The Story behind “Creatures” by Beth Sherman

bethToday’s post is written by Beth Sherman. We published a piece of her flash fiction, “Creatures,” in our Spring 2017 issue.

I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for story ideas. For me, figuring out what to write about is the hardest part of the writing process. My life is pretty mundane, my childhood was ordinary and when I try to mine my own experiences it’s all fairly boring. Because of this I like to work from prompts. I prefer one or two specific sentences, rather than being told to say, write about a birthday party or a car accident. I have two books consisting entirely of prompts and I also belong to a listserv that sends me emails about literary contests and submission calls, many of which involve prompts. My friends who are writers send me prompts when they’re feeling generous. I’m attracted to these prompts because they always lead me someplace unexpected. I didn’t invent the first couple of sentences so I have no preconceived notion of where the story is going. I surprise myself while I’m writing and it’s fun to watch the story unfold in the moment. Other times, I’ll get inspired by something I’ve seen or heard during the course of a day. When I teach creative writing, I tell my students to try and stay open to how powerful images can be when we really take the time to see and describe them.

“Creatures” was born one April morning when I was walking to work in the half-dark. It’s an unusually autobiographical story for me. I teach English literature at Queens College, which is located in Flushing, Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City. The school is situated on an urban, commuter campus and as I was headed to my office I saw what looked like a creature staggering next to the gray wall of the Science building. I was teaching a class on Gothic Literature and we’d just finished reading Dracula and talking about the uncanny – powerful emotional experiences that can’t be easily explained or understood. Because the sun hadn’t risen yet, I wasn’t able to identify the unusual creature at first. It seemed to lurch from side to side, as though it were a mini version of Frankenstein. As I got closer, I saw it was some kind of animal, which was weird because I wasn’t exactly out in the countryside. The reason for the staggering: seven babies desperately clinging to the fur on her back. I tried to take a picture because there was no one else around and I kept thinking no one was going to believe me! But I had a lousy cell phone and the photo came out blurry, which made the creature look even more supernatural. When I got back to my office, I went on Google and discovered it was an opossum. In the middle of New York City! I started to think what if . . . ? My own father has been dead for 17 years but I miss him a lot and I’m always imagining that I see him – rounding a corner, sitting in a subway car directly across the tracks, nine rows ahead of me in temple. More examples of the uncanny. This story completely took me by surprise – even without a prompt. It got me thinking about the nature of God and unexplained occurrences, which in ancient times were known as miracles. Putting the two themes together, I wrote the first draft of “Creatures” before class that day. I’ve asked around but the opossum has never been spotted since.

About the Author

Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in The Portland ReviewKYSOBlack Fox Literary MagazineSandy River ReviewBlue Lyra ReviewPanoplyzineSun Star Literary MagazinePeacock Journal3Elements ReviewRappahannock ReviewGloom Cupboard, and The Delmarva Review, and is forthcoming in Sou’wester. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has written five mystery novels.

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