Writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer, for me anyway, is pretty much everywhere. Here is the inspiration for my recent Flash piece, Satan at the Poetry Slam. To read my other story-behind-the-story pieces click here.
Satan at the Poetry Slam was a really fun piece to write. But it didn’t start out that way. The very first bit came from an idea to use Critical Mass as a title. You know I love wordplay and it struck me one day that the term “critical mass” could be applied to a religious service that has some bearing on Armageddon. It might still have a more scientific sense of the amount or level needed for a specific result or new action to occur. I envisioned it as some sort of apocalyptic showdown between the forces of good and evil. I considered the possibility that it might come down to a mere numbers game involving social media: who has more followers, God or Satan? So I jotted a few notes into a draft and let that simmer.
I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point I considered the question of whether such a conflict is necessarily between good and evil. What if Satan really believes he is doing what is right and good? He and God obviously have different opinions about what that is. And maybe God had a better PR campaign. Much like Prometheus in Greek mythology who gave fire to people and then was eternally punished, Satan as the serpent brought us knowledge and became an outcast. Satan was labeled as evil not so much because he was wrong, but because he defied God. There was going to be more wordplay on God/good versus Devil/evil. [Now that I think of it, this may have been triggered in part because we are in a Presidential election year in the U.S. Every candidate has to be right and therefore every other candidate must be wrong. I hate politics.]
I jotted some more notes, including a Taoist principle that went something like, “When you call something beautiful, you create ugliness.” Taoism, as you may know, includes a dualistic philosophy represented by the Yin-Yang symbol. [By the way, I know I am greatly simplifying the underlying myths, philosophies, and religions. I'm just trying to give the essence of what these stories might have been like.] I considered this a separate project from the Critical Mass piece.
So I had those two story ideas in my drafts folder and neither one was really going anywhere. I had a better chance of writing the second one and was playing with it when I realized that National Poetry Month was coming around again. I toyed [very briefly] with the idea of turning that story two into an epic poem. The remnants of that approach are in the poem that Satan performs at the coffee house. [And, as I point out in the piece, it sucked.] But while working on that I imagined Satan performing it and the title with the new concept popped into my head. [I do so love that title.]
Suddenly, the piece was much simpler and lighter. I could explore the Satan character as a misunderstood, former angel without the epic battles and heavy-handed philosophy. And when I imagined it as more of a conversation the whole thing flowed fairly easily. In fact, from that point on the biggest difficulty I had was keeping it under 1000 words. And I had fun with it. I put the two characters into a situation and let them go; I took notes on what they said. If something didn’t make sense or was running too long I would point out the problem and have them run through it again. At times I felt like I was watching an improv performance. And because it kept running long I wonder if there might be a short story in here rather than a flash piece? Maybe, someday.
There were bits I wanted to recycle from the two scrapped stories: the Critical Mass title which started the whole thing [So you see, I just had to use the title in the piece I did write!], the lines of poetry which almost got axed [assuming it would be enough to say Satan's poem was bad without having to explicitly include part of it], and the quote from The Usual Suspects which I shoehorned in and then cut and then found a way to put back in. I had a couple bible verses from Genesis about the serpent tempting Eve and his punishment which just didn’t fit the new piece at all. There were other bits that could only come after I changed the concept: the “snowball’s chance in home” line for example which literally morphed as I was typing it. And there were bits that I tried on for size and found they didn’t fit: I was really tempted to have Satan’s parting sentence be, “I’m really sorry about your [family member],” and then he turned and walked away. I couldn’t decide whether the family member should be a parent, sibling, spouse, or child — any of them would have a shocking, creepy effect, especially if that person isn’t dead yet. Of course, I opted for the kinder, gentler ending that I think fits the tone of the piece better.
Pieces like this where the characters seem to take on a life of their own can be the most fun to write. Do your characters sometimes surprise you with something they say? Do they change the direction of a story from where you thought it was going? What stories are the most fun for you to write?
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