October 1, 2009
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: Books

[a piece about writing from Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh]

I used to be stingy with my ideas. From my creative
bank–my folders full of articles clipped from magazines, my notebooks busy
with images and overheard conversations, my electronic files clotted with first
lines and characters and metaphors that needed a home–I would withdraw one
thing, maybe two things, when beginning a story. I was like some
coupon-clipping grandma who eats dinner at 4:30 for the senior discount and
refuses to leave a tip even though she's got stacks of money in the bank.

And then I overheard a writer I respect very much
– Tony Earley — say that when he wrote a story I respect very much —
"The Prophet from Jupiter" — he put everything he had into it. Every
last thing. All his energy, all his best tricks, all that had been lying
in store. And after finishing the story he felt completely tapped. For two
weeks he laid on the couch and wondered if he would ever write again. Of course
the well filled back up, but the point is, he was willing to throw himself
fully into his work, to write with complete abandon. The result is one of
the greatest short stories of the past twenty years.

I didn't have the courage to pull a Tony Earley — to go the
distance, to put everything I had on the table and risk failure
– until a few years later when I wrote "Refresh, Refresh." This
was late 2005, and though I was writing and publishing stories with regularity,
I didn't feel like I was challenging myself. I was hungry for a big fight. I
found it in the war. I had read so many articles about Iraq, but no
fiction, so I set out with that express purpose. In particular I was inspired
by a small town in Ohio,
where overnight several dozen men and women had died in an ambush. I grew up in
a rural community and I couldn't imagine the cavity that kind of loss
would leave behind. And there was my story: the battleground at home: a town
without fathers.

Keeping this concept in my crosshairs–boys without
daddies–helped me write a story that was political without being polemical.
The war is a character in the story, yeah, but the emotional circumstances
transcend Iraq.
Into "Refresh, Refresh" I unloaded all of my treasured images and
metaphors and snippets of dialogue. Bet the farm. And afterwards I, too, laid
on the couch for two weeks and wondered if that was all I had, if I would ever
write again.

I remember when my agent, Katherine Fausset, called to
say The Paris Review had accepted the story. "This is a
game-changer," she said. And she was right. It opened a lot of doors. It
got in a lot of anthologies and won a lot of awards I'm still shaking
my head over, wondering how a dumbass like me got so lucky. But more
importantly, it moved a lot of people. I still receive, on average, three emails
a week about the story. From ROTC cadets, Vietnam vets, mothers and wives and
daughters of soldiers alive and dead. From students. From teachers. From
journalists. From housewives and truckers and ranchers and insurance salesman
and even one stripper. Some praise it. Some criticize it. Some criticize me,
calling me alternatively a liberal pantywaist and a conservative nutjob. The
range of emotions pleases me, because I know I've touched a nerve that belongs
to all of us — I know I succeeded in writing about more than the war.
Sometimes I wonder how I did it. And then I remember that feeling — that
whitewater rush of emotion that came at the keyboard, when I decided to hold
nothing back and lay it all out there, to tell the best story I could possibly
tell — and it's maybe one of the most important moments I've had as a
writer, not simply because I wrote this particular story, but because
I bullied my way into a different place artistically.

It's so rewarding to see "Refresh, Refresh"
take on a new life through the screenplay adaptation by James Ponsoldt and now
the graphic novel by Danica Novgorodoff. They've been infected, I think,
by a similar energy in making the story their own — and I'm hopeful that this
will carry over into  new audiences who will be as impressed as I am by
the power of Danica's vision and artwork. 

One Comment on “ On Betting the Farm ”

  • Jordan Mechner | October 1st, 2009 10:29 am

    Benjamin- Add me to the list of those moved by your story (via Danica’s graphic novel). Great advice about not holding back — applies to so many things in life we sometimes ration as if they are limited quantities, but in fact the more we tap, the more we have.

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