not-so-good works of literary fiction, I wrote “To Light a Cigarette” on a whim and a prayer. Though I’ve long given up praying (or smoking for that matter), I still hold tightly to whim. It’s how I make sense of mine (and yours—mostly yours, come to think of it) existence on this fine but short term on earth. So when the call went out for submissions to Matchbook Story, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t take my contribution very seriously. I merely wanted the editor, Mr. Kyle Petersen, to know that I’d clicked on his website. A hello of sorts and a simple validation of his project rolled into one friendly little story. I’d heard nothing of this project before. In fact, brilliant and obvious as the idea of printing a lit journal on a matchbook is, I thought he was just passing on a link despite the fact that I’d known the editor to possess routine brilliance over fireside chats and his own work.
As I may have mentioned nervously at the Poet & Patriot reading, I’m a bona fide gas bag. I like to write long, stretch-and-pull thick paragraphs onto the page at my own peril. My favorite, albeit rare, words out of an editor’s mouth are, “take as many words as needed to get the story told.” Short form fiction, flash fiction, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t really appeal to me. Too many years spent writing music and events page blurbs for the Good Times and Metro Santa Cruz make short shorts seem a bit sexy. Since a lot of people seem to think writing is a craft, I might as well go out on a limb and use a metaphor: I have far more patience for making rough-hewn tables than cute little jewelry boxes, but not enough patience for a whole house. Journalism and long-form non-fiction seems to fit my wandering head and feet.
So I banged out a 300-word story about two fellows on a backpacking trip who lose a lighter while suffering in the throes of a nicotine fit. Sort of an updated version of London’s “To Light a Fire” without the wolves, dogsleds, or the Yukon. I set the story somewhere in the backcountry of the High Sierra near my hometown of Bishop.
But to my dismay, I realized I’d not read the instructions carefully enough. I felt like I was putting together a cheap piece of Ikea furniture where you get to the end missing some Swedish screws and Nordic do-dads. Oh, 300 characters. Bastards. Even 200 words into it I’d begun to wonder what kind of matches Mr. Petersen intended on using. Those long fireplace matches for the pyrophobic? I also knew the editor as a cheap but generous man; wooden matches and a big box wouldn’t fit his budget-minded literary project.
So, with a chopping axe worthy of my amateur woodsmen characters, I cut the story down to size, liberating adjectives, nouns, and verbs from captivity in one fell swooping thud and… submitted it.
When Mr. Petersen informed me a few weeks later that my submission was being considered for publication, my first thought was pity. I figured he’d gotten two or three submissions total, one of which must have been about vampires, the other a sci-fi tale concerning mutating viruses—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Mine wasn’t better, it just fit the theme of a matchbook with its underhanded critique of modern technology—the lost and wet lighter. Petersen, after all, is a manual typewriter man; plop him down somewhere between 1949 and 1962, and he wouldn’t know he’d gone back in time. Admittedly, I was playing to the editor’s aesthetics (and mine, too, since we probably share a commonality in that department minus the typers). But, again, I was only to sending off a simple missive to demonstrate that I care.
That’s the back story on the story, all of which is a bit absurd given this amount of words to write about a story that has so few. But the editor wanted me to respond, in part, to his thoughtful, dare I say, elongated, analysis. He was thoroughly schooled in the mid-nineties lit crit craze of signs & signifiers, and he knows his way around a deconstruction site. And unlike any lit journal I’ve ever heard of, he’s actually paying me $25 to write a response to his careful, erudite theory, so I’d better earn my keep.
Mr. Petersen is mostly right on, though I didn’t give the story nearly the same thought as he did. It makes me blush to think he spent so many brain cells on it while pumping his fingers around words like “metafiction” and the like. Let’s just say having your story torn limb from limb then put back together again is a rare reward. It makes the writing life seem worth it for a few days more.
A story containing only 300 characters forces the reader to fill in a lot of narrative gaps. Big, canyon-like holes make the reader a participant in the process, and what isn’t said explicitly in the story (absence vs. presence) becomes more important than what is said. I guess the trick to writing this damn short is to anticipate the reader’s imagination and just nudge them in the right direction with a few precious details and a tad bit of mumbling narrative so they don’t get completely lost. This means, without sounding trite (but still managing to do so anyway), that the miniscule short story is and has to be wholly open to interpretation. For that, Mr. Petersen is well within his lofty bounds.
But I do have one beef to air with his otherwise astute interpretation, and that concerns not whether mine is a story or not, but the narrative itself. Mr. Petersen says he thinks the characters quit smoking. That’s wishful thinking. This would be, in essence, a happy ending given that cigarettes slowly strangle you to death. The very reason the characters try to quit their habit in the wilderness is because they don’t possess enough willpower to do it in the lowlands with handy access to their addiction. And there’s the matter of the last cigarette that is left defiantly and temptingly un-smoked. As any smoker knows, the lack of atonement in the ritualistic last smoke means he can postpone quitting until the conditions are more perfect—or failing that, it provides another excuse to go on smoking another day. You can’t say goodbye to a bad habit until you’re allowed to wave.
Instead, I imagine they hightail it out of the woods. Not only do they buy another pack, but a lighter, too. And as one of them pays the cashier, the other has the foresight and wisdom to say, “Do you think I could get some matches?”
Yes, this is likely what happens. But that’s not much of a story, is it?