N. West Moss wrote an intriguing short story called “Beautiful Mom” for our 2014 issue (pages 83-88). Here she discusses the writing process for this piece.
This was one of the first stories I wrote during graduate school a few years ago. The seed for the piece came because my mother and one of my brothers were both breathtakingly gorgeous. As a kid, I didn’t notice it. I assume everyone thinks his mother is beautiful and all siblings are just annoyances or playmates. But I was aware of their beauty because of how other people reacted to them. My girlfriends, even in 1st and 2nd grade would be struck dumb when my brother, 6 foot 4 and Nordic-blond, walked into the room. He had a tangible effect on people, as did my mother. She wasn’t pretty, she was beautiful, and I knew this because, when she was around, I felt my stock rise. Strangers gave her things and smiled at her and made way for her, which was great for me, a pudgy little kid shaped like a potato.
I knew that this idea of beauty was something I wanted to write about, and so I wrote scenes for class about how great it was to have a beautiful mom. The problem, I soon learned, was that fiction needs tension, and my mom and I have always been close. She’s here at my house now, in fact, drinking her coffee in my sunroom. We get along and her drop-dead looks were never something she tried to cultivate. She was fun and messy and laughed at herself and was an overall great mom. Yay for me, but this kind of story makes for lousy fiction. I had a boyfriend once who showed me his childhood diary. Every page read, “It was another great day.” Who wants to read that?
A writer friend suggested that I take these two characters, a beautiful mother and her daughter, and give them the tension from another story and see what happened. So I tried that with a couple of short stories I liked. I had, for instance, just taught Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and so I put my mother and daughter into the situation where one died and the other was liberated by the death. Too melodramatic. Then I hit on John Cheever’s very short story, “Reunion.” I love that story and it’s about a father and son, so I took my mother and daughter and started to tell the story of them visiting with one another for the final time.
I was sitting in Bryant Park near the Gertrude Stein statue as I began it and this time it really flowed, and the characters began to develop away from me and my mom. They looked like us, sort of, but the combination of the characters and the conflict and the setting all came together to make something unexpected.
At one point, I thought about having the mother steal some bread from the bar, rather than the bad act she commits in the final version, but I didn’t like that. It made the mom too sympathetic, even pitiful, for me. By settling on the final ending, I thought it was more complex and resonant, that it would leave the readers thinking and mulling over her character, as well as that of the daughter’s.
I still find it fascinating that stunning beauty has such a tangible effect on people, and it does, really. But I feel like I’ve explored it adequately in “Beautiful Mom” so that it hasn’t come up in any of my short stories since, although it might resurface one day.
As for drafting, if I count all of the earlier sketches I did of these two, I probably wrote and revised this piece 50 or more times. It’s an old friend now, a piece of my younger, 4 or 5-year-ago writing life, so I simultaneously love it and know how I could make it better. That’s the curse of real writers, I think. We’re never really done revising.
My mom, myself, and my sister from the summer of 2013. Mom is 80, and still beautiful, I think.
– N. West Moss
Writers who live, work, or study in the Lower Hudson Valley and will be under 30 as of June 30th- Could you use $100, and do you want to get your writing published? Submit your previously unpublished short story or poems to The Westchester Review’s Writers Under 30 Contest! Runners- up will also be considered for publication! Submit up to three poems or one short story (up to 5,000 words max) to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, phone number, and email address in a cover letter and “Contest” in the subject line by June 30th. There is a $10 reading fee for each submission, which you can pay through the PayPal link on the “Contests” tab ofwww.westchesterreview.com. For more info, visit www.westchesterreview.com or email us email@example.com. We want your brilliant short stories and poems!