When writing early drafts, I often find myself falling into familiar spirals. I sputter a few sentences, stumble, try to refocus before admitting that I’ve flooded my internal engine, hitting a lag before I’ve really even started. This usually occurs when I begin with a concept rather than a story, a standalone idea without any narrative pull behind it. Despite my many bookmarks of strange historical societies, mythical amphibians, and lists of catastrophic parades, I don’t always consider how those concepts can work as a vessel for an actual narrative, assuming the concept will be fuel enough on its own. It’s day one stuff, right? Sure, you can write about a digital starling birthday party or a roadside attraction filled with gumball zombies, but if there isn’t a character in that tourist trap experiencing emotional calamity, we’re inevitably filling up on bread while waiting for a meal that’s never served. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about while revisiting Meredith Alling’s collection SING THE SONG (2016, Future Tense Books), because Alling’s book is one of the most charming, overlooked collections I’ve encountered, and when I return to her story Other Babies I am fascinated again and again by her ability to redefine the assumed binary relationship between concept and story.
In the story, concept and narrative become one. Alling uses varieties of babies to illustrate satisfying images and phrases, giving the story a strange sideways propulsion rather than a traditional forward motion. There is no main character, no setting, no plot. Just rows and rows of babies, acting in different ways, living different experiences. Concepts within a concept. Jane Alison, author of the popular craft book Meander Spiral Explode, may classify Alling’s piece as a “Network of Cells,” which she describes as spatial texts “which don’t care much about causal or temporal relations but grow through linked ideas, image, or phrases.” These are stories that are built not by the Freytag’s triangle of linear narrative but by disconnected images that evoke an emotional response through their juxtaposition and context. I think of Alling’s story as one where she rushes us down a hotel hallway opening door after door, not so we may enter a room and interact with its inhabitants, but so we may have a peek at what’s on the other side before moving to the next room. This is how her story begins:
“Some babies drink soda the second they are born. They glug it down. The sugar courses through their body. You can see the brown humming through their spider web skin. It shoots straight up to the brain, the hub. It clocks in at five past and gets to work. So that’s certain babies. Other babies determine the cheese level of their surroundings within seconds of inhalation. Then their fingers form into little paws and they claw, claw at the air.”
There is an immediate visceral plunge into this story; something about a baby glugging soda feels wrong, uneasy, surprising. This paragraph is one of my favorite openings because it’s such a clever way to make the reader immediately feel tense. There’s a queasiness to it, albeit a charming one. However, we do not stay on the soda-gluggers long, as there are more babies to document. The story is about all of the other babies, after all. We move through so many baby variations, veering sharply from quirk to quirk. And like Joseph’s Network of Cells, the babies share an arc not through a wave of linearity, but rather a honeycomb of aesthetic similarity, with many disparate parts coming together to form a whole.
Of course, Alling’s story is a flash fiction, which sometimes feels like a level of permission for strange approaches to narrative. In brevity, a more experimental telling of a story can conclude as swiftly as it arrives; it doesn’t demand the reader follow its thread for the length of some of its more extensive counterparts. This isn’t to suggest that Alling’s narrative relies on its short length, or that the story lacks elevation. The early catalogued babies are ones who drink soda, chew gum, stow away in leaf piles. At its root, “Other Babies” is a play on the pattern story, but the babies themselves are not the pattern. The balanced emotional register (with a slight deviation up or down) of the babies’ actions and attitudes are the pattern. For most of the story, the babies are operating as charming, funny, a little sad – but mostly alright. The babies are harmless and mostly unscathed. But as the story creeps towards its end, we veer sharply towards a massive deviation, a space where we feel the catalog break:
“Other babies do not make it very long as babies. It would have been better if they were born a bit older. They can’t be handled. They make someone scream and want to crash the truck. Sometimes they are poisoned. Sometimes people have to live with having poisoned a baby.”
There is pain in this moment. It’s crushing, the disgusting mashed peas on the spoon pretending to be an airplane. But, as quickly as the pattern breaks, the story shakes itself off, returns to its standard register:
“Other babies are very alive. They are in every room and every muscle and every eyeball.”
It’s like a Max Headroom Hijack; a moment of dizzying confusion where we feel the story-behind-the-story seep through, offering just enough of itself to feel emotionally potent before returning to its regularly-scheduled programming, leaving us disoriented and sad, but not so sad that we drop out of the narrative, because, like the other babies, we lack the permanence to dwell on something after it’s gone, and we’ve got other babies to admire.
So, what’s our move here? How do we replicate Alling’s brilliant, cellular performance? Do you have a conceptual equivalent to her babies? An idea that you can’t make fit into a traditional narrative that you may find success in through duplication? Can you build your babies like a tiny human pyramid until they’re a story tall, only to then reveal the broken baby on the bottom, the one who makes the reader reimagine the entire framework? Can you match Alling’s swift turn, the one which allows all prior aspects of the story to be recontextualized? The power here is not only in celebrating the wonders of her tiny human inventory, but also in yearning for those missing, the ones who never got to glug soda, the ones who barely had a taste.