One of my short stories, “Backyard Dogs,” was published in Atticus Review this February. Below I discuss the process of writing, rewriting, and finally publishing this story.
I first wrote “Backyard Dogs” the year before I started my MFA writing program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Originally, the story was about a pack of rabid dogs that mysteriously appeared in a brother and sister’s backyard. I liked the story and, as a result, took it to workshop in my very first semester of graduate school. After one slightly eccentric classmate read her letter of praise out loud, the rest of the class proceeded to tear the story apart. It was sentimental, they said. The writing was imprecise. It was not, in short, up to par.
Feeling discouraged, I scrapped the story and decided to develop a new writing process. From that point on, I began experimenting with a style that was tight and carefully constructed. Coming from a journalism background, I had always written in a short, concise manner, but after writing fiction for the past few years, my prose had become sloppy. I worked on honing the skills I already had in order to create a more solid draft.
A few workshops later, I turned in the second version of “Backyard Dogs.” I had rewritten the entire piece. I am not sure the initial draft was a failing one, but that first workshop encouraged me to write something new. The second draft was about a young girl who was allergic to almost everything. Somehow, despite (or perhaps because of) her misfortune, the character is ultimately able to connect with a homeless man who sleeps in her backyard.
Although this draft was not at all like the first, perhaps a few elements remained. I had eliminated the dogs entirely, yet I kept the title from the first draft. Perhaps the tone, too—the sense of isolation and poverty—also transferred over to the second story. This draft, like the first, had a clear sense of space. When I imagined the girl’s backyard, I had a strong picture in my mind of what it looked like.
Like many of the characters I have created, the girl in “Backyard Dogs” is a fusion of people I have met over the years. For example, I once taught a girl who was allergic to nearly everything, including the sun. She couldn’t take pottery classes. She had to work in a particular room in the building and often ate lunch alone. One day, I watched this girl during a fire drill. She was standing in the shadow, her head and entire body wrapped in a special, hypoallergenic cloth. The girl in “Backyard Dogs” has a different personality, yet I was able to use this real-life student as inspiration for this character.
After a few more drafts, “Backyard Dogs” was beginning to take its final form. I ultimately included it in my MFA thesis. It was perhaps the most experimental of the stories I had written during my three-year program. It was also one of the most pressing ones.
This year, it was finally accepted and published in Atticus Review’s “Trespassing Issue.” It took several years and many drafts, but I am now very proud of this work and feel fortunate to have seen it develop over time. I share this story in order to demonstrate the long, often indirect route to publication. Sometimes it takes several years for a story to mature, and that is okay. The first draft of “Backyard Dogs” was not at all like the final one, but without this first draft, I would not have arrived at the short story available today.
You can read “Backyard Dogs” via the link below: