Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

Stories We Love: "Ballerina, Ballerina"

Paper jam

(Editor’s note: “Stories We Love” made its debut as part of Fiction Writers Review’s Short Story Month celebration. But we love short stories year-round. So here’s another installment, courtesy of FWR contributor Tyler McMahon.)

As an undergraduate, I took my first fiction-writing workshop around 1997. It didn’t go well. My peers were entrenched in Mafia stories and Christian parables. I failed to find my voice. The instructor was accepted into law school for the following fall, and declared there was no future in writing. Near the semester’s end, she invited one of her fellow graduate students, Eric Rickstad, to visit. Eric read us a story called “The Quiet.” I was transfixed. His energetic, hard-eyed prose did everything I hoped to do with my own writing.

Weeks later, I sat typing a paper in the computer lab. A loud bang rose above the chatter of punched keys and humming hard drives. I looked up from my work and recognized Rickstad, delivering a series of open-hand slaps to the side of the printer.

After his smacking failed to fix the machine, Eric stormed out of the lab. A few minutes later, I went to retrieve my own homework. Suddenly, the printer began spewing out page after mismatched page of fiction with Rickstad’s name in the header. I recognized a few sentences from the reading. Others were unfamiliar. They kept coming. Within minutes, over a hundred pages of unpublished fiction lay before me.

I looked from side to side, spot-checked my still-developing moral compass, and grabbed the stories.

I nearly fell over on the way back to my filthy shared house, reading Rickstad’s sentences: Father’s Buick pings, cooling… Sal can’t take another cold morning… Once I did get home, I was able to piece together one complete text of a story called “Ballerina Ballerina.” It was a tense and visceral account of pot-growers and car-washers, rife with dust, dildos, and childhood demons.

I read that story many times over my remaining days at university. The stolen manuscript didn’t survive the furious cleanup of our house after graduation. But I’ve carried several of those sentences and images with me ever since. (An engine “pings, cooling” in nearly every story I’ve ever written.)

I sometimes wonder what might have become of me, had I not taken those pages and absconded like an addict in search of a fix. It continues to amaze me: the way that art can intervene via tiny coincidences—a mid-afternoon reading, a temperamental printer—and alter our lives.

(Rabid Transit published the story in 2005. It can also be read on Eric Rickstad’s website.)

Literary Partners