American Literary Review

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Sketching a Story

Laura Maylene Walter


LAURA MAYLENE WALTER is the recipient of the 2010 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Her short story collection, Living Arrangements, is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2011. Laura's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Poets & Writers, Crab Creek Review, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. She was nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize and her novel-in-progress, Opal, was named a runner up in the 2010 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her personal site is


We asked Laura, whose story "Living Arrangements" appears in our Spring 2011 issue, to tell us something about the way she generates ideas for her stories.

WHEN I WAS 19 years old, I went to a party, drank too much, and spent the night on the couch. In the morning, I felt awful: hung over and sick and definitely not attractive. So when my friend told me that one of the guys from the party had sketched me sleeping on the couch, I was horrified. I couldn't imagine what awful state he'd found me in (was my mouth hanging open? Was I snoring? Drooling? Talking in my sleep?), not to mention that he had apparently immortalized the moment by recording it on paper.

My friend put the drawing in front of me and I couldn't help but look. In the sketch, I was lying down facing the back of the couch and wrapped in a striped blanket. My long hair tumbled down my back, wild and a little messy but beautiful. I didn't look drunk and pathetic but instead graceful, almost whimsical. When I imagined this stranger taking the time and attention to draw me, I almost blushed. It seemed such an intimate and caring act to really look at someone without their knowledge and then transcribe it on paper, turning it into something beautiful.

Years passed and I forgot all about that moment until one night in downtown Cleveland. I'd just left a writing workshop, it was late, and I was taking one of the last buses home. I settled into a seat and watched as a young man across the aisle pulled out an artist's sketchpad and began drawing. When I looked closer, I saw that he was drawing a girl. More specifically, he was sketching the girl sitting a few rows in front of us. She was in one of the sideways-facing front seats, so the artist had a good view of her profile. I watched as he sketched her facial features, her hair, her tiny nose ring. He worked quietly, patiently, sneaking glances at the girl while she remained blissfully unaware that she was his subject.

The longer I watched this process unfold before me, the more fascinated I became. I felt I was watching something intimate, something secret. This girl was going to live on in his sketchbook forever, but she would never know it. For the first time in years, I thought of the time another young man had drawn me on the couch with my hair falling down my back. I felt the same way then on the bus as I had looking at my own picture: humbled, awed, grateful for the small kindnesses we can offer each other in anonymity.

At the time, I had no idea that moment on the bus would work its way into my fiction, but it did months later, when I was writing a short story that had nothing to do with artists or sketches or anything that remotely reminded me of that bus ride. At a critical moment in the story, however, I realized that the emotional truth of what I'd felt watching that young man on the bus (and seeing my own drawing from the party) was exactly what I wanted my character feel. She needed to see that generosity from a stranger and to realize the entire world wasn't cold or ugly or resistant.

My story "Living Arrangements," which appears in the Spring 2011 issue of American Literary Review, originated in a similar, if less specific, way. I thought of what it meant to try to go home when "home" isn't there anymore. I wondered what all the past places in our lives add up to in the end. Then, I worked to transfer all that to my character and her world.

I can't draw to save my life and I've never tried to sketch a stranger, but I can relate to that slow, anonymous process of working something out on paper. In committing a moment to his sketchpad, that artist on the bus was communicating something to himself (and, unbeknownst to him, to me) that was secret and pure and real. That's how it feels when I try to put small kindnesses down on the page, or when they just happen out of nowhere and I look up and realize yes, this is true, this was where it belonged the whole time.