Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Joseph McElroy Asks: What Can Happen?

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Joseph McElroy, author of Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive Press), ponders where a story can take the writer and the reader.
What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen, but mainly: What can happen? A story about a boomerang thrower in Paris, or a story about a father and his infant son in his crib in the dark making sounds that the father begins to make sense of during three successive desert nights. What can happen? Sometimes I’ll read just the beginning of a story to an audience and ask where it could go from there. But the writer is mainly invisible, and the story stands on its own between the reader and the writer and would have to be about both if we could only know, but stands on its own and belongs to the reader and in the great differences among the stories in my book Night Soul might even sometimes suggest to you the reader how to read it.

A bark canoe, its structure, maybe its own special language, and what the boat unfolds of its materials and purposes when it needs to be repaired, because construction and repair are not so different—and the people who have used and will use the canoe—and the lake and its shore day and night, and the sky and what is in the sky. Maybe an aura we would trace around a good story, this one different from any other. Not magic, even if we like that dreamy word. Uncaused miracle? Really only our surprise and new strength discovering what we didn’t know we knew. If how it was done is largely concealed, that might not be a bad thing. The writer isn’t always clear how the story got made. So many vague intimations, even like changes Robert Frost grants the making of a poem that happen unexpectedly in the middle as if some other self stumbled on a turning point. Words that open a new path. What I intended changes; the ending often remains as it was, while the way to get there is shifting as I write.

Making and following a path may be the same thing. What gets me going? A jolt in the memory that becomes imagination. Maybe often the most ordinary materials, gathered, are somehow more than the sum of their parts. A very young kid from a Muslim family in Brooklyn befriended by an out-of-work poet—two nomads. How did I come to write it? Honestly not sure. Two quite separate memories colliding by chance recognize each other. You make it up out of what you know, Hemingway says.  The story itself is what we read. Or should read. The reader longs for something. I have a theory that like a detouring postponement readers sometimes have this anxious need to turn away from the actual words, the story, the thought, the odd life of it, to something else; for how could we ever speak of the thing itself, follow out its curious path for the path’s sake? Though that’s what we’re meant to do. A character in a story lives as you or I do by being inherently one yet several, by being a possibility. Everyone I meet is a message. In my story “The Campaign Trail,” two candidates for a Presidential nomination, a black man, a white woman, unexpectedly (or did someone plan it?) meet and spend the night together on a wild tract of land—land, it comes to me, annexed by the Nation from its northern neighbor: What happens? Danger where they camp, what  they learn—and who and what else is here?  A wild animal, later a wild person. What happened to bring them all here? What can happen?

If the story turns upon a coincidence, put it in early to merge with the reader’s gathering sense of everything in the story. If there’s a change in how a character sees things—isn’t that what stories are about?—let it grow, best it be so clear it gets mysteriously absorbed into our love of experience itself.

How I got an idea—I mean a situation…don’t necessarily trust the writer talking about that stuff; or how long it took. Or where I wrote it—in New York, the one about Paris; in New Hampshire the one about the end of the world; but I do believe that for all we know of spontaneity, my small victories are "won in revision," as Donald Barthelme, one of our great originals, used to say. Swift or slow, seamless, intricate, even, one of them, fragmented, I hope the reader remakes the story as the story adds, I hope, to the reader.