I Was A Revolutionary: Stories
“The Burning of Lawrence”
“The Burning of Lawrence” is from Andrew Malan Milward’s debut collection I WAS A REVOLUTIONARY: STORIES (Harper Collins, 2015.). Milward’s stories have appeared in Zoetrope All-Story, The Best New American Voices, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. Milward crafts an epic mosaic of the American experience with his stories, tracing how we live amid the ghosts of history. “The Burning of Lawrence” vibrates with the raw terror of a town pillaged by pro-Confederate raiders. “O Death” recalls the desperately hard journey of the Exodusters–African-American migrants who came to Kansas to escape oppression in the South.
Milward said this about his story: In the fall of 2006 I entered graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to study fiction writing. Marilynne Robinson was my teacher that first semester. She was, and continues to be, one of my personal writing deities, and I desired her approval more than anything. She really liked the first story I workshopped about meth and fundamentalism in rural Kansas, and I had great hopes for my second, which was a story I’d wanted to write for a number of years, the story of Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, the town where I grew up.
I’d never written historically inspired fiction, but this felt like a story I needed to find a way to tell. I’d been researching and working on it for over a year when I presented it to the class. That first version of “The Burning of Lawrence” was radically different from the version published here nine years later and which opens my book I Was a Revolutionary. I can see the failings of that first draft now, but at the time I practically walked into workshop expecting my peers to rise slowly, singly, and clap, affirming my genius, and for Marilynne to dismiss class, pronouncing the story “un-workshopable” with a dramatic wave of her hand that perhaps carried just the faint whiff of envy.
Comeuppance is too gentle a word for the experience I had that day. It would take me months to recover from the rejection, especially Marilynne’s. I went to her office hours and tried to talk to her, but I hadn’t yet learned to hear what she was saying, deaf to the fact that her criticisms were coming from a place of deep compassion for me and deep seriousness about the art of fiction.
As sometimes happens, it was only after I’d given up on the story that I found a way to re-enter it and imagine it anew. Marilynne had drawn and quartered that first draft, because removing its limbs was the only way to show me there was no heart. It was a hard lesson to learn–about the need to give our fictional characters the dignity of human complexity and about the way fiction, if we are to do it well, demands that we bring our most humane and empathetic selves to the writing desk each and every day–but I am so grateful she taught it to me.