One Hundred Thousand Fireflies Taught Me How to Write Short Stories

I took this high-res image from an NPR article and this is how they captioned it: Detail view of Wendy Smith’s cover art for Distant Plastic Trees, The Magnetic Fields’ debut album, on which the song “100,000 Fireflies was released in 1991. Then they said “Courtesy of Merge Records”, whose permission I obviously don’t have, so everybody be cool

I have just learned of the death in 2021 of Susan Anway, who sang 100,000 Fireflies. I am moved almost beyond saying.

I learned to write in 2007 when I was seventeen. I had decided when I was sixteen that I would certainly be a writer and although I had been writing with most of my energy since I was twelve, having made up my mind at sixteen I began writing with all of my energy and all of my time. When you are very young you learn very fast, and it was in my first very serious year that I really started writing what I would presently call stories. I have never moved so quickly from one state to another.

I had a study hall period the year I was seventeen—big frigid room, astounding number of silent teenagers. One unpleasant adult like a buckle at a table at our head. White-white windowless light and my fingers were always purple. I made up an exercise. I think I thought I was becoming precious about editing. So my exercise was this: I would write without stopping from start to finish each study hall. I’d write a story for the length of each song on my playlist and when the song was done I would start a new story. As soon as I got home I would type everything. Spellcheck but no alterations.

I was unhappy in high school. By 2007 my classmates and old friends looked at me with pity and contempt—I was supposed already to have failed. I had contempt for them too but I didn’t want it back. I saw nothing for myself in the future. I had no sense that anyone would like or care about my work: but I was unhappy because I was thought badly of, and because I was lonely; I didn’t care whether people liked what I wrote or read it. I was like Orphée getting gods-music over the radio. I was also like a man building a table.

I had a funny idea of stories. I read To the Lighthouse in school and On the Road on my own. These comprised my idea of air-shaped storytelling. I knew I didn’t like a story with a Beginning Middle and End. Once or twice I read stories in Granta but none made any impression. Only by luck or the hand of God I escaped reading Miranda July or Tao Lin or any of the other internetcute no-shape authors of the 00s. I think they would have had too powerful an effect on me. It’s important when you are young not to like things which are popular right then. They hit you with the strength of other-people, your desire for love, your desire for friendship, all of that.

After a couple of months doing my exercise I got worried because I wasn’t writing about people anymore and I didn’t want to. I was worried that I didn’t like people and that this would make it impossible for me to write stories. I said something about it to my mother. “They are getting pretty abstract,” she said, meaning my stories. I showed her all or most of what I wrote.

I was unhappy when I was seventeen but also I was forced by desire. I mean desire gave me a vital force. And love, and life-drive. In general in my heart and body when I was seventeen I felt a wave-tall straining forward. I did not talk to my classmates anymore outside of school. I stayed up too late every night. I can’t remember ever doing homework. I worked very hard.

I watched a lot of movies: I ordered them in the mail and I went to the Pickwick in Park Ridge and some big theater in the city where you could see mainstream foreign movies, like Mesrine in 2008, which honest to God features a prison escape where the hardcore main character takes the time amid shooting and rioting to cut a full-on man-sized mouse-hole-shape in the prison fence—so French bourgeois that he doesn’t want to snag his prison uniform on a merely sliced fence. Amazing. 2008 was a terrible year for French movies.

So I was doing my exercise in school, then working on my big projects all evening and night, and I was very sad, and I was filled with feeling, and I had read a pick-and-mix of fiction, none of which was new, and I was watching films. I liked when movies became suddenly constrained and distracted at the very end and went off without talking to you.

This is how I heard 100,000 Fireflies. I mean that this is the state I was in when I heard 100,000 Fireflies. I will tell you about this song now, and about Susan Anway’s voice. 

There is a pink hazy wall of phonecharms. The harness-bells block of toy sounds that I liked about The Magnetic Fields. And Susan Anway, whose name I didn’t know then, with a voice like a paper streamer. She is singing like a doll, but not with the kind of porno naivete Serge Gainsbourg liked, which is what I normally think of when I think of frail female voices. This big pyranine-level room of playful color and Susan Anway’s voice singular in it. The lyrics open with some funniness about playing exotic instruments—goofy image you are not meant to take seriously. Then you learn that she is singing about love, and the music goes crafty-twinkly—but solemnized with a one-key-at-a-time rise and fall, a level glance. A call-and-response bing-bong bridge: then the important part. The end of the song. An up and down piano wave, an electronic drum, and Susan Anway’s life-and-death voice. She says three things, thoughts rising in a series like they do when you’re done crying or done having sex, and you are looking up and not really talking to be listened-to:

You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance; you won’t be happy anyway.

Why do we still live here in this repulsive town? All our friends are in New York.

Why do we keep shrieking when we mean soft things? We should be whispering all the time.

The words are sent off the wavy music and that’s the end of the song. Those final three lines, monumentally important, delivered off a fully-colored body of music on their own, holy with human singularity—this was the shape I resolved into for my stories. I had been thinking for a long time about the rhythms of movies, and I had an immediate, easy teenage response to music, and altogether I knew by sight the shape of the stories I wanted to write. I am as moved now as I was then by the image or idea of one human person moving off a vivid field of experience onto an invisible and entirely private plane. Maybe it is my primary concern as an artist—obviously I can’t know. At any rate I remember the gravity of my heart as Susan Anway’s voice rose off of everything else. I am amazed to think it belonged to a human and not to a thought in my head. God bless her. Godspeed.

This one is of me at age seventeen. This one belongs to me
Here is 100,000 Fireflies

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