Sometimes a Story Begins with a Voice
I thought I’d continue my series of posts about how stories sometimes come to me. Often they begin with a voice. A narrator speaks, and I listen. I let the voice pique my curiosity. I begin to wonder what’s happened in this narrator’s life that makes it impossible for him or her to remain silent. What are the pressures that lead to the telling of the story?
One of the stories in my upcoming collection, The Mutual UFO Network, began because one day, while I was running, I heard a narrator say, “My uncle was a man named Bill Jordan.” That’s it. That’s all I had. It was enough, though, to make me curious, not only about Bill Jordan but also about his nephew—my narrator—and the connection between them.
When I put those words to paper, I extended the first sentence. “A Man Looking for Trouble” (I wouldn’t have the title until I’d written the first draft of the story) opens with this paragraph:
My uncle was a man named Bill Jordan, and in 1972, when I was sixteen, he came home from Vietnam, rented a small box house on the corner of South and Christy, and went to work on a section gang with the B & O Railroad. If not for my mother and her romance with our neighbor, Harold Timms, perhaps my uncle would have lived a quiet and unremarkable life, but of course, that’s something we’ll never know.
I was writing from instinct and curiosity when I came up with that opening paragraph. I sketched in just enough details to give Bill a life—he’d come home from Vietnam, he had a rental house and a job. He had a past and a present that would eventually collide to create his future, and that of the narrator’s. That first sentence is all context. The next sentence begins to create the trouble. The narrator’s mother is having an affair with Harold Timms, who turns out to be Bill’s boss on the section gang. That’s enough to make Bill Jordan anything but ordinary. It’s enough to earn the narrator’s right to tell the story. That little speck of trouble. That little glitch in what could have been “a quiet and unremarkable life.”
Having created a potential problem for Bill—the affair between his boss and his sister-in-law—I next had to think about why this story mattered at the time to the sixteen year-old narrator. To address that question, I decided that he was experiencing his first true love with a girl named Connie who happened to be the daughter of Harold Timms, a relationship that was complicated by the fact that everyone in this small town, including the narrator’s father, knew about the mother’s affair with Mr. Timms.
The dramatic center of the story takes place on a certain summer Sunday. After church that day, Connie has told the narrator she’s ending their relationship. They’ve conspired to keep it a secret because of the affair between Connie’s father and the narrator’s mother for fear of what people would think. “Why did that concern me?” the narrator says. “I suppose there was a part of me that believed I was betraying my father, who lived with the pain my mother caused him every day, and who surely wouldn’t be happy if he knew I’d thrown in with Connie. How could she and I make our affections known when her father and my mother were the subjects of so much gossip? I’d like to say we wanted to be better than that gossip, but I suspect we were just embarrassed.”
So Bill Jordan returns from Vietnam in search of a quiet life, but because it angers him that his brother tolerates his wife’s infidelity, any interaction between Bill and Harold Timms is charged with tension. Furthermore, because the narrator is in love with Harold Timms’s daughter, the dramatic action of the story will have significant consequences for the teller of the tale.
With this context established, all I had to do was to find the appropriate scenes to cause the suggested tensions to rise to the breaking point. From the climactic moment (I won’t describe it here in case anyone wants to read the story) when Bill takes an action that’s consequential and irrevocable, everyone’s life shifts in a way that can’t be changed.
The key for the writer is having the courage to force tensions to the crisis point—to let the story explode and then to follow the shrapnel as it embeds its shards into each character’s future life. To get to that crisis point, we sometimes have to create more than one story line. In the case of “A Man Looking for Trouble,” I had the story of Bill Jordan. It would have been unremarkable without the story of Bill’s brother, without Harold Timms, without the affair between Timms and Bill’s sister-in-law, without the story of Connie Timms and my narrator. I instinctively felt my way through this multilayered story to finally discover what happened to make it a tale that my narrator had to tell.
You make this process sound so effortless. I wish storylines would come to me like this
It’s always easy in retrospect, Ellen. I condense things for the sake of the length of the blog post, but in actuality there can be long stretches between the various stages of the process, and sometimes things have to be rethought a number of times.