Pam Houston’s story “Cowboys are my Weakness” was selected for the Best American Short Stories anthology in 1990, and a collection of short stories with the same title won wide critical and popular acclaim.
But it was only when she took one of her own teaching methods to an extreme that she was able to write a story that was not only selected for the Best American Short Stories of 1999, but by John Updike as one of the best short stories of the twentieth century.
“I did what I tell my students to do,” Houston says. “I have them write about something in the world that glimmered at them, and arrested their attention. It can be something huge, the casket of their mother going into the grave, say, or something small—like light coming through the trees, or a conversation overheard in a grocery store. What I tell my students is that if you take just three or so of those random glimmers, your subconscious will put them together. Because what they all have in common is the filter of you.”
Her story, “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” centers around scenes in the life of the narrator, Lucy, who—like Houston herself when she wrote the story in the mid-nineteen-nineties—has recently moved from Colorado—from the “chaos of heaved-up rock and petrified sand and endless sky”—to San Francisco. She is in love with a man named Leo, who is himself in love with a Buddhist weaver. The story concerns Lucy’s relationships with Leo, the weaver, her parents, her abusive ex-boyfriend, and, ultimately, herself.
“It’s the story of mine I secretly love more than any other,” Houston says, “because it so stretches its own structural limits. More than anything else I have written, this story is holding itself together by the skin of its teeth.”
The story began as Houston put together several “glimmers”—images from childhood on, especially images of moving to San Francisco. The glimmers that became the foundation of the story included the image of a bride waltzing with a chef caterer behind a hedgerow, images of black Asian swans, an image of an angry ex-boyfriend hanging scarves on her tree in the shape of nooses, and a few others.
The first draft was fairly incoherent, Houston says. “It was more of a pre-first draft. Forty pages of snippets, with no attempt to relate them to each other. I wasn’t thinking story. I wasn’t thinking, ‘write this’ or ‘write that.’ I was just writing down all these little bits and pieces, and seeing what happened when I tried to make a story out of them without the connective material.”
The connective material is where writers get into trouble, Houston notes. “For one thing, it’s dull,” she says. “It also forces a kind of linear logic onto a process that isn’t necessarily logical. But if you’re just writing a page-and-a-half-long glimmer, there’s no pressure. You’re just telling about the time you moved to San Francisco, or just writing a about the way the light was coming through the trees on a particular day.”
Houston’s first revision came as she went from pre-draft glimmers and scenes to a draft.
“In the pre-draft, I haven’t consciously decided what sections go where,” she says. “I just put stuff down in any order. So my goal is to start thinking about order, which is really a matter of two things: seeing how the pieces bounce off and inform each other, and finding the basic rhythm of the metaphors. Characters and plot grow out of that early revision process. I think, who could be experiencing these glimmers, and how can these glimmers go together?”
When Houston has a rough order, she starts thinking about what doesn’t belong. She removes and adds scenes—she often goes through a piece thirty or forty times.
When she feels the piece is nearly there, she enters the final stages of revision.
“The last revisions are the fun and easy part,” Houston says. “I read it out loud to myself in a room, in full voice, to hear the rhythms of it, and hear where I’ve violated those rhythms. Ideally, I’ll read it in front of a live audience. Even if it’s just one person that I’m reading to, as long as their opinion matters to me. If, while I’m reading, I’m thinking this is taking years to get through, then maybe the piece needs paring down. Or if I skip a line on the sly, then maybe I didn’t need that line. “The final stage is about inviting someone else into the room,” Houston says.
Pam Houston leads a sold-out workshop at the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.