Aspiring fiction writers—and they are many on The East End—should take heart from Southampton resident Jen Senft’s short story Prison Visit which she has put into slim book form (Mustard Seed Press) and which she says went through approximately 50 versions, “each with varying degrees of change—some small, some large,” including the conclusion, but, arguably the most significant being the opening line: “You have to go through four sets of doors to get to the visiting room,” where the keyword turned out to be “you.” Her (solicited) comments may remind writers of the feeling; Senft calls it the “surgically painful process”—of rewriting, of being self critical as well as open to suggestions from colleagues and friends. Even F. S. Fitzgerald, arguably for many the epitome of easy-flowing elegant prose and sharply focused dialogue based on simple diction, was into heavy revision, as the facsimile edition of The Great Gatsby shows. It’s been said that only Isaac Asimov never altered first drafts.
Senft’s tale, which has been nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Press prize, no doubt exemplifies some of the advice she’s been giving over the years to students who sign up for her writing workshops on fiction, memoir, screenplays and plays or who work with her, one on one. Her pieces, fiction and nonfiction, have appeared in The Southampton Review, Hampton Shorts, Dan’s Papers, Riverhead Local and The East Hampton Star.
She has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Stony Brook, Southampton, an MA in Psychology from NYU and a FBA from the NYU Film School. Though she says she tries not to “obsess” over, say, commas, it’s clear she has fixated on making grammar support the logical flow of the story and the psychological condition of the central character in Prison Visit. The narrator addresses the reader as “you,” giving this startling tale about incest everyday colloquial expression, which heightens the disparity between what is revealed about the narrator’s horrific past incestuous relationship with her brother, which began when she was eleven, and the way she dispassionately delivers that information in the present.
The story opens with the facts of making a prison visit—the layers of security, the guards, the dehumanizing signing in, the sights, sounds, the smells peculiar to a prison. And then, almost matter-of-factly, as though talking to herself but in a tone that preserves an odd ambivalence about the relationship with her brother and, obviously, why he is in prison: “You were eleven and he was fourteen and you lost your virginity to him.” Her first instinct is to flee but she has clearly been down this road before and knows what to do: she detours to the bathroom, ostensibly because nature calls, but really to engineer a hit of coke “to get yourself through this” and then, further delays, getting food from a vending machine. The complexity of the relationship, the suspended judgment and her love for her brother, is what drives the story
Prison Visit resonates with life truths but also with a sense of the distance that careful writing can provide. New writers often begin with what they know and can get caught by autobiographical imperatives. Senft clearly appreciates the difference between memoir (“My father and uncle were in prison”) and what she calls the “emotionally authentic element of fiction,” by which she means that effective stories may change (or disguise) names, locations, clothing, but they primarily “create a new world” true to organizing narrative structure, character and setting in a way that will engage the reader in a believable and moving theme, here the irony of acknowledging a victimizing relationship that was and remains both suffocating and liberating. Senft, a single mother, concedes that “juggling” the writing life and the domestic life can be difficult, but that they are both essential to her existence, and ultimately rewarding.