Monday, July 16, 2018

Kem Joy Ukwu: Beyond the Ending

In the fourth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kem Joy Ukwu, author of Locked Gray/Linked Blue (Kindred Books), discusses ways in which even finished stories sometimes remain open-ended for the writer.

Is the ending of a short story ever its actual end?

The answer is … sometimes. That depends on the writer, the reader, and the story. When the writer and reader happen to be the same person, when a story’s writer eventually becomes its own reader (as some writers read and re-read their work for revision purposes), the short story can be changed, enriched, and continued. Sometimes when reading one’s own work, questions can arise about the characters, plot, and ending that can be answered by more revision or even by writing more stories.

When I first started writing short stories on a consistent basis, it seemed like the end of my short stories were when I would submit them into journals and contests. After a few of my stories were published in journals, I realized that publication was not necessarily the end of all my stories (though some of my short stories did end with final revisions and publication).

One of my short stories from my collection Locked Gray/Linked Blue was first published in the wonderful Carve Magazine. The short story, “Demetrius,” is about two sisters who will soon part ways, told from the first-person narrated perspective of the younger sister. The story went through revisions after the first draft. After the story was accepted and published, it seemed like I was done with it. The end seemed like the endthere was no more story to tell, no more things to know.

That was only true until my own questions arose about the older sister. What were the events of “Demetrius” like from her perspective? What was parting ways with her younger sister like for her? I wrote a new short story in response to my questions and included it in my collection. I wrote a short story spin-off of sorts, perhaps not a continuation of “Demetrius” but an expansion of it.

Short stories can be expected to be … short. How can a writer know when a short story is over when writing its initial drafts? Outlining short stories can help to determine an end of a story but how can a writer know if that end is final?

For quantity-related productivity, it may be great for writers to have short stories done for good. It can also be good for a short story to be done for now. It is reasonable to edit and revise knowing that after publication the short story might continue.

This prolongation could include even more revision and addition, changing the short story’s length, potentially reshaping it into a new story altogether. It might continue in an anthology, story collection, novella, or novel. It might resume through adaptation into film and television. A short story could move forward in the minds of its readers and in the imaginings of its writer.

Finishing a short story can be amazing because its finality can be freeing. Even when the door of a short story is closed shut and locked, its writer could perhaps unlock and open that door, potentially opening new ways to edit, enhance, and eventually enrich that short story, possibly turning an ending into an entrance.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Scott Nadelson and the Quest for the Right Voice

In the third in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Scott Nadelson, author of The Fourth Corner of the World (Engine Books), talks about his struggles to write a story he'd been pursuing for a long time and what ended them.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced:

I first read the article in 1999. It came across my desk at the small community newspaper where I edited the calendar of events and wrote occasional arts features. Three pages in an academic journal, describing a radical Jewish utopian colony in the southern Oregon wilderness in the 1880s. It was short on details, but what was there I found fascinating.

The colonists, members of a pre-Zionist emigration organization in Ukraine, promoted an early back-to-the-land movement for young secular Jews, as a way to escape anti-Semitism and pogroms. They named the colony New Odessa. Those who lived there were all in their late teens and early twenties. Lifelong city dwellers, they knew nothing about farming and would have starved the first winter if generous neighbors hadn’t donated food. Afterward they survived by cutting timber, which they sold to the rail company building tracks in the valley below. Among other ways they were ahead of their time, they championed equality between the sexes and free love. The only problem was, there were twice as many single men as women, and love triangles quickly led to strife. The colony dispersed after five years.

What hooked me, above all else, were the many gaps in the historical record. There were only a handful of first-person accounts, most fragmented, and little archival material. The story was wide open, in other words, and it spoke to me personally, as a Jew in my twenties who’d abandoned his ancestral home (suburban New Jersey) for the wilds of Oregon (late-’90s Portland). It was a story of exile, the self-imposed kind, that comes with equal measures of hope and doubt.
New Odessa colonists

But for years I couldn’t write the story. I did all the research, I spent many hours imagining the lives of these young men and women from Odessa, but every time I tried to set words on paper, the narrative evaporated. I could conjure characters, setting, even plot—always my weakest point—but what escaped me was the language to contain it all. I kept trying to negate the voice of the person writing in twenty-first century Oregon, to find inflections that would convince me I was really inhabiting the consciousness of someone who’d lived a hundred years before I was born. Failing, I tried to abandon the material more times than I care to admit.

Then, about sixteen years after first discovering New Odessa, I happened to re-read the opening chapter of David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. It’s an astonishing novel from start to finish, and its first sentence is a knockout: “One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary.” The opening phrases establish a crucial stance: This is someone speaking in the present, with knowledge and perspective about how things have changed. Malouf makes no attempt to convince you he is writing from the nineteenth century, not yet. He gives us scope, tells us exactly when and where we are, provides a stripped-down image of children playing, but no details. Those will come, he seems to tell us, but for now, just picture these children, a pasture, a place where settlement has just reached. And then he hits us with mystery and promise: “something extraordinary.” The sentence does everything necessary to point us forward. It tells us where we’re viewing from, where we’ll go, and what to look for. It combines the simplicity of folktale with the authority of historical reconstruction.

After reading it a dozen times, I returned to my utopian colony. I mimicked Malouf’s syntax, and almost immediately a path opened in front of me. It was the rhythm that allowed me to enter this story I knew so well, the sound of the language that helped me discover all I had yet to understand. Embodying the characters no longer felt forced because I was doing so as myself, a twenty-first-century writer imagining what it might have felt like to be a young Ukrainian Jew encountering the mysteries of sex and love and death in a wilderness thousands of miles from home. Some sixteen years and three weeks later, I had a draft of what would become the title story of my collection, The Fourth Corner of the World.

According to the great Texas writer William Goyen, story is “the music of what was,” not a record of what happened but a song that makes us feel it. What Malouf’s sentence reminded me is that I can bring the past alive only when I learn how to sing about it.