Monthly Archives: July 2011

Where Stories Start

The other day, during a panel discussion on “place as character in fiction” at the Iowa City Book Festival, my co-panelist Don Waters asked me a question:

Do you ever want to write about a place you can’t get access to?

He mentioned a few such places on his list: a huge, land art installation on private property in the Nevada desert; the U.S. government’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. What do you do, he asked, when you want to write about a place, and you just can’t get in?

I hedged. I talked about an anecdote from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” King relates that when he was writing “From a Buick 8,” he had some scenes take place in a state trooper car, travelling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. King made the details up out of whole cloth in the initial writing. He let his mind run free as he created. Later, he rode in an actual cruiser with an actual trooper — and then went back and fixed the details he got wrong, or added new ones for authenticity.

This, I said, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from E.L. Doctorow:

Henry James has a parable about what writing is. He posits a situation where a young woman who has led a sheltered life walks past an army barracks, and she hears a fragment of soldiers’ conversation coming through a window. And she can, if she’s a novelist, then go home and write a true novel about life in the army. You see the idea? The immense, penetrative power of the imagination and intuition.

I have this quote typed, and taped to my wall behind my computer monitor. There is something in the spirit of this that I need to believe, as a writer, is fundamentally true.

But if I’m being honest, I sometimes have my doubts. I envy writers like Don, who are drawn to subjects far beyond their experience.

I didn’t say it at the time, but Don’s question gave me pause. Truth is, I’ve never really been drawn — as a fiction writer — to the unknown, the tantalizingly out-of-reach. What most interests me are the places I can map when I close my eyes.

I sometimes think that every story I’ve ever written starts in the exact same place: the rooms of my childhood. On Grant Avenue in Highland Park, with the window overlooking the street, and the photo-sensitive streetlight that buzzed to life at dusk. On Joan Road, Long Beach Island, where the beds were always itchy with humidity and sand. On Ohayo Mountain Road in Woodstock, charged with the smell of wicker and vitamins and Grandma’s assertive black coffee.

There, because in those rooms, the world was still filled with a penetrating, thrilling wonder. In those rooms, anything was — anything still is — possible.

‘Like the Song’

One million or more short story readers can’t be wrong.

According to Paul Vidich, cofounder and publisher of Storyville, there are between 500,000 and 1.5 million American adults who are “frequent readers of short stories.”

You can read about how Vidich comes to this number in this piece in The Millions, “Publish or Perish: The Short Story.”

Vidich argues that short story writing is alive and well today, noting that some 2 million American adults (annually?) publish creative writing, and there are 150,000 creative writing MFA students who have graduated in the last 20 years — “all of whom learn to write and read short stories.”

But, he argues, at the same time:

Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell

(See my blog post: “Keep it Short“)
What gives? Vidich attributes the decline to the decline in mass market magazine readership.

Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies.

He concludes that web connected devices like iPad and iPhone can help bring the short story back as a well-read art form. I hope he’s right. Says Vidich:

Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create.

‘A Confession of Anger’

Just landed in Iowa City for the Iowa City Book Festival. Sitting in Java House, which has to be one of my all-time favorite cafes, reading the galley of Anna Solomon’s new novel, “The Little Bride.” I’ll have more to say about this amazing novel later.

In the meantime, here is a story within the story. (See how it has a beginning, a middle, an end?) Anna’s lovely description from the point of view of an immigrant, after a long, arduous voyage across the Atlantic in steerage, sighting America:

Land looked at first like a storm. A piling on of clouds at the horizon, a confession of anger, which suddenly revealed itself to be solid. Trees, rocks, city.

Rock Me Like a Description of a Hurricane

As I read Lauren Groff’s story, “Above and Below,” in the New Yorker summer fiction issue last night, I found myself riveted by her description of an oncoming hurricane. The character watching the storm come in has recently become homelss. She’s living in her car:

A hurricane developed over the Caribbean but only its edges lashed the shore. Still, during the scream and blow, the camphor rattled its branches against the top of the car and the wagon shook so hard she was afraid the metal would twist and the glass would break. The retention pond overflowed and water licked up to the hubcaps. She lay as quietly as she could and listened and watched: she was a thin shell of glass and steel from the raw nerve at the center of herself. She felt the storm come closer, charging near; she waited with a painful breathless patience. But before it arrived she fell asleep.

That’s a short story, right there. A complete story within a story. Like a Chinese doll.

That sentence — she was a thin shell of glass and steel from the raw nerve at the center of herself — sets me on edge. I want to say: aren’t we all. Just this close to twisting and breaking apart.