Monday, July 12, 2010

Marisa Silver on Writing the Story "Pond"

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Marisa Silver, author of Alone with You (Simon & Schuster), tells how she wrote one of the stories in the book.

When I describe a story I’ve written, I somehow feel like I’m cheating, because, although I understand how the story functions after the fact, I certainly don’t have that experience of analytic clarity as I write it. When I write, I tend to be in a very sub-conscious, associative place in my mind. I do not think about issues of craft until the second or third drafts and I never consider meaning. When I burden the work with intention the story remains trapped within the confines of it’s little situation and doesn’t do what I think a story must do – resonate in ways that go beyond the specifics of the tale and take in a larger emotional universe.

When I write, I just imagine people in a situation, and then I try to dive deeply into those people to understand how they might behave. The more closely I know them, the more particular their behaviors will be, and the story, paradoxically, begins to reflect a wider world. But as I write, I’m just thinking about how someone’s acne-scarred skin feels under another’s hand, or about how the rain feels when it seeps into the bottom of someone’s holey sneakers, or what a person does with the wrapper of her chewing gum when she is sitting in church and has no pockets. I think about the little stuff and I maintain that myopic attitude for as long as I possibly can.

“Pond” opens on Julia, Burton, and their daughter, Martha, who is in her early twenties, who is mentally disabled, and who is pregnant. The image that came to me first was of Martha sitting in a baby pool in a yard, the huge swell of her pregnancy rising out of the water like the back of a whale. I asked myself how did this family get to this place? What’s been the experience of raising this girl? How has she affected her parents’ marriage, and what kind of tension is the immanent birth causing?

I told this section from the point of view of Julia, who is fiercely protective of her daughter and who has done the lion’s share of getting her through the gauntlet of her life. Burton enters the scene, and the simple fact of him entering, that he can come and go without Martha at his side, that part of his day exists apart from the family, suggested to me that he might be someone who prefers to live on the surface so that he can, in effect, slip in and out of the family life emotionally and physically. I followed this and decided that he has a history of affairs which Julia knows about. So I began to understand that a certain accommodation has been made between the husband and the wife. Throughout the scene, Martha behaves like a four year old – her mental age – and tension comes from the disjuncture between her innocent behavior and the glaring fact that she is physically a woman. The section ends with the birth of the child. It’s a very physical scene. There’s a lot of touching and a sense of bodies that are at once sexual and not. That felt confusing and right.

When I write, I think a lot about the negative space of a story, what is unsaid or un-dramatized. When I thought about what should happen next in the story, I immediately jumped two years into the future, when Julia, Martha, and two year old Gary are sitting next to another body of water – a duck pond this time. Having a baby near a body of water is dangerous, so there was that to play with, as well as the fact that I needed to think about how this uneasy relationship would manifest – Julia (now the grandmother, too) behaves as both mother to her daughter and also, in some ways, mother to her grandson. Martha, now a mother, asserts her independence as a mother and also behaves like a four year old might around a baby, alternately playful and bored. Burton did not appear to me in this scene and so it occurred to me that maybe the marriage had fallen apart.

In this section, a duck dies in the pond. I don’t know why, but it does. I just thought, there's a duck, and it’s lying in a funny way, and it’s dead. And the fact of the duck dying creates this central argument between Martha and Julia that seems to be about more than the duck. It seems to be about truth and denial and some kind of struggle between Martha and her mother for leadership. I let the argument play out but didn’t try to come up with any conclusions because I’m generally opposed to conclusions.

The next section takes place when Gary is nine years old. Martha, Gary, and now Burton are on a trip to the mountains and are playing by a river. Julia isn’t in the scene; it’s Burton’s time with the kids. I thought about the way Gary and Martha would function as mother and son now that Gary has surpassed his mother’s mental abilities. But as I wrote the scene, I realized that it was less about Gary and Martha than it was about Burton and that the scene needed to be told from his point of view. He was the mystery to me and I created a circumstance that allowed him to behave in ways that revealed him both to me and to himself. The last lines of the story came as a surprise to me because I did not really understand what the center of his emotional struggle was until I wrote it. When I wrote the line, I knew fully who he was, and I felt a lot of empathy for him, even though, in the story, he has contemplated and nearly done an unforgiveable thing.