Sunday, April 18, 2021

Use it All Up

This week I've been reading 12 Short Stories and Their Making, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. The conceit of the anthology is that after each story Mandelbaum includes an interview with the author about some particular aspect of storytelling. The anthology is divided into subjects like plot, character, point of view, and setting, and in each interview Mandelbaum tries to draw out specific lessons that might benefit other writers.

It's pretty great. So far I've read stories by Walter Kirn, Kim Edwards, George Garrett, Gail Godwin, and Charles Johnson, and there's not one of them that hasn't made me stop and think. The interviews could be just the cherry on top, but the writers are deeply generous with their answers and so there's a lot of meat there, too.

Charles Johnson with grandson, seated behind a desk in his office, the walls lined with bookshelves
Charles Johnson
In one of my favorite stories, “China” by Charles Johnson, a man is his fifties takes up martial arts. The story is told in third-person, from the perspective of his wife, Evelyn, who watches her husband Rudolph go through his transformation with surprise, irritation, anger, and finally epiphany when she sees him compete for the very first time.

What's interesting about the story is how persuasive it feels. Calling it an “allegory” makes it sound heavy-handed, which it isn't at all. But I wasn't completely surprised, either, when I read this in Johnson's interview:

This early story (1980) was initially inspired by a rather heated discussion about Buddhism that I had with my friend and former teacher, John Gardner, in person and through my letters. … We argued back and forth about Buddhism in a few letters, then I decided to simply dramatize my position by writing the story 'China,' knowing that Gardner much preferred to read fiction than arguments.”

The story is an argument, and its tension comes from the two competing perspectives, the irreconcilable positions of husband and wife. But as a metaphor for mindfulness and self-discipline, it's also an argument that I think any writer would recognize between that part of the self that wants to create and the part that would rather give in to distraction.

Maybe that's why this story resonated so much. Especially this month, when I've been wrestling with myself just to get words down on paper, to prioritize my time for writing. Part of the reason I started reading 12 Stories was the fact I really haven't read much fiction this year, and I thought maybe that was the issue. So I gave myself a prescription: Take one story each night until the problem clears up.

I wasn't totally wrong. For instance, as soon as I finished reading “The Hoaxer” by Walter Kirn an idea popped in my head for a story and I sat down to write. Good fiction inspires, and sometimes that's easy to forget if you're on a run of bland reading. 12 Stories does not have that problem.

But reading more fiction can't solve everything. Despite a lot of change this year in how I approach the work of writing, it's still sometimes hard to remember what the work is all for. Stories get rejected, queries go unnoticed, and I'm still here typing away in my basement. So what?

In that, I'm much more like Evelyn. Here she is about halfway into the story, trying to process Rudolph's newfound devotion to training:

People were naturally soft on themselves. But not her Rudolph. Of course, he seldom complained. It was not in his nature when, looking for 'gods,' he found only ruin and wreckage. What did he expect? Evelyn wondered. Man was evil—she'd told him that a thousand times—or, if not evil, hopelessly flawed. Everything failed; it was some sort of law. But at least there was laughter, and lovers clinging to one another against the cliff; there were novels—wonderful tales of how things should be—and perfection promised in the afterworld. He'd sit and listen, her Rudolph, when she put things this way, nodding because he knew that in his persistent hunger for perfection in the here and now he was, at best, in the minority. He kept his dissatisfaction to himself, but occasionally Evelyn would glimpse in his eyes that look, that distant, pained expression that asked: Is this all?

Evelyn wants to protect Rudolph. She thinks she wants him to accept the world as it is. But what she's actually asking is for him to accept the world as she sees it, a vision that's incompatible with Rudolph's need to use up the unused parts of himself before they can spoil.

I think writers, like anyone who practices an art, have that drive to "use up" all of themselves. But there's always that other voice, the one wondering why you can't just accept the way that things are. If it were going to happen, it would have happened by now. The catch is that “It” is a moving target. Whatever "success" means right now, it will long have moved on by the time that I get there.

Alas, knowing that fact doesn't make it any easier to wrestle with. While I'd like to be Rudolph, fully present and devoting myself wholly to one thing, I'm still a lot of Evelyn, wondering, "What did you expect?"

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...