Small Demon
Feb 162009
 

I’ve been reading the stories that fall in the middle of Jean Stafford’s Collected Stories, most of which are set in the Rocky Mountains. When I first began reading Stafford, I saw her as a specialist in the grim, a chronicler of the unloved or insufficiently loved. Those impressions are not untrue, but they fail to describe Stafford’s emotional range. As her story, “The Mountain Day” demonstrates, she is a writer with a deep understanding of love and of — for lack of a better way of putting it — maturity. She catches very precisely the personality on the edge between childhood and adulthood. She is also — this came as a surprise to me — a deeply class-conscious writer able to describe the self-delusion and self-hatred of the working class. See in particular, “The Tea Time of Stouthearted Ladies” and “The Healthiest Girl in Town,” for examples of this class consciousness.

Technically, the stories are so limpid that I never notice how they are put together. As someone trying to teach myself about writing fiction, I have to consciously backtrack over the texts and ask myself, “No, how the hell did she do that?”

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Note: Good essay here by Jonathan Yardly about one of Stafford’s novels, The Mountain Lion, which I have not yet read.

Jan 152009
 

The novelist Stewart O’Nan came to Clarkson last fall to give the Convocation address & while he was here I had a couple of chances to talk to him, once at dinner, once the next day. He amazed me by reading my book, which I gave him at dinner, by the time we talked the following afternoon. He took notes. And since I’d read some of his fiction, we were able to have one of those good nuts & bolts kind of conversations writers like to enjoy when there is nobody else around to bore. Over the course of that conversation, Stewart suggested I try writing fiction. I really hadn’t written a story since I was an undergraduate & even then I tended to write poetic prose rather than stories. But after Stewart left I began reading his stories, then Chekhov, then everything I could get my hands on, trying to absorb the genre into my creative genome.

A month or so into this reading, I began toying with an idea for a story, taking notes and turning it over in my mind, and was on the verge of sitting down to write when another idea struck me — an image, really, & then an event. Over the next couple of weeks I wrote that story straight through and then did a quick revision. It ran to 5000 words, much longer than I had expected when I began. I sent that story, called “Bye Bye Blackbird” (after the Mel Tormé song that figures in the plot) to my mentor & to another fiction writer I know, neither of whom dismissed it as worthless. In fact, both were encouraging & very kind to my initial effort.I made some revisions & sent the piece off to a magazine that has previously published my poetry & as of this writing I await their response.

That first story concerns a boy, age 9, told in the third person; I began another story about the same boy about a dozen years later, also in third person point of view, but got hung up about half-way through the arc of the plot. (In both stories, I knew in general what was going to happen, but I didn’t know until I was actually writing how it was going to happen.) I set the half-finished story aside & focused on reading as many stories as I could.

In the meantime, I saw an ad in one of the writer’s magazines for a “short-short” story competition: under 1000 words. I had been taking notes for stories and characters in my notebook for several weeks & thought it would be a good exercise to try something very short. Most of the story ideas I had jotted down had something to do with the later life of the boy in the first story & this short-short turned out to be in the voice of his friend, a few years older, when they are both in their twenties. The friend is a bartender and speaks in the first person about a seemingly trivial  incident that occurred in the bar where he was working, but that has stuck with him — he is looking back on the experience several years later. What I didn’t expect is that this same character had another, longer story to tell, in which the boy from the first story is a college student.

On autobiography: I would be lying if I claimed that the central character of the first story was not “me” in some sense, but the events in the story did not happen to the actual me when I was a child. Actually, I took more of the setting than the action from my own experience. The same goes for the later stories — the boy is certainly some version of myself, but combined with aspects of people I knew or know, but the actual events did not happen to me & are in that sense entirely fictional. The very short story, titled “Faith,” doesn’t not feature the boy at all, the speaker being a combination of three different people I knew when I was young; the second bartender story, titled “Charity,” is told from the point of view of the boy’s friend and thus gives an external view of his character.

I have now returned to the story I’d gotten stuck on, moving it slowly forward — in all these pieces I have written straight through, not composing in pieces the way I do with poetry, & only making a few notes about pieces of specific language that I think will be needed later in the piece. This working straight through keeps me in suspense & keeps the action open. As I said, I know in general where the story is headed, but I don’t know how it is going to arrive there, which path will rise from the details to create a structure.

In both of the longer third person stories about the boy, first as a child then as a young man, I am including bits and pieces of actual times & places — in the first, some details about pop music and JFK, in the second, news reports of the fall of Saigon occur at intervals throughout the story. I am attracted to this sort of nailing down the narrative to historical facts & cultural details, which I guess makes me some kind of later day realist. In any case, that’s where I am now, feeling excited & happy about this new direction my work has taken. I was feeling as if my poetry had become narrower & narrower in its concerns & techniques & for whatever reason was no longer an appropriate place to deal with certain psychological states; but I feel free in fiction to play with a whole new set of ideas & techniques. I haven’t felt this engaged in my own creative work for several years — I only hope the results, the stories themselves, are as worthwhile as the experience of producing them.

Jan 122009
 

“Shelter” (Charles Baxter) — This is the first Baxter story I’ve read, but when I began writing fiction a couple of months ago I was greatly influenced by his how-to book, Subtext, which I am reading straight through for a second time. “Shelter” is in Baxter’s collection A Relative Stranger & it’s an effective story, though it feels just a tad too polished, perhaps only in contrast to the more inelegant Andre Dubus stories I’ve been gulping down recently.

“A Day in the Open” (Jane Bowles) — Reads like Chekhov transported to north Africa. Everything is dramatized. Nothing happens but everything happens; or, things happen but they are presented so neutrally that every event — the important & the unimportant, the dramatic & the prosaic, the significant & the insignificant — all have equal weight. Absolutely no moral judgments are made.

“The Man Who Knew Belle Star” (Richard Bausch) — This is a story about the absence of human feeling. The outlaw’s language is perfectly flat, implacable. The tough guy who picks her up hitchhiking has been in trouble, been in prison, but has not left the human world, which Belle has done, completely. Technically, a slow build, the final violent act taking place beyond the narrated time of the story.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates) — Like “The Man Who Knew Belle Star,” this story builds relentlessly through repetition. In both stories, the dangerous character is presented as having a flat affect, a profound disconnect from ordinary assumptions about good & evil. Again, the final violent act occurs after the narrative time of the story concludes.

“In the Zoo” (Jean Stafford) — I vaguely knew that Jean Stafford had been married to Robert Lowell, but hadn’t read any of her stories until this one, which I found in The Granta Book of the American Short Story. This is a bitter but still comic story of two orphan sisters sent to live with a guardian, Mrs. Placer, in a small town in Colorado. The most audacious thing about the story is that they are not clever girls and they do not succeed, really, until their guardian removes the weight of her presence by dying. There is beautiful and harrowing writing about animals in this story. [Good brief  discussion of the story here.]

“Chan Tha” (Tran Thuy Mai) — I read an interview with Mai several weeks ago in the Vietnam News and asked my friend Ly Lan about her. Turns out Lan & Mai know each other, though they haven’t met for years. Lan sent me a couple of stories, “Chan Tha” being much the stronger of the two, I thought. The problem was that it was badly translated. It is common among Vietnamese intellectuals to deny the well-known bit of translation theory that says the final translation of a story or poem ought to be done by a native speaker of the target language. So I retranslated the story over the last couple of days, brining it into idiomatic English. The story takes place during the Cambodian-Vietnamese war (1975-1989) and involves a love story between a Vietnamese soldier and a Cambodian girl. What makes the story work is the detailed and specific use of incident — a braiding of four meetings between the two characters — that is echoed in a braiding of images throughout the story.

“A Poetics for Bullies” (Stanley Elkin) — Elkin sets himself the task of portraying a bully from the inside & except that the first person narrator seems more literate than he ought to be, succeeds in excruciating detail. And the foil, the good boy, the hero, John Williams, is perhaps too good.

Jan 082009
 

I guess I could have begun counting from the final day of classes last semester, but today is the first day I would have gone into the classroom had I been teaching, so this feels like the first official day of my sabbatical. Have I said that I am wildly grateful for such a luxury? If I haven’t, I am. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are losing their jobs, don’t have health insurance, lack adequate housing, etc., to be paid to sit home & think feels almost immoral. Perhaps that’s an old streak of Protestantism coming to the surface; if so, it’s a reminder that Protestantism was originally about social justice and individual dignity / responsibility. The best way I can see to redeem — don’t you love how the religious vocabulary emerges? — my time is to make effective use of it. So far, this has been a pretty lazy winter break: I’ve done a lot of reading, but dropped studying Vietnamese; I wrote a couple of stories, but haven’t looked at any of my poems in weeks; I’ve shoveled a good deal of snow, but I have been very lazy in the kitchen, falling into auto-cook mode most of the time.

I’m going to try to blog regularly during the sabbatical, mostly as a form of self-discipline & self-reflection. I’m not oing to make any foolhardy commitments to post something every day, but that will be my goal, even if it’s just a squib or a report on local bird life or what I cooked for dinner. With luck, there will also be more substantial bits as well. Anyway, it’s cold & snowy this morning & I probably won’t go farther afield today than the post office (though Carole is heading off to work in a few minutes), so the weather is cooperating: no excuse but to get some real work done.

Dec 182008
 

chekhovBecause I have been trying to write some fiction, I have been reading the acknowledged masters of the genre, beginning with a little Barnes & Noble edition of stories. What appeals to me about Chekhov is his coolness, his detailed dispassionate descriptions of people and events. He is sympathetic toward his characters, but he does not indulge them. And Chekhov should also dispell the common notion that a short story must have a crisis and resolution, or that the main character must change or see the world differently. Writing to his publisher (who also wrote stories), Chekhov said that the job of the storyteller is to present and defina a problem, not solve it. That strikes me as good advice, which I am trying to take to heart as I write my own stories.

I spent some time yesterday diagramming the scenes in the famous story “Goosberries,” which is structurally a straightforward story within a story. [The link is to an earlier translation than the one I read.] Ivan tells his friends the story of his brother, a government clerk who has scrimped and saved enough to become a landowner in his retirement. In doing so, he has become complacent and self-satisfied. But the setting is everything. Ivan tells this story while sitting in the upstairs room of his friend Alehin, whose farm Ivan and his friend Burkin have stopped at, taking shelter from a rainstorm. The two farmsteads function almost as two additional characters in the story, with Alehin’s productive and in good trim, while I’van’s brother’s farm is described as chaotic and disorganized (though this description is Ivan’s, not the narrator’s). Ivan urges Alehin not to become complacent like his own brother, which is odd since the two characters are about as different as can be imagined — the obsessive brother and Alehin, who is described as a kind of healthy animal.

Well, my intention is not to retell the story. [Here is a pretty good e-notes summary of the story.] What interests me is the way that Chekhov refuses to take sides. The narrator notes that “no one was satisfied” with Ivan’s story (despite the fact that it is told with passion and good will) and the brother’s situation — which the reader gets only through Ivan’s eyes — is not dismissed or belittled despite Ivan’s attempt to use it as a warning. Alehin is presented as self-sufficient, part of the landscape. The problem the story presents is, How is it best to live? It does not provide an answer.