I ran across this quote by Henry David Thoreau last year and it struck me as so "right-on" to the theme I was trying to express in a short story, that I used it in the story and even derived the title from it (What I Call Life).
Thoreau was very much sympathetic to the life of common, working people and a lot of his writings concerned their quality of life. This theme was the impetus for his experiment of "living deliberately" at Walden Pond. And he was very critical of the idea of people working like slaves for the prospect of retirement at some point in the future when they can least enjoy it. I've been feeling that way for a long time and wanted to express it in fiction. I saw an opportunity to do that with the startup of MISSISSIPPI aesthetic magazine.
MISSISSIPPI aesthetic is a "quarterly journal of arts & culture" and their first issue featured several short stories. I was impressed with the magazine's quality and they seemed very open to publishing fiction so I decided to write my story with the aim of submitting it to them.
In What I Call Life, I wanted to express my thoughts on "What's a high salary worth in terms of life cost?", "At what point does a job become life or death?", and "What does it mean to chose life?" My fictional vehicle would be a burned-out IT contract worker wrestling with serious problems for a client for the umpteenth time in his career. In the midst of it all, a voice from beyond his contained life would come to him and offer him the choice of staying with the familiar (security but a heavy life cost), or launching into the unknown (loss of security but a potential for payoff in life really lived).
This idea is certainly not original with me, but I felt the urge to express my take on it in the terms and symbols familiar to me. This urge found expression in several of my journal entries last year starting with Timbuktu! and including Seeing Wonder in the Mundane (though it was pretty much in every journal entry to some degree).
I felt the story should be a long treatment written as a series of short pieces. But I couldn't know if I would write the whole series so this initial one had to be complete in itself. I accomplished that by having it cover the time where my protagonist, Matt Bell, reaches the end of his rope on the job, receives his "bolt from the blue" offer, and makes his decision.
At the highest level, I wanted the story to be a contrast between what Matt's live was in-fact (shown in the working of his job) and what it could be (shown in Clarence's description of the uncle's offer). I would make this contrast sharp by showing Matt's life to be the minutiae of IT work, and the offer of new life to be basically, jungle adventure. With these goals in mind, I would write the the story as compellingly as I could, seeking to draw the reader into Matt's pain, burnout, disgust, wonder, and hope, and end with a sense of satisfaction but a desire to know "what happens next."
So I dropped everything for about two months and wrote What I Call Life. I wanted it to be about 2000 words in length but it was a struggle to keep it to 3000. I finished the story and submitted it to MISSISSIPPI aesthetic. I was delighted when Amile Wilson (Editor in Chief) saw fit to publish the first two-thirds of it in a very nice four-page spread in the printed magazine, and the whole of it on their website.
Did I accomplish my story goals? Well, you'll have to tell me, my friend. So far, I've gotten no feedback specific to the story, but I did have a significant bump in visits to my website corresponding to the time of the story's appearance. There was also an increase in the downloads of my other stories on Smashwords. I'm grateful for all that and take it to mean that What I Call Life prompted some interest in my work. So I'll keep it up and make my life payments to pursue a number of writing projects to share with you.
How much Life do you exchange for what you do? Day after day. Not just time, but Life. Is the exchange a satisfactory recompense? I expect it is not for most everyone, but that depends on your valuation of both. Saints and sinners will see it differently. The aware and the deluded will see it differently, as will all points of view within that scale. Your answer will depend on what you call life.
You can read What I Call Life on the MISSISSIPPI aesthetic website here.
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