Writing breakup stories is hard. They might be easy stories to tell a friend but writing them, putting them down on the page in a compelling way, is always difficult. Why? Because everyone has a breakup story. Everybody has been dumped, everybody has dumped somebody else. Just about everyone has left someone for another, or been left for another. It's familiar. It's common. It's fucking ordinary. Your pain is your pain and it is always profound, but for a reader to care, the way you tell the story must be extraordinary.
There are several reasons why Felicity Fenton's breakup story grabbed me enough to make me want to immediately read it again.
The dress: The story starts with a dress. We meet the dress before we meet the narrator, in fact we meet her with the dress as intermediary, the dress as device to explain how men treat her. The dress is there at the beginning. It's there as she goes to get waxed before meeting the man who may or may not be her new boyfriend. It's there at the end when he takes it off her.
We get the whole complicated story, a span of three weeks captured in less than a thousand words, bookended by the opening “You can see through my dress” to the closing “He pulls off the dress, tugs my underwear down.”
The timeline: Most of the story happens on a single day, a day the narrator goes to get waxed then drives north to New Hampshire to see the man who is (might be?) her new boyfriend, who she is uncertain about, who in any case is the man she left her boyfriend for.
But we get the rest of the story out of chronological order, in passages that function as flashbacks but don't feel like flashbacks. “Just two weeks ago, I slept in a bed with my boyfriend.” The old boyfriend. “Just three weeks ago I turned over as the rain drowned us inside his cabin.” The new man. These feel more like the thoughts you have when you go through a tumultuous time in your life, when all of the old things are overturned and wrecked, and all of the new things are strange and frightening and thrilling. The repeated refrain “just two weeks ago,” “just three weeks ago,” as if she can't believe it's been only three weeks since her life was normal. She can't believe it's been only two weeks since she left her boyfriend.
The language: Felicity's voice. It's terse, direct. Frenetic in the way that the narrator's life seems to be going. It's a case study in how to show-don't-tell, not just because it's effective storytelling, but because it seems like the narrator is almost afraid to give voice directly to her feelings, that it's emotionally safer to just describe how it was and what happened, and let the reader fill in the excitement and sadness and confusion themselves.
It's surprisingly hard to write these blog posts about why I chose a piece. So much is based on feel, so much is based on an initial response of “fuck yes!” when I run across one in the submissions queue. But I've reread “To and From” more than a dozen times while writing this, and every time I reread it I find something else, some other bit of writer craft that delights me. This story wasn't just blorped out onto the page and then edited a little. It was crafted, carefully, painstakingly. Every piece matters, every word tells a story. This is the writing that I love, and I'm proud as hell we get to put it into the world in Split Lip.