Sunday, September 15, 2013

Elizabeth Cohen on What Her Stories Leave Out

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Elizabeth Cohen, author of The Hypothetical Girl (Other Press), discusses getting bitten by the story bug.

Please, admire me for what I left out:   

The man who loved his sister. The man who still lived with his mother (age 58) (“She is lovely, really!”). The man who had a crush on Ann Coulter. The man who told me he had ridden on the back of a whale.

The stories came and got me. I didn’t want to follow, I was actually quite embarrassed by their direction. “I am a poet,” I told them. “I am a journalist. Let me go.”

But they held fast and came on daily, nightly, until finally I was exhausted. I gave in. I sat down and wrote them. Then, there it was -- this book of fiction, The Hypothetical Girl.

I had spent over thirty years in the ballrooms of poetry. I’d been waltzing for what felt like my whole life with well-turned stanzas. Metaphors that pop up and soar. I’d lived to sink my teeth into a good piece of investigative journalism and run with it. Getting down with truth. Never did I think of myself as an actual author of fiction. But the stories came and snatched me cold, right from my bed, where they flew in. Nonstop, invasive birds. It was the aftermath of my marriage and I was dating online. The encounters I was having infected me with ideas for characters and situations and stories.

“But I am a poet,” I declared.

“Too bad,” said the stories.

“I am a journalist...”

 “So what?”

They were coming in. They had suitcases, bulging with details.

Admire me for what I left out: 

The man with a prosthetic arm who insisted on showing me all it could do over ginger chicken at Applebees. The man who drove a Hummer. No really, a military Hummer. We are talking camouflage.

Instead I stole details, the color of a shirt, the look of a face, an emotion that grows and shirks back quixotically.

I was and am fascinated by the way people court in this nether world, the ways it frees and constrains them. I was in love, not with love, or with a lover, but with the stories. The stories people tell about themselves. I had fallen into a rich stew of stories and I could not get out.

Please admire me for what I left out:
The man who almost choked another man to death (“He deserved it. Horrible man.”) The man who lived on beets. The man who would save the bees.

Admire me for respecting the whole cloth of the people I met. I stole the warp and weft of them, their patinas. They were so shiny I could not resist them. And in this way I found the poetry in the stories. I became the investigative journalist of love.