Squinting at the Stories


September 12, 2010

My artist friend Billy Tokyo has a disconcerting habit of ignoring what you say and squinting at something off to the side or above your head, as if he suspects danger but needs glasses to discern it. When you ask what he’s doing, he apologizes for not listening and explains that he narrows his eyes and filters things through his lashes to reduce color to chiaroscuro and see the basic forms he’ll sketch for new paintings. Then he offers to make up for his rudeness by buying the next round, which turns out to be double shots of ginger schnapps. He toasts, secretly pours his own on the floor, and giggles when you choke on yours. There are many things to be learned from Billy Tokyo.

Sometimes I ask creative writing students to squint past the style, plot, and other surface aspects of a peer’s prose to see what work the story is trying to do as a “small (or large) machine made of words.” Even the clumsiest apprentice stories usually contain some thing of interest, even if it’s buried in cliché, easy judgments, wish fulfillment, or naiveté. Pointing out that interest, which the writer doesn’t see or value, may be one of the most encouraging services we can provide in workshops.

That story about a princess locked in a tower, for instance, written with un-ironic sentimentality, filled with weird details such as a close male relative’s wet, warm lips, and mistaken in its use of “cathedral” for “castle,” is confused; it seems to have no core. But a brief passage on page four reveals, apropos of nothing, that the brother is an untrained but talented artist who paints watercolor portraits of women passing on the street. His sister’s apparently unmotivated jealousy over those women, if one looks past the erotic overtones, can be seen to come from not having the freedom or ability to be an artist herself. That’s a pretty good story waiting to be developed.

Another kind of draft contains too many years of the writer’s anger, struggle, fear, and need for audience. It’s actually six or eight stories in as many pages, and we wait to see which will stand first on its hairy shanks and speak coherently. The others can wait their turn; maybe they’ll convene in a collection or novel, some day.

The one that emerges, by squinting just a little, is about two kids waking their mother, she’s tired from work but it’s Saturday morning and there’s nothing to eat. Picture the confused talk: Go fix this or that, there isn’t any of that or this, not even a cup of milk, mom. The small boy’s rising anger, there’s nothing, mom, nothing in there at all, come on please I’m hungry. Then the quibbling over getting dressed and out to the bus stop to go to the supermarket—the kids too young to stay at home but the girl old enough to sass and whine—and the mom having to show some anger to get them out in time since the bus doesn’t run often on the weekend.

The ride through lesser to nicer neighborhoods, a long walk from the end of the line to the grocery. Frustrated hungers, hard choices, the humiliation of food stamps at the hands of fools. The wire cart and the plastic bags that cut into the hands, the long walk back to the bus, the ride in exhaustion and silence, not even a relief since there’s the long walk back to the house to come. Mom taking more bags than she can carry because she’s worried and guilty about the kids. Finally some ham and eggs, and the day’s work hasn’t even begun.

Poverty is a long slow misery, like toothache. The story’s understanding of the plastic bags cutting—unrelieved and unrelievable—into the flesh of the palms, arms held painfully away from the body, crucifixion of the working poor, isn’t an accident or a fake, and with selection and expansion, shaping the reader’s experience of the story to the experience of the characters’, form will come to follow function.

I’m reminded as I read of Sonja Livingston’s Ghostbread, winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction (University of Georgia Press, 2009), about a childhood in poverty:

My mother’s car broke down and changed everything. Unable to afford the repairs, she could no longer make the hour-long commute to Batavia for her factory job, and the green Buick became just one more stopped car in the wide driveway that separated us from the three-tiered apartment building next door. And so, with the car dead, we were as stuck as everyone else.

This life has its small mercies:

My bed was in the living room. So was Steph’s. I’d spent years sleeping on floors, of course, and so didn’t know enough to care about sleeping in the living room. All I knew was that suddenly we had beds, and as Steph attempted to divide up the living room with cardboard boxes and crates carried up from the street, I became mesmerized by my sheets. I flapped a worn one with floral edging into the air over my bed and let it fall onto the mattress. Over and over. I loved the bubble of air that formed under the clean cotton. I had a crush on that bed, thinking of it when I was not near it, slipping into its protection whenever I could.

A writer has to drink a lot of fire to get to that material.


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