All Alive to Each Other: What Stories Have in Common
’Tis the season for March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament is in full swing, leading to the championship game and the annual commemoration of this athletic competition, the song, “One Shining Moment”: “That one shining moment you reached deep inside/One shining moment, you knew you were alive.”
I can think of no graceful segue from these song lyrics to Sherwood Anderson, and Winesburg, Ohio, other than to make the leap and invite you to follow. In Anderson’s story, “The Untold Lie,” two farm hands are husking corn in a field at dusk. Suddenly the younger man confesses that he’s “got Nell Gunther in trouble.” He asks the older man for advice: “I know what everyone would say is the right thing to do, but what do you say?” This is the moment that illuminates the human, a moment that dissolves the distance between the two men. This confession—this request for advice—entangles them. Anderson writes, “There they stood in the big empty field with the quiet corn shocks standing in rows behind them and the red and yellow hills in the distance, and from being just two indifferent workmen they had become all alive to each other.”
All alive to each other. One shining moment. Okay, there’s the segue.
There are many ways to tell a story. Not every narrative need adhere to Freytag’s Pyramid, that dramatic structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. I dare say this structure has begun to feel rusty and even oppressive to a new generation of writers who invent other ways to lay out a narrative. I wonder, though—and I’ll invite you to wonder along with me—whether, no matter the dramatic structure, there comes a moment in each story, a shining moment, one in which characters become “all alive to each other.” Taking this a step further, I wonder whether these illuminative moments become necessary—even dictate—the final moves of the story. I wonder if these moments are present from the beginning but submerged. I wonder whether the pressure of the story—coming sometimes from plot, sometimes from image or metaphor, or language, or character, or from whatever the dramatic structure might be—causes these submerged moments to rise.
I invite you, then, to re-read your favorite stories to see if you can identify the moment that each story can’t do without, the moment that makes the telling necessary, the one that illuminates. I think of Gretta telling her husband the story of the young man, Michael Furey, who loved her in her youth. I think of the young girl, Connie, stepping from her house and moving in the sunlight toward the psychopath, Arnold Friend, in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” I think of the moment at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” when the Misfit expresses his rage that he wasn’t present when Jesus may have raised the dead and for a moment the veil lifts between the Misfit and the grandmother, and he becomes illuminated to her:
It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. “Listen Lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.
Of course, this is the action that leads to the tragic end. It’s the moment that’s necessary to that end. It’s the moment that was present from the beginning, just waiting to come to light and air.
When writing and/or revising your own stories, I encourage you to be on the lookout for these moments in which the energy between your characters reaches a place where it shines a light on them and their situations, and by extension, on us as well—those moments that earn the right for your stories to exist in the first place. No matter how you’re inclined to structure them, be aware that they exist because of the sorts of moments I’m talking about, the moments that show us something of what it is to be human.
Lee, I noticed this too. I hadn’t seen it described before so I invented my own term – the nucleus moment. An example: in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, there’s a moment when the elderly narrator is at the doctor’s surgery after a suspected coronary. The doctor tells him, gently, that such things are an inevitable part of ageing: ‘Look at your face in the mirror and consider how it has changed. Think of your old heart as like your old face. Imagine that everything that has happened to your face over the years has happened to your heart’.
Somehow, this wraps up what we’ve been shown throughout the book. It creates a turning point of such power and coherence it’s like a fine plot twist.
It’s the moment toward which the story was moving from the very beginning. Absolutely! Thanks for your fine comment, Roz, and for reminding us of the power of a William Trevor story.