Origins: “The Bounce Test” by Kathryn Kulpa

In today’s ORIGINS, Kathryn Kulpa discusses the origins of her story, “The Bounce Test,” which appeared recently in jmww 

Sometimes stories get started, set aside, then rediscovered months or years later. That’s what happened with “The Bounce Test,” a story I actually started twice but didn’t finish until a Fast Flash Workshop with Kathy Fish gave me the kick in the butt I needed to get those berries bouncing.

The short story started with a variation on an erasure exercise. Earlier, I’d used a vintage recipe pamphlet from a shortening company as the basis for an erasure poem, “Fifty Shades of Spry.” I have a small collection of 20th-century recipe pamphlets and cookbooks that got passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me, so I suggested to my writing group that we write down some words and phrases from them and see if they inspired us. I chose a pamphlet that I actually remembered getting on a tour of a cranberry factory as a kid, 101 All-time Favourite Cranberry Recipes. There’s no date on the recipe booklet, but something about the pseudo-Colonial styling (note “favourite”—because we still hadn’t broken away from British spelling!), the clueless, casual racism (“squaw,” anyone?) and the cheery little “Pilgrim” and “Indian” characters make me think it was around the American bicentennial. There were a lot of cranberry factoids in the early draft and a lot of geographical details that didn’t make it into the final story, but the uncle with the black spot of mysterious origins was there, and the oval turkey loaf, and the word polyp.

The exercise stayed in my notebook for months, and I didn’t do anything else with it until another writing group, when a prompt to write about a road trip came up, and I went back to the cranberry factory tour. More geography, more kids-in-the-car banter, more cranberry sauce plopped on plates—but that second version story still didn’t feel finished, or right. It stayed in a different notebook, biding its time.

Fast forward to the Fast Flash Workshop, where I had to come up with new flash every day for ten days. A prompt to write a story using vivid sensory detail took me back to the first draft of the cranberry story, but as I came back to it, I realized that the heart of the story was not the cranberries or the road trip or Thanksgiving dinner, but what was missing—the protagonist’s mother and the unspoken truth about her illness; the way children are left to navigate the uncertainties of the adult world, the gap between what they sense and the stories they are told. There’s a way that adults lie to children—a teasing kind of “Ha, ha, of course this ridiculous story isn’t true, but we’re in on the joke, aren’t we?”—but most times the kids are not in on the joke, and they know it. Maybe adults think they’re protecting them by not telling the truth, but they’re not. Children sense that something is wrong, and if they don’t know exactly what it is, they’ll make it up: “A different story, every time.”

Kathryn Kulpa is a Rhode Island-born writer and editor with work published in Superstition ReviewMonkeybicycleSmokelong Quarterly, and 100 Word Story. She makes a mean cranberry-apple pie.

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