Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Jessica Hollander and the Naked Workout

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Jessica Hollander, author of In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place (University of North Texas Press), traces the origins of a story.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
I’ve never written a story based directly on a story someone told me, but it’s surprising what people say that will grow into an idea for a story, which is why writers can’t be hermits no matter how much they might sometimes like to be.

Several years ago, my parents joined a gym. With my limited knowledge of who actually worked out in gyms, this seemed almost comic—my arty parents wouldn’t fit in beside the vain body-builders I’d assumed surrounded them. They’d gone a few times a week for a couple months when I visited, and they wanted me to come check it out. I resisted. I didn’t know what I would do there—run on a treadmill? Do a few sit-ups? Couldn’t I manage these things without equipment? I was skinny and shy; I liked exercising privately. I imagined all these tan, oiled body-builders watching me try to lift a ten pounder with my arms pathetically shaky.

Mom said it wasn’t like that; the gym-goers were mostly like her and Dad. She said the only weird thing was in the locker room, where some women walked around naked longer than necessary: brushing their hair, clipping their toenails. And there were plenty of curtained stalls, but Mom said for some reason these women wanted to be out in the middle of the locker room where other people could see them. And this interested me—both the behavior itself and Mom’s discomfort with seeing other people naked.

I did go to the gym with them, though I don’t remember much from the trip. I know it was nearly deserted. There were a lot of mirrors that multiplied the machines, so that it seemed there were so many more machines than humans. The customers were mostly middle-aged with normal or stocky builds, though there was one overly-muscled twenty-year-old young man strutting around. I remember feeling uncomfortable, as I suspected, and I believed it was a waste of time. No one was even in the locker room when Mom and I changed. But the seed was planted about this unspoken battle over space—who had the right to be comfortable: those who wanted to be naked or those who wanted everyone covered up?

A year later, I became friends with a writer who told me about a similar battle she witnessed on a private lake near her house, where nude beachers and clothed beachers would try to claim the space closest to the shoreline. These groups never mingled, and it was understood that they hated each other. Talking to her about this revived my interest in issues of space ownership and locker room politics. I began my story “The Year We Are Twenty-Three,” about a girl who worked in a gym.

My stories function in the hyper-real tradition, where everything is turned up a notch—colors are brighter, dialogue’s stranger, people are a bit more extreme than they would be in real life—with the intention of getting the reader to examine “reality” and the real strangeness that IS reality a bit closer. Things we don’t notice we might think about more if we see them portrayed in a strange or extreme way. So I moved the battle between the clothed and naked gym-goers out of the locker room and into the gym, where the narrator had to deal with half her customers working out in the nude.

One kind of person
The narrator in “The Year We Are Twenty-Three” is trying to make sense of her identity having graduated from college—she’s no longer a student, and she hasn’t gotten a respectable job; she’s living with a boy but she’s not married; everything in the world now makes her a little nervous because she doesn’t know her place in it. She deals with this by wanting to define everything in black and white terms: there are two kinds of people who live here: students and crazy people; there are two sets of beliefs: liberal and conservative; and there are two kinds of people at the gym: the nudists and the people who hate them. She tries to make sense of her world by breaking it into extremes, but doing so makes it even harder to figure out where she fits in.

Whatever little events take place in our daily lives, these intrusions, we have to deal with them and make sense of them in the context of the parts of our lives we really care about (family, relationships, careers, etc). These little events or interactions don’t stop the more macro parts of our lives; instead they are possibilities for slightly influencing how we see the world. The issue of space ownership mirrors the narrator’s crisis, when, floating between identities, she is comfortable in no space, physical or emotional. Seeing her crisis reflected in the gym-goers, she has a small amount of hope that they will reveal some insight about her own life. Like my character, I listen to what people say and witness, and I force myself to go out and witness things, too. It’s these everyday conversations and encounters, all these little pieces, that add up to the whole that is our lives and help us contextualize what we normally see as “important,” not to mention give us the material we need to write stories.