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Commentary on “Night Driving”

Peter Herring

I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, for seven years a while ago. I’m a Pacific Northwesterner, so the Southwest desert was an alien place to me, starkly beautiful and repellent at the same time. The latter because, as a fleshy jug composed of about 60% water, I was keenly aware of how thirsty the desert is and what a great source of liquid I was. The PNW is relatively young; the SW is ancient, rocks are old, seas have come and gone, mountains are worn to hills. I’m used to streams and dense overstory; there I hiked dry washes with no cover. I developed a huge respect for the godlike saguaro, ocotillo, and the tough desert-smart trees – ironwood, elephant, palo verde – that thrive in the caliche where rain’s more a matter of chance than a guaranteed seasonal event. I wrote travel articles at the time and used them for paid excuses to go where I wanted, picking places in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Southern Colorado, West Texas, all with four things in common: lack of water, deadly heat, lots of space, and prominence of rocks. This is all background for “Night Driving.” As well, Alexa started talking to me on these trips.

I can’t really write a story until a character gets in my head and insists that I listen. More crucially, I have to care enough about them to follow it through. Alexa dogged me, shot me phrases to jot down, made me care about her then inchoate life, pestered me until I wrote: Relative to the moon you barely seem to move at all. I knew at that point that she had abandoned a husband and son on the east coast and that she was driving alone at night through the Southwest deserts towards the Pacific. I didn’t know much else. Alexa’s ad hoc trip through the desert is indicative of how I work. She doesn’t use maps. I don’t outline or plot well. She drives. I tend to discover by writing.

I had written one other story in second-person present and I loved the immediacy of the voice/tense. You. Now. Before that story I hadn’t really considered voice and tense to be tools of the same rank as other rhetorical tricks of the trade. But it instantly become a natural way for me to write. So when the first sentence of “Night Driving” came out in second-person present it stuck. I’ve used the more normal third person past omniscient author voice in other stories, but it feels both remote and a little dishonest to me. First off, stories happen now for the reader, regardless of the tense in which they’re written. Second, writers are always telling their characters what they’re doing, commenting and interceding anyway, but in a hidden, marionette puppeteer way. So I felt I may as well be upfront about that, out in the open, Bunraku style. But mainly, the immediacy of the voice and tense entreats (I hope) the reader to feel as though they are the character.

What surprised me in “Night Driving” was that the storyteller became, at one point, a tulpa for Alexa, a character in its own right, conversing with her as she walks into the sea. Although there’s a kind of Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall in this, as well as in some of the other commentary by the narrator, I only thought of that in retrospect. At the time it simply happened as I wrote and it felt integral. I resisted it, and questioned it several times; the power of the passage won. The language of the story was another challenge. I’m a poet first and found the prose I’ve used in other stories to be dissatisfyingly flat. Poems are compact so demanding rhythm, alliteration, assonance, lyricism in every line of a long story was a challenge that led to more rewrites than I remember. Often I was fine with what a sentence conveyed, but hated the cadence. Or the blat of a discordant consonant or vowel sent me searching for another word.

The story incorporates some other unconventional bits, notably colloquial speech with no apostrophes to indicate dropped letters (Oh look at you lookin at me…) and dialog with no quotation marks or he said-she said’s, all in one paragraph. None of these things felt like problems to me and no one in my small group of trusted readers had any problem identifying who was talking. I found dialog much easier to write this way; it whipped along as real conversations do. No hitting return, tab, quotation mark to break up flow. But I figured the voice, tense, and other abnormalities might be problematic for editors; the number of rejections that Night Driving garnered before it found a home at Twelve Winters bears that out.

I’m currently working on two more stories written in second-person present; I’d like a book’s worth, but we’ll see. I’m also writing a set of linked flash-fiction length stories about people with Covid and Long Covid – which I have had for 2.5 years as of this writing. Over a million Americans have died and tens of millions have this lingering, disabling disease. If the pandemic had been a war there would be novels and the dead and disabled would have faces, but I hear mainly silence. So I feel that these are human stories, lives that need to be honored by telling. I’m working with how best to make them real and immediate; at this point I’m writing them in third-person past tense, with a switch to present tense in each story’s final paragraph. That’s a different palette and I keep questioning it. The sudden shift to present tense startles me in a way that I like so far, cold water snapping me out of the lull of the story and forcing me face to face with the character, their hope, despair, sorrow, confusion, joy. I hope it will do the same for the reader.

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Peter Herring  is a re-emerging poet and fiction writer living on a small farm near Port Townsend, Washington. When he’s not planting, tending or harvesting he’s writing a novel length series of linked flash fiction stories about people with covid, long covid, and their caretakers, under the working title “Love, Covid.”

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