The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Archive for May 2019

Thanks, Ray

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I got another story published.  Dare I say this is becoming routine?  I might dare if I might dare fate and the muse, so out of respect to them I won’t dare to say this whole thing is becoming routine.  But I am glad to say it is feeling routine, and I have Rumble Fish Quarterly to thank for this one.  They accepted my story “The Return” and published it two weeks ago (page 18 if you’re peeping it just now).  There’s a greater entity at work here, though, greater than fate and the muse and the kind publisher: Raymond Carver.

This is all about imitation.  It’s something I preach to my students, and even enforce it by way of transcribing poems and passages from prose readings.  I doubt at their age they get as much out of it as I have since I stopped fighting my professors about it and really tried it; still, I impress with them that imitation is the road to your writing identity.  It works this way throughout the arts. You create your voice by channeling the voices that influenced you. Carver is but one of those voices for me. There’s Chekhov (who influenced Carver). There’s O. Henry. Thomas McGuane.  John McPhee. Jack Ridl. Kay Ryan. This idea of imitation is not a hard sell for adults, but it is for my students. I end up asking them if you’re on the football team, tell me their favorite player. Do you try to play like him? If you’re constantly watching NBA videos on YouTube, do you try to play like Kevin Durant?  Sure you do. Michael Jordan? I hope not because I can’t stand MJ. So they are familiar with the concept, but something disconnects with them when I not only encourage them to do it but mandate it.

So I was in full imitation mode as I drafted “The Return,” and it felt so smooth and natural that I never bothered to turn it off.  I did, however, have to find variations and add my own seasoning so editors who looked at it wouldn’t shrug it off as another in what I’m sure is an endless flow of Carver stories they receive.

The first and most obvious “borrowing” was from Carver’s story “Kindling.”  I read it years ago when I was starting out as a writer, and it left an impression on me.  The idea of a character having to accomplish something rang a note of empathy in my head. In the story, Myers is on the mend from drinking and a lost relationship and sets to the task of chopping a load of wood for a couple who is leasing him a room.  The idea of what doing something physical and earthy represents for a distressed character, what it does for the person emotionally and the confidence it gives him to move on with life, is something I think we can all identify with. The symbolism is natural and easy to grasp, yet profound.  It’s accessible to all ranges of intelligence, making the story appealing to a broad range of readers. For “The Return,” I have Sam in a similar circumstance with drinking and a broken (but not lost) relationship. If somehow he can get his yard together, he’s got a puncher’s chance at getting his life and his wife back.  But this doesn’t come together until the end when the narrator who is watching and eventually helping Sam finally connects the dots with what is happening next door to his own life and relationship, which isn’t as troubled as Sam’s but is on the decline.

I went back and reread “Kindling” last week after I was notified of publication, and found it lacking in ways (what do I know, anyhow?  it earned a sixth O. Henry Award for Carver, albeit posthumously).  There’s a third-person omniscient narrator, which is unusual for a short story, and frankly a good deal of needless material like scenes that don’t need to happen and relatively meaningless description.  Despite all that, the major symbolic action worked for me and made its way into my toolbox.

A solid piece of symbolic action, though, didn’t feel like it would be enough to carry the story.  I needed a direct redemption. I needed Sam to win at the end, but even that wasn’t going to be enough.  In fact, it felt early on that the mere fact of Sam winning was going to be cliche (it’s worth saying that it’s okay to write in cliches.  Moving through typical models of writing while you practice is valuable, but I’m also at the point of not wanting to call so much of my writing practice).  Since my mind was already on Carver, I thought more and more about one of his best known stories: Cathedral.  I’ve had a few encounters with it through the years, and the redemption the narrator experiences has always stuck with me.  In fact, the narrator is pretty much an ass until he has his moment. That was Ronnie for me. He’s standoffish with Sam and struggles to put the pieces together with what has happened next door, preferring instead to sink into himself in his garage and behind his fence.  He even isolates himself from his wife. Even when he realizes what has happened next door, he still operates mostly on his gut feeling rather than eloquent internal psychology. Ronnie isn’t much capable of eloquent internal psychology, but the reader is when they put together the pieces as he reports them.  The reader doesn’t need Ronnie to connect all the dots for him, and in fact is drawn deeper into the story when they make their own inferences.

The end result was the psychologically deepest story I’ve written. I was satisfied with it, but self-satisfaction is a false litmus test when you’re interested in getting something published.  The rejections started rolling in, and I started to have doubts about the story being too Carverish. I was also worried about overusing symbolism. For chrissake, what was I thinking? The lawn, the gin bottle, the fence, the gate, the water sealant…  how many symbols could I jam into a single story? This doubt and these frustrations are pretty much what writing is about. If you can’t manage them, you can’t write. I made it through this time, so I guess I might as well keep at it. It’s a crazy thing, writing.

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Written by seeker70

May 29, 2019 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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