Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Bryn Chancellor and the Girl on the Wall

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Bryn Chancellor, author of When Are You Coming Home? (University of Nebraska Press), discusses her impulse to write—and why it took her so long to finish her collection.

What is the source of your impulse to write stories?
One answer: An obsession with words. As in, impulse.

Im-pulse. A pleasing hum of pressed lips, a push of breath. A meaning rooted in pushing—a sudden force or desire to act—but also in electricity, in the fundamental workings of the heart.

On a story level, we sometimes call an impulse a trigger—funnily enough, a word rooted in pull. What pushes and pulls me to write a story varies. In this collection, the title story started with a single word on a classroom chalkboard: locksmith. Other forces: driving through a desert city cloaked in smoke; reading about a mountain lion stalking the woods; seeing an irrigation worker in my yard late at night; maneuvering my middle-age keister down a harrowing set of stairs. What I have come to recognize about the impulse harkens its etymology: a little electric kick, a surge that thumps against my sternum. Pay attention, it tells me. Make a note. Do this.

What impels me, in a larger sense, to Write Stories?

Today’s answer: to push the ghosts back. To pull them in. Tomorrow’s answer: I don’t know. Or: holy hell, why do I do this?

But I’m not answering the question. Actually, I’m deliberately sidestepping.

Not my impulse but the source of my impulse.

Source: a double hiss, a word that looks sour and sounds sore. As in, the doctor found the source of infection. As in, I will not reveal my source. As in, can I outsource this question?

I grew up in northern Arizona, in a small town turned famous town: Sedona. There, with no transit save for the tourist trolley and parents who worked full time, I walked everywhere. To and from the school bus stop. To and from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. I walked up the sides of the legendary sandstone rocks, sometimes barefoot. I walked at a slow, rock-kicking pace, cursing people for not giving me rides.
Sedona: Main drag

Often, midway home after school, I stopped and climbed up on a neighbor’s stone wall, low and flat enough for a kid of nine or ten—those tender years before adolescence, before self-absorption and self-flagellation. Before I learned that this was a weird thing to do. Before I learned that I had to flee this beautiful place, my home, before it swallowed me whole.

An ordinary day in an extraordinary place: a girl, alone, sitting on a wall in the shade of a sprawling mesquite, scuffing the stone with the soles of her cheap shoes. Staring at the road, at the sun-heated world swarming with gnats and mating grasshoppers. Noticing the gray gravel and powder-soft red dirt, the foxtails lodged in her pant cuffs. Wondering who lived in that house behind the wall, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they cooked, if she would get in trouble if she stepped into the yard. Learning to read the world as she read books: closely, voraciously.

Staring, wondering, dreaming, sitting on the outside looking in, seeing beauty in the ordinary. The conditions were ripe. The impulse, thumping.

Yet I didn’t attempt to write a story for another twelve years. Took another ten years to finish one. Took another fifteen years to write enough to make a book.

The source of my failings?

I turned my back on the girl on the wall. I was so busy with the impulse to flee that I forgot how to sit still.

What is the source of my impulse to write stories? What is my push, my pull, my electric heart surge?

Home. A word that keeps turning on me. A word I can never define.

And this, too: Stillness. Big S, as if it’s a place. To me it is. The place where I fall into a story. Where I can go back to that old wall.

The girl is still there. She is still, there.

Pay attention to commas, I tell her. Pay attention, period.

I tell her, It’s okay to be afraid, and ashamed, and guilty, and overwhelmed, and petty, and lonely, and oversensitive, and joyful, and weird.

I tell her, It’s okay to leave. And it’s okay to come back, too.

Someday, I tell her, you’ll write stories about it.