I just got back from teaching in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Workshop, and I wanted to give a recap of the craft class that I taught. The session was called “Taking Care at the End: The Art of Misdirection.” So please permit me a digression. The photo below was taken by my conference colleague, Dinty Moore, as I crossed the street soon after my craft class. Do I look surprised? Or am I simply mugging for the camera? Or both? Perhaps I’m simply surrendering, as we do at the end of a good story, poem, novel, essay. Perhaps, I’m saying, “Okay, you got me. I didn’t see this coming, but now here it is.” The end of a good piece of writing has that feeling of simultaneous surprise and inevitability. The turn at the end catches us by surprise and we say, “Ah, of course,” because it has the ring of a truth that’s been artfully delivered. The question, then, is how can we set out on this covert operation? How can we catch our readers unaware as we spin a narrative opposite from the one they think they’re reading, allowing that submerged story to fully surface at the end?
I believe I’ve written a bit about Brian Hinshaw’s brilliant piece of flash fiction, “The Custodian,” before on this blog, but it warrants looking at again. The story is told in two paragraphs. Here’s the first one:
The job would get boring if you didn’t mix it up a little. Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through. Couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire. So for a kick, I would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with the bucket, and set her going. She was best at the songs you’d sing with a group–“Oh Susanna,” campfire stuff. Any kind of Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into “Let It Snow” during a heat spell. We’d try to make her to take up a song from the radio or some of the old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those. Although once I had her do “How Dry I Am” while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.
In the opening, we meet a narrator (I’m going to assume it’s a man though the story never specifies the gender) who works as a custodian in a health care facility. To keep the job from being too boring, he gets the patient in 14-A to sing, the only verbalization apparently that she’s capable of. There’s some lightness of tone in the opening. It’s apparent in the language: “mix it up a little,” “sang like a house on fire,” “it always cracked the nurses,” etc. At the end of the first paragraph, we learn that the custodian once had the woman sing “How Dry I Am” while a nurse attends to the patient’s catheter. When I read this story aloud, people generally laugh at that line and then in our conversation that follows, they admit to feeling guilty about laughing because they’re aware that the custodian may be dehumanizing the patient. I’d suggest that we haven’t been aware of the submerged story, the one that’s quite opposite from the one suggested by the opening lines, but at the very end of the first paragraph, that submerged story begins to rise.
Here’s the second and final paragraph of the story:
Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partways into “Auld Lang Syne” and the daughter says “oh oh oh” like she had interrupted scintillating conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet. And the daughter looks at me the way a girl does at the end of an old movie and she says “my god,” says “you’re an angel,” and now I can’t do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.
Notice what happens with language in that first sentence. The immediate pause after “Yesterday,” signals a shift in tone from the lightness of the first paragraph to the gravity of the second one. The submerged story, as it surfaces, requires a more contemplative tone. As that first sentence unwinds contains more than one pause, and actually we might argue that the second sentence is really a continuation of the first. Of course, there’s a great misreading in what the daughter thinks of the custodian. She thinks he’s doing something good by bringing a few moments of regular life and joy to the patient by getting her to sing. The daughter sees this as a completely beneficent act on the part of the custodian. He knows, though, that his motive hasn’t been beneficent at all but instead self-serving, a way of warding off the boredom. He feels so ashamed, he can’t continue, can hardly step into 14A where the patient will no longer have the opportunity for that singing. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Both? The answer becomes complicated, the way it always does at the end of a good story that captures some simultaneous loss and gain. Perhaps, the custodian’s actions, though selfish in nature, actually did create something positive for the patient. Or perhaps, his action was so wrong, it’s a good thing that he’s stopped. It seems to me that once the submerged story fully rises, it’s impossible to privilege one interpretation over the other. A binary has been leveled, and the ending resonates with the complexity of truth made possible through Brian Hinshaw’s art of misdirection. We thought we were reading a story about a custodian who had no thought of what he might be doing when he got the patient to sing, but really we were reading, as the ending proves, a story of a man coming to an awareness of how someone else interprets his action, choosing to think of him as an angel, but at the cost of him never again wanting to get 14A to sing. A very complicated human story has fully arrived through the scrim of a more simple story of self-interest.
At some point, we all need to experience what it feels like when a narrative takes a surprising and resonant turn. We need to put into practice a story that begins leaning one direction, only to lean in the opposite direction at its end. The opposite story, or the submerged story, rises within the structure of the primary story, the one we think we’re reading. The pressure of plot (notice how the third character, the daughter, becomes the final catalyst necessary to the submerged story becoming visible) forces that submerged story to the top. Dramatic irony, in this case accomplished through the daughter’s misreading, provides an opposite result to what the custodian intended, bringing him to a different view of himself and the world around him. That world changes in a profound way that resonates with readers. It’s as if a gong sounds and the sound waves reverberate back through the story and on into the future beyond the story’s end. Simply put, we can’t forget it because it arrives in such a covert but totally genuine way.
If you’d like to put all of this into practice, think of a job that you had that could get boring or that you wanted to be done with. What did you do to “mix it up a little?” How can you imitate Hinshaw’s story? Two paragraphs, one that establishes the surface story and then signals the submerged story beginning to rise at the end of the first paragraph, and one that allows that submerged story to fully rise. How can you use a third character as a catalyst? How can you used a misreading to lead us to an ironic and resonant end?