Friday, November 23, 2012

Kurt Rheinheimer's Side of the Mountain

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Kurt Rheinheimer, author of Finding Grace (Press 53), tells how a sense of place has always been essential to his work.

The thing that made me become a writer has remained the primary source of inspiration for stories ever since.

This was tenth grade, and the assignment when we returned to school was the classic “what I did on my summer vacation.”

I liked the teacher, but I didn't really have much to tell about my summer vacation. Except this one thing, from when my friend Dave got to go with us on a camping trip. The camping trip itself—with my mother and brothers and sister along—wasn't all that much to write about, I didn't think, but I kept thinking about this one place Dave and I went one evening after supper: up the side of the mountain a ways, where there didn't seem to be a real trail and while the sun was going down pretty fast, on the other side of the mountain. It got a little spooky after a time, and after a little more time, as darkness gathered, it got scary enough that Dave and I decided we were lost. This even though we knew that once we walked back downhill on the mountainside, things would become clear again and we would find the big, lighted campground. 

But for a little while, as we shared the candy Dave had brought along, we pretended the place had swallowed us up and we were lost. 

A real Life Saver™
The paper I turned in after that summer was called “The Day My Life Was Actually Saved by a Life Saver.” It was kind of a wiseguy piece, as I remember. And I remember being very pleased as I wrote it—feeling real excitement over what I was pretty much making up. 

When I got the paper back, I felt even better. Mrs. Davies gave me an F. I was an honor-roll, mostly-A’s, dorky of guy, but also had the wiseguy aspect going, and so I was pleased as I could be with the totally flunking grade. I took it home and bragged about it. Well, I was also pleased with what she had written below the F. Something to the effect that this is very good, Kurt, and it made me laugh, but you did not follow the assignment, and so you get the F. 

It was that excitement—getting a strongly positive reaction and also an F for something I had written—that made me think I could be a writer. Not that I knew then that I wanted to. But that maybe I could. And get that sort of jittery feeling again while I was writing something down. And then maybe have somebody read it and say stuff to me about it the way Mrs. Davies had about the Life Saver piece. 

And so it has gone for more decades than I care to talk about: Find a place, Kurt, that gives you some kind of emotional reaction, and you have a chance—not a sure thing by any means, but a chance—to write something other people will read and react to. 

Of course it took at least one of those decades to realize that most of the stories that worked for me—that got completed, got submitted, got accepted and published—nearly always began with the description of a place. And that the most pleasing of those—those that maybe won a prize or got republished in an anthology or collection—then had a character walk into that place and somehow, through the unfolding of the story, came to somehow embody that place. 

I think the oh-so-threatened boys on the mountainside were the first ones. 

Over the years, the two strongest veins for such place/character lucky days have been the place where I grew up and other places out on the land that I knew as a young person and saw again later in drastically altered states. 

The little peninsula where I grew up presents image after image of things like the cove, the ballfield, the Seamaster aircraft, the woods; and with so many of those images, there is an emotion that comes from within the twelve-year-old boy who loved them, an emotion that can lead to a story. Sometimes he walks into the scene, sometimes one of his parents or siblings. 

The places that have changed elsewhere—places where an interstate now rides high above formerly rural land, or where a tall bridge crosses a small, black-flow river far below, say—seem to invite more dangerous and unknown characters, as if the setting is commensurate with the person who enters it. 

Many decades after she was my teacher, Mrs. Davies wrote me a note about a story that appeared in a literary journal. She remembered the boy she’d given the F. But not nearly as poignantly and significantly, I suspect, as the boy remembered her.