When I first arrived at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference last week, I went in search of registration. I had no idea where it was or how I was going to get there. If I hadn’t asked more than a few folks for directions, I could have spent a good deal of time wandering down corridors that wouldn’t have brought me any closer to my goal. It might have been fun—it might even have given me the illusion that I was making progress—but it would have never been purposeful.
Here we are in early February, a time known as mid-winter, or so I learned from a column in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch. This same article told me that the old-timers had a saying: “Have half your wood and half your hay, and you’ll come safely through to May.” The lesson is don’t waste all that you have in the early going; you’ll need enough to see you to the end of winter.
Eudora Welty’s story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” opens like this:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy, and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whittaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Post Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up.
A large part of the memoir writer’s task is to decide what to leave out. After all, we’re talking about the span of a life, and we certainly can’t include everything. Our initial instincts with memoir tell us that a certain degree of chronology is in order. We’ll move from this point in time to this other point in time, and that will be our story. But what if that form doesn’t sufficiently contain the experience you’d like to relate to the reader? What if a straight march through time, no matter how focused and selective, just won’t create the emotional truth that you want to express?
This morning, my wife and I watch a swan gliding along on the lake near the bank, and we talk about how unusual it is to see this lone swan when we typically see two, three, as many as six.
I know, because my wife passed along information she got from a game warden who came to collect a dead swan (a sad story involving an electrical line), that the one we’re now watching is a mute swan, a particularly aggressive bird who often threatens kayakers if they unknowingly get too close to a nesting spot. These swans have been known to attack and even kill people with the enormous force of their wings. “Get hit with the wing of a mute,” the game warden told my wife, “and it’s like getting hit with a ball bat.”
Spring Semester classes begin this week at Ohio State University, a fact that leads me to thinking about beginnings in general and the openings of narratives in particular. More to the point, I’m thinking about the ways we get stories started when we’re not even sure what stories we want to tell. How, in other words, do we begin when we face the blank page with an equally blank mind?
I often get asked how long it takes me to write a novel. My standard answer is three years, but really I have no idea. It’s hard to pin down because how do we know when the writing begins? Oh sure, I know when I first put pen to paper, or first pressed fingers to keyboard, but what about the first spark of the idea? When did that happen, and how long did I let it just wash around in my heart and my mind before I decided it might become a novel? And once the writing began, how long did I spend making false starts, thinking I might just abandon the idea, working on something else, maybe coming back to the aborted novel, maybe not, until finally one day something clicked and I picked it up again, and, lo and behold, I knew something I didn’t previously, and, as I started to write again, the novel took shape. Then there’s always the revision process, and who can predict how long that will take. And there’s the time spent waiting for trusted readers—friends, agent, and, with hope, someday an editor—to get their notes to me, and while I ponder them, I’m spending my time teaching my classes, reading my students’ work, reading other novelist’s books to offer blurbs, reviewing manuscripts for university presses, and on and on and on, and during this time, is my subconscious busy working on the novel?
Garrison Keillor, in Leaving Home, says, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” There’s something here that speaks to the short story form. What is a well-told story but a thunderstorm that we—writer, character, and readers—experience together.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the art of the short story lately, partly because I’m reading applications for admission to our MFA program, and partly because I’m about to gear up to teach our MFA fiction workshop this spring semester. While I know there are no absolutes when it comes to how to write a good story, here are some precepts that I’ve always found helpful.
I’m about to start revising a manuscript for a novel that I finished long ago enough that I can’t remember exactly when I did finish it. When I started the draft, as usual, I didn’t have much of an idea where I was going, but more important than that, I didn’t know what the story would be. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, talks about story as the narrative of events in a time sequence, but within that narrative is also what Forster calls “the life by values.” He offers up this sentence as an example of both: “I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it.” Forster then goes on to say, “And what the story does is to narrate the life in time. And what the entire novel does—if it is a good novel—is to include the life by values as well.” So I only saw her for five minutes, an event connected to a time sequence. But it was worth it, the value the narrator attaches to the event.
Last week, I wrote about using sensory details to take us to material from our lives that might merit examination in a piece of memoir. This morning, I woke up thinking about sounds from my childhood. It seems to me that we all have a few sounds that take us back into the past—sounds that carry us to some sort of emotional resonance. One of mine is the sound of a wringer washing machine.