The short story, “Escapes,” by Joy Williams opens with what at first glance may seem to be a series of disconnected oddities: the narrator’s memory of her father telling her about her grandfather being alive just before he died, her memory of a twenty-foot tall champagne glass atop a nightclub, her father pretending to be lame in a gift shop, her mother’s story of seeing Harry Houdini make an elephant disappear, a newspaper article about a hunter who shot a bear who was carrying a woman’s pocketbook in its mouth. We’re five pages into the story before the central narrative begins. A trip to a magician’s show serves to illustrate the difficulty the narrator’s mother has with alcohol and how she couldn’t pull herself out of her drinking while the narrator is able to say in the last line of the story, “I got out of it, but it took me years.”
Often, we tell writers to open their stories as close to the end as possible. It’s good advice, particularly for those who are apt to wander in their narratives, but, as with anything when it comes to writing, there are always alternatives. This Joy Williams story presents us with what I’d call a collage strategy for opening a story. This collection of oddities is of course thematically relevant to the consideration of the mother/daughter relationship that stands at the center of the story. Escape, disappearance, pretense, entrapment—each oddity sets the stage for the central narrative while also being unforgettable itself.
I’ve always been a gatherer of strange or quirky events. Over the years, I’ve clipped countless newspaper articles, jotted down odd things I’ve seen, listened to my friends’ stories of the unusual, and generally kept myself open to the memorable, imagining that someday I might use these remarkable things in my work. I’ve always thought it my job to make the ordinary strange, and the strange familiar. That’s exactly what Joy Williams does in “Escapes.” The oddities dissolve toward the end of the story when the usher at the magic show counsels the drunk mother. “You can pull yourself through,” he tells her. The strange then drops out of the story, and we’re left with the mundane details of a life—a donut eaten with mitten-covered hands, a little girl pulling a sled, an old blue convertible traveling home in the dark. The strange has brought us to this familiar truth. Sometimes we can’t escape the harm we do ourselves, and sometimes our legacy lingers at a great cost to our loved ones who have to try to save themselves. “I got out of it, but it took me years.”
So, I offer this brief writing exercise to those who may want to try this collage approach for opening a narrative. Come up with at least three oddities—anything you witnessed, experienced, read about, heard about. Trust your intuition that these oddities will have a thematic connection. Then write a single sentence like, “I got out of it, but it took me years.” Feel free to change the pronoun to fit whatever point of view you’d like to use. This will be the last line of your story. Open the story by putting your three oddities on the page. Let them suggest a central narrative. Follow it to its end. I could see this exercise working equally well for fiction or creative nonfiction.