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Story Spotlight: "Used to Be" by Elizabeth Baines

"In spite of what narrative tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable.” So says the narrator of Elizabeth Baines’s metafictive offering from the Fall 2008 issue.

A former writer turned actress (the “tyranny of stories,” she explains, had led her to disavow the craft), the narrator finds herself “in danger of constructing a character” while on the way to a film shoot. Recklessly driving them to their destination is fellow actress Sally, whom our narrator cannot help but process from a writer’s perspective: Sally is a boisterous mess, a shouter and a laugher. At one point, she comically keeps missing their exit. But just as a hyena’s laughter is not as it seems, this caricature of Sally gets upended in a surprising way by story’s end, re-coloring our narrator’s view of Sally, and imbuing with new poignancy her clownish yattering and her seemingly inexplicable bent towards getting lost.

Baines’s story shows that authors can no easier control their characters than people simply witnessing the personalities of strangers unfold can. Her use of actors, metamorphosing figures shifting from one role to another, bolsters this theme of the fluidity of characters, their unpredictable evolutions.

In “Used to Be,” details surface in seeming randomness. In actuality though, they slowly accrete in a “controlled” manner (a winking sleight of hand from Baines, whose narrator bemoans lack of authorial control), gradually foreshadowing the reveals to come regarding not just Sally, but also the narrator herself. (By story’s end, you will find the sound of ducks poignant).

“Used to Be” is a self-reflexive treat whose enigmatic holding pattern makes beautiful sense by story’s end.

Read “Used to Be,” our latest Story Spotlight.