Monday, October 15, 2012

Clifford Garstang Looks Behind Closed Doors

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Clifford Garstang, author of What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53), discusses how visualizing a series of stories helped him write them.

It happens rarely, but sometimes the words come quickly, flowing rather than dripping onto the page. It’s not a trance, exactly, but it comes close.

Studio view
I am at a colony, a magical place where writers, composers, and visual artists come together in an orgy of creativity, where pursuit of the craft is each day’s single purpose. My studio’s windows open onto a rolling pasture and the mountains beyond. Horses sometimes stroll into view. Clouds form and unleash rain or snow on the ridge. Mostly, I don’t look. 

The outline of my work-in-progress lies before me, a list of the stories I want to write based on characters who appeared to me when I visualized my chosen setting. In a condominium building in Washington, D.C., nine doors open onto a central hallway. Behind each door is a story, or more than one. 

I open the first door and see a family—a father and two boys, plus an older man, recently arrived from far away—Shanghai, let’s say, because I’ve recently visited there and have long been fascinated by China. The boys’ mother is missing. And missed. This family, who simply materialized in the doorway, will form the heart of my tale.

I open another door and see a man—he’s African American, a lawyer, divorced—wielding a sledgehammer that breaks open a hole in the wall. The city flies inside, through the hole, but what escapes? Something gained, something lost. 

Behind another door is a painter of abstracts whose inspiration comes from an encounter at an artists’ colony, one not unlike the very colony where I write. Behind another door is a sculptor, angry, obsessed. A novelist works behind the next door, mourning a personal loss, but also the loss of humanity. In the front apartment is a young woman unhappy with her objectification and willing, finally, to fight back. Across the hall, a gay couple, committed to one another but unraveling. Next to them an unemployed woman, hungry, forced to take desperate measures. Across from her, an empty apartment, needing to be filled.

The residents of the building clamor to tell their stories. I listen, and I write it all down.

The sculptor, a misogynist, remembers a pretty model from years before. Her son—his son—arrives to confront the sculptor, who doesn’t care that the woman is dying. Or does he? He didn’t know he has a son. Or did he? They argue, and I listen. The words pour out and it seems that I am not writing so much as transcribing the story as it occurs in my head. It’s a feeling I’ve not had before, or since. At the end of the day I am exhilarated, but also exhausted, a contradiction that is somehow appropriate given the story’s own paradoxes. At a gathering of the colony’s artists that evening, I read the story aloud, as breathless as I was while writing it. Incredibly, it feels done, and, a few short weeks later, with only minor edits, I submit it to magazines and quickly find it a home.

None of the other stories is delivered quite so cleanly, and most require substantial revision, but with just a few exceptions they emerge painlessly, unlike the stories in my first book. The story with multiple points of view starts life with a traditional structure, but soon needs a second voice to balance the occasionally unreliable narrator. It’s hard to get that one right. It will be months before it’s finished. And the novelist’s monologue takes the longest of all the stories because of the man’s complicated history, his elaborate voice, and conflicted motives. Still, the shape never changes. But the others—ten stories that practically write themselves—they’re magic and change little from first draft to last.

Where did these stories come from? What accident of space and time made them possible? How can I recapture that moment?