FICTION: Submission

Gauraa wakes up at 6 AM on Sunday to work on the story she started writing earlier in the week. The story is about a Christian singer who seeks vocal therapy after she is dropped by her label, and Gauraa’s word processor has seen several different iterations of it. In one version, the singer is an alcoholic. In another, she is a recovering addict who falls in love with her instructor. Yet another particularly bold attempt sees the singer as a non-believer whose Baptist parents work for the mob. Gauraa suspects that the latter is a result of watching too much Ozark, the anxiety of which has seeped into every crevasse of her personal life. The night before, she’d heard a loud thump! against the front door, and braced herself for attack. It was only a gust of wind, the simple result of lobby doors opening and closing. Since starting Ozark, Gauraa finds that she startles easily.

The 6 AM routine has worked for Gauraa in the past. She doesn’t meditate, not regularly anyway, and her time alone helps her feel more centered. And since Gauraa shares a one-bedroom apartment with her husband, and doesn’t have a desk or writing space to call her own, she finds that her early morning schedule works out quite nicely. For a few hours, the dining table becomes her study, an uninterrupted place of work. She doesn’t have to ask her husband to stop whistling the theme from Animal Crossing as he brews an espresso, because he is still asleep.

Today feels different, and today follows a string of todays that felt different, too. The week has been building to this: a folder of unfinished stories that don’t want to be written. This is a problem for Gauraa, who has a submission deadline to meet on Tuesday, but doesn’t want to write something without any heart to it. She abandons the story about the Christian singer to consult her phone’s Notes app for story ideas. If she remembers correctly, she had written something down, a few nights ago, in a state of half-sleep.

Here is what she finds:

story deet: she had died all her sheets scarlet. she had died them in her home, in the washing machine

Dies? Gauraa is disappointed to find that she hadn’t even got the spelling right. Everything she’s written in the past week, the past month, has been no good. Bad, in fact. Useless. Gauraa then considers submitting her novel, notes, a book of autofiction that casts friends and ex-boyfriends as characters in prose. But she changes her mind. It’s too gossipy, she thinks. The last time Gauraa brought notes to workshop, she received several texts from her peers asking if X really happened, or if Y really said Z. Plus, she wouldn’t be able to submit all of it, and even if she submitted as much of it as she could, who’d have the mental bandwidth to read forty unpublished pages?

Besides, the novel is finished. Well, it’s close. It has been through its necessary rounds of workshop revisions. And it’s not like Gauraa hasn’t been second-guessing her impulses all semester. Last week, she thought about a question someone asked, in a different workshop: Why is the character eating in a scene? She dismissed the question at first. Sometimes food is just food, she explained to the wilting tulips on the table. Sometimes, people eat. But having no other distraction at hand, Gauraa circled back to the thought: Why was her character eating? She thought about it while she wasn’t washing the dishes, while she wasn’t doing laundry. Eating, not eating. Writing, not writing. Submitting the novel might be the opposite of helpful.

“Someone in my workshop isn’t submitting altogether,” Gauraa’s husband offers. He is an MFA candidate in the same program.

“OK, but I don’t want to be that person,” Gauraa says.

“But you’re not that person. You write every day, you put in the work. Sometimes things don’t go the way you expect them to.”

Gauraa’s husband also reminds her that they’re in the midst of a global health crisis and there are more important things than her writing or not writing a piece of fiction. This bit of information pecks at Gauraa’s shell and withers away in hollow silence. Gauraa has already fled the living room with her laptop. She refuses to leave the bedroom until she has finished writing a story. No standing offer to watch Ozark can tempt her. Not even the episode with REO Speedwagon. (Gauraa loves REO Speedwagon in earnest, but has been known in the past to pass off her affection for the band as ironic.)

Gauraa stares at the blinking cursor of a Word document and begins writing the story of her writerly struggles. She is relieved that she has surpassed the initial five hundred words, the point where the story either gets stuck or doesn’t, and relishes spelling out the numerals, watching the letters take up space on the page. Though sometimes naïve—the kind of person who reveals too much in an email, or shares a detail too many over happy hour margaritas—Gauraa isn’t delusional. She harbors no secret hopes for the story she is writing. She doesn’t consider it a romantic “ode to the writer” type thing. She doesn’t think she’s writing a thing that, with a few tweaks, could be molded into something McSweeney’s Internet Tendency might want to publish. Gauraa is simply on the brink of exhaustion, aching to prove to herself that she is more than a daylight haunting. She wants to write as she once did, a long time ago: without ambition.

Still, Gauraa cannot pretend that she hasn’t considered the ramifications of her submission, the reactions of her peers, the reaction of her professor, when they read her story a few days prior, or the night before workshop. Though Gauraa often pretends that nothing fazes her, she holds the petty indignities of the day close. Too close, her husband might say, and she editorializes answers to questions past, clever comebacks in the—

“Dinner thots?” her husband texts her from the living room. Gauraa doesn’t appreciate the interruption and chooses not to respond.

She continues: Though Gauraa often pretends that nothing fazes her, she holds the petty indignities of the day close. Too close, her husband might say, and she editorializes answers to questions past, thinking up clever comebacks, lost at the dinner

“I was thinking of ordering takeout from Mel’s,” a blue chat bubble intrudes. “Sounds good,” Gauraa replies, quick and businesslike, eager to return to the story she is writing. Except, now a nagging guilt accompanies the act. Every tap of the keyboard, an itemized bullet on the list of things that have yet to get done: dishes, laundry, soaking of dry beans overnight, returning calls from worried family members. Writing. Gauraa identifies that her thoughts are cycling back. She wonders: But wasn’t there supposed to be more time now?

This truly is a moment of desperation for our protagonist, a person chained to her rituals, a person who makes the bed as soon as it is vacant, who compulsively rearranges throw cushions on the living room sofa.

She digresses. Returning to the ramifications of her submission: yes, Gauraa had, in fact, thought about the reaction of her peers. What would they say? What would they think? A story about a writer writing a story? A story too aware of itself to even put on some kind of performance? A story so lacking in structure and shape?

Gauraa does not have the answers to those questions, and knowing so, does not expect a feedback letter for her submission. It is hard to make it through a page these days, she thinks, without getting distracted by a statistic in a news update, or fielding texts from family members who have recently discovered the capabilities of Zoom conference calls. And that’s reading. Writing? Writing feels impossible to our narrator. Good at first, then bad, then too stale, past the point of revision. The gig is hard enough to begin with, Gauraa thinks, and sometimes you don’t have much to show for a day’s—or, in her case, weeks—of work. But take away fresh air, take away the fodder, take away the communal cigarette breaks between workshop, the things that make you feel full and human, and you’re left with a collection of insular thoughts that circulate endlessly into oblivion.

Gauraa rummages her consciousness for a suitable ending to her story. She writes and deletes, writes and deletes, then deletes the phrase “writes and deletes” only to write it back in again. She remembers wanting to plug in a joke about writing herself into the third person, but decides against it.

It would be predictable for her to end on a joke.

Gauraa Shekhar is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. Her short story "Other Significant Others" was selected as a finalist for the 2019 Francine Ringold Award for New Writers. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod Journal, Contrary Magazine, Sonora Review, Fiction Southeast, and X-R-A-Y Lit Mag.

Image: Woman Writing, Edouard Manet, 1863

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