How I Wrote ‘Above Tree Line’ – Melissa Fu

I drafted ‘Above Tree Line’ in the first class I took when I decided to start writing more seriously. At the beginning of the course the instructor asked us, ‘What do you need to write about?’ I need to write about that night on Santa Fe Baldy with Bob. This story signalled a change away from clever writing that skated along surfaces to something that felt a little vulnerable, a tiny bit dangerous. I wanted to make the allegiances complicated, with no obvious heroes, morals or meanings. There were no gold stars to be earned in writing this story but I wanted to write it anyway.

It was a story I needed to grow into. I wrote at least six different versions with countless tweaks along the way. Determined to get the story on the page closer to the one in my head, I tried out every ‘how to improve your story’ technique I could find. Interviewed the main characters to create back story? Yes. Changed tenses? Yes. Jumped from fiction to non-fiction and back? Yes. Experimented with different POV’s? Yes. Chopped off the beginning and the ending? Several times. Omitted needless words? Thousands of ‘em. Killed my darlings? Oh most murderously.

Each iteration got a bit closer to what the story could be. Every time I sent it out, it was the best I could write at that point. Every time it came back with a ‘no thank you’ pinned to its coat, I had grown enough as a writer that I could see (and cringe) at its flaws and had ideas on what to do next to improve it.

Along with its many rejections, it has earned some of the nicest encouragements I’ve had for my writing. A very early version was commended in the Words and Women inaugural competition. It meant the world to me that someone saw something of value in it. A more recent version (but still not the one in The Lonely Crowd) got a personal rejection from the editor of a journal I really love with a note to keep writing.  My first public reading was an excerpt from this piece.

At one point, I cut the story down to meet a stringent competition word count. It was a little like squeezing into a pair of jeans from when I was seventeen. The story was sucking in its breath so much it couldn’t tell itself. When it came back, I went through it once again and let it breathe. Wherever I remembered feeling resentful for having to cut something out, I slowed down and allowed it to say what it wanted.  I recalled some advice from a writer friend: a story will be the length it wants to be, it doesn’t care about word counts. I began to understand what she had meant.

‘Why don’t you sit down and rewrite the whole thing from memory?’ Another friend recommended when I moaned that I didn’t know what to do with my Bob story and it wouldn’t leave me alone. ‘Don’t look at the original, write as fast as you can, and see what rises to the surface.’ Ready to try anything, I opened my notebook and started over.

Eventually, I combined the two versions – the one I had tinkered and fussed with and the one I rewrote without stopping or looking. The story in its present form began to emerge. The writing was approaching its own shape, not the one I thought it was supposed to have. It felt like I was finally telling the story I had been carrying in my head and heart for so long.

In the meantime, a writer I admired (now a dear friend) shared that she had had a story published in The Lonely Crowd. I hadn’t heard of the journal at the time, but got my hands on a copy. After reading it cover to cover, I knew I’d love to have a story in there someday. ‘Above Tree Line’ seemed like it might be a good match but I had just missed a deadline and the story was still in pieces. Time and words passed. When submissions opened this summer, I sent it in and was absolutely thrilled to have it accepted. I am so pleased this story has found a home among The Lonely Crowd. I really can’t think of a happier ending to the story of the story that taught me so much.

You can read ‘Above Tree Line’ in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd which may be purchased here.

Melissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and currently lives in Cambridgeshire, UK. Her work has appeared in Words and Women, Bare Fiction, Envoi, and The Nottingham Review. Her piece ‘Suite for My Father’ was the regional winner of the Words and Women 2016 Prose Competition. She is delighted to be a 2017 Apprentice with the London-based Word Factory. 

© Melissa Fu, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.