Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Douglas Light: "A Good Story Provokes and Unsettles"

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Douglas Light, author of Girls in Trouble (Univ. of Massachusetts Press), recounts his difficult journey to publication.

It took reams of failed writing before I finally produced my first published story. I recall one particularly awful piece I wrote while living in Seattle in the early 1990s. It involved a taxi ride, gridlock, and liquid laundry detergent. Thinking back on it sparks a flush of embarrassment, but it also evokes a vivid memory of that time. After a stretch of homelessness, I’d finally regained my footing, landing a job working the graveyard shift at a gas station. For $170 a month, I called a small area in a gutted warehouse my own. I survived on Slim Jims and Ring Dings I poached from my job. My days were inverted. The sun stood hard in the sky when I went to sleep. It was night when I woke to start my day. My dreams were filled with the clatter and thumps from the sweatshop on the floor above.

There was an exhilarating charge of terror about that time. I’d fought my way free from destitution, but it was still close, lapping away at the berm of security I struggled to create.

Rereading my stories, I find they all carry a story within the story. One is on the page and the other I hold in my heart. The second serves as a milestone for me. The memories are pushpins stabbed into the map of my life. The same holds true for stories and novels that have had an impact on me. They harken to specific moments in my life, one that is resurrected each time I reread the piece.

What exactly makes for a good story? A good story doesn’t provide answers, at least not in a 1 + 2 = 3 sort of way. If anything, it causes confusion. A good story provokes and unsettles. It creates a memory and remains with a person long after the last word is read.