Short Story Analysis And The Making Of “The Depths of Desperation”
This is going to be a little true story about last weeks short story. I’m inviting you to find out a little bit about the process that went into making it and also point out important details that I don’t want to be left overlooked.
Usually, I have a couple of topics and ideas that I like to turn into short stories. I give my artist, Aisha Boucher, a list of those stories in advance. She has free reign on what art she wants to paint for it, although we do discuss ideas before she commits to one. In this case however, Aisha was tired of the bleak darkness in my themes.
“I have so many bright colours and I want to use them”, she said.
So I agreed to a little challenge for myself. I would let her paint whatever she wants and then I would have to write a story around it.
“I want to paint lemons”, she said enthusiastically.
An odd requests, but what do you expect from the artsy type? I figured that was no problem, though. Plenty of stories can come from or contain lemons. Talking lemon trees, a lemonade stand, a kitchen scene or one at the grocery store, and so on. Again, I told her to go ahead and paint whatever she wanted to.
“I want to paint a jellyfish”, she mentioned a bit later.
So I thought, ok, she moved on from lemons and is now focused on sea-life. Still not too difficult. Even more stories could have jellyfish in it, whether it’s anthropomorphic animals, swimmers in fear of jellyfish, or fishers who struggle with an overabundance of them; no trouble for me here as long as she makes up her mind.
The next day she sent me a picture of her not yet finished painting. I saw both the jellyfish and lemons. Now I was in trouble. How the hell do I turn this into a story? I’d have to go whacky as hell in order to do that.
Yes, I could just refuse. If it would have been an ugly painting, I’d turn it down immediately. But it was so beautiful and vibrant. I loved it, and I wanted to feature it in my blog. All I needed was to incorporate a story about a jellyfish surrounded by lemons. Easy as lemon and jelly pie, which I’m hoping is not a real thing. I told Aisha before that no matter how bright and colourful her painting would be, I’d probably turn it into a dark and depressing story.
A one hour session where I couldn’t come up with more than the first paragraph, didn’t produce any results. I set the scene but didn’t know the plot yet, didn’t know where this would go at all. At least I didn’t need to think of a name for the main character as that was decided on my Facebook page. Two days went by and I haven’t even touched my laptop. But after a coffee-fueled 3 hours of writing, I managed to produce a story in time to get some editing done before publishing. I was also satisfied with the result (which for any writer is tough to achieve).
Before I dive in (ha! get it?) into the analysis of my own story, because I’m that kind of pretentious piece of fuck, I’d like to share a little bit about my writing experience in university. This will shed light on why I so desperately crave to share my stories deeper themes.
I took several English literature courses and in everyone of those we would analyze the work of writers who were dead but still mattered (as opposed to me who is alive and consists of matter). The instructor would point out that there was more than the literal meaning to words, that things can stand for other things, mean different things, or point towards specific things. This type of “thingistics”, as experts would call them (don’t look it up), could be discovered by “interpreting” the text instead of plain reading it.
I found that fascinating. I enjoyed analyzing stories and poems, and theorizing about what the author meant. It was like getting another story on top of what you already read. And the process felt similar to solving a puzzle where the result could be anything, unless the instructor had that one specific result and you’re wrong for thinking otherwise. This was so much fun, that I tried to incorporate hidden meanings in my own writing, too. But as it turned out, the creative writing classes I took weren’t looking for that. They looked at my assignments always from the literal angle, exactly like our English instructors told us not to do. You might say that maybe it wasn’t their fault. Maybe I just sucked. And sure, I did suck, but that hasn’t changed much, and I don’t think it invalidates my point either. That point in particular is that to university and college instructors a story from two hundred years ago by an established author is worth analyzing word for word, yet a second-year creative writing assignment turned in by some random dude is not. They don’t even give a separate assignment on “write something with a hidden meaning”. It’s like two different worlds: The one that tells you that nothing is as it seems in the world of writing, and the one that teaches you to write your story and make it be what it seems to.
Tell me if you can relate to this, as a creative writing and English student: I got four lines from a poem and had to explain what the meaning of these four lines were in a whole essay. Meanwhile my thirty-page murder mystery came back with the feedback that it needed to be more explicit in what was going on. They wouldn’t let me be vague in certain parts, because they couldn’t bother to think as they read my paper.
Let’s move on.
I hope at this point, anyone reading this at least skimmed through the story and knows what’s up cause I’d hate to spoil it. It’s shorter than this whole thing here, surprisingly, so give it a whirl. Since it’s a bit obscure compared to my more straight-forward pieces, and because I’m primed to think that nobody cares about my story themes, I felt the need to give it my own analysis. Even though doing so is the equivalent of explaining your own joke.
The story follows Mariah, a depressed and suicidal young woman, who attempts to drown herself in the ocean but gets rescued and resuscitated just in the knick of time. The death of her physical body is portrait by her turning into a jellyfish, a translucent sea-creature that is more “ghost-like” than “flesh and blood”. The transformation is never explicitly described but her movement hint towards it. With the help of the featured image by my jellyfish-loving lemon-artist, this shouldn’t be impossible to decipher.
During the process of dying, Mariah is encouraged to go towards the light by a talking algae that’s sprouting lemons. I intended this to mirror the talking bush on fire from the bible when God talked to Moses. Only this time it was a wet bush underwater, because I think I’m clever.
Yes, the voice of the lemon-algae is the voice of God, and in this case God and Death are the same personification. Why do people want to go to heaven? Why are they so stoked about dying? Because God is there and apparently it’s awesome, according to his own scripture of course. I interpreted this as God encouraging people to die so that their soul ascents to heaven. What he gains from this (maybe power, maybe continued immortality) remains unknown.
Lemon-Algae God is trying to lead Jellyfish-Mariah into the light with the help of his glowing yellow orbs. I don’t want to dwell on this too long so here’s a quick explanation for this part: Souls of the damned in Greek mythology drag people into their realm; the yellow orbs are souls of previous suicide victims trying to drag Mariah into the light. Since all mythologies are somewhat religious beliefs, I found it appropriate to mix and match like it’s a 2 for 5 deal in retail. You can tell the orbs are suicide victims because they cried for help but were unheard and therefore could not be saved from their demise. All that remained of them was the echo of their final moments.
Read God’s lines carefully and you’ll find it sounds similar to Psalm 23, the most famous badly written poem of all time. “The lord is my shepherd” or “…walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” as well as a few other lines, were rewritten to be not too obvious (although it still sticks out a lot, I think). Both Psalm 23 and the last line of God’s voice in the story end with “forever” to draw another parallel and, you know, make God look like an asshole telling his ex-girlfriend that she’ll be crawling back in no time.
Finally, why lemons? Let’s face it, we all know the saying “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and it’s pretty obvious that this would come up. In short, the saying means “make the best out of a shitty situation”. From a religious point of view a shitty situation, like all suffering, is part of God’s plan that we are all apparently too stupid to understand. Yes, God’s plan is like that indie rock-band’s music your hipster friend keeps talking about: you wouldn’t get it.
So if life gives you lemons, aka life makes something shitty happen, then it is actually God making something shitty happen in order to achieve some kind of goal. Following the advice to make the best out of the situation, to accept the lemons that life gives you, is what the scene of Mariah walking into the ocean surrounded by lemons depicts. She is depressed and has been offered by God to go and drown herself in order to make lemonade.
It is often described that suicidal people have doubts when they are at the brink of ending their lives. I thought the waves moving back and forth, pushing Mariah back and then reeling her in, would be a neat representation of the struggle to “pull the trigger”, “make the jump”, or however you want to phrase it.
Although, Mariah ultimately fights and survives, she knows that this wouldn’t be the last time she tried to commit suicide. The EMT, thanks to his experience in the field, suspected this to be a suicide attempt but all he could do was offer assistance at a time where it was almost too late; a time where suddenly everyone is aware and paying attention, and sending you messages of goodwill on your facebook timeline, more to appease their own conscious than to offer actual help. This will not save Mariah since it is not herself or her struggle with depression that awoke interest in her health. Mariah’s rescuer being an EMT serves as proof that the only help she receives is reactionary. EMT’s don’t show up at your house BEFORE you get injured. And like all the others, this person will move on. The girl survived and someone told her it’s not cool to be so sad all the time so she’ll be fine, he’d think. Until the next inevitable incident.
Curtain falls. Crowd goes wild.
So, this was me talking about myself and how great I am. Ugh.
Seriously, though, I liked what this story turned out to be and just wanted to share the deeper meaning behind it, since I am primed to think that this method of writing will be ignored unless you’re T. S. Elliot.
Also, come on, I turned a goofy-ass idea of a jellyfish and lemons into a story about suicide. If that won’t get me the Pulitzer than why am I even trying?
Thanks for reading and as a final note: If life gives you lemons, ignore them. Your life doesn’t revolve around lemons, so focus on the sweeter fruits.