Monday, December 26, 2011

Alexander MacLeod: Let's Get Physical

In the 53rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting (Biblioasis), discusses his efforts to "get into the zone," as athletes do, and write without over thinking.
A lot of the stories I wrote for Light Lifting centre on a single action or, sometimes, just one physical movement that holds the plot together and also threatens to tear it apart. I have a girl who dives off the roof of a Holiday Inn into the dark Detroit River at two in the morning, for example, and I have a pair of world class distance runners blasting down the backstretch of the most important 1500 they will ever race. There are some exhausted parents trying to stay up all night with a sick child, and there’s a work crew of guys who have to deal with that unique up and down grind that comes only from working with paving stone. I have a boy who decides he’s going to have to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a man who may or may not be some kind of sexual predator. In all these cases, I wanted the key movement of the story to be held in one ambiguous image or scene that could be felt as directly as it was imagined. I wanted the reader to experience the panic of the girl who is afraid of deep water or the surge of the runner who is about ready to get up on his toes and unleash his kick. I tried to describe what it’s like to have a blistering sunburn or to live through a car accident or to stand in line in the cold for hours. I wanted the reader to feel what the kid feels as he presses his lips against that man’s mouth.

Newton-John: Body Talk
In order to get close to the sensory core of those scenes, I knew that the writing would need to get out of the way as much as possible and almost disappear so that the intensity of the experience could carry the whole thing. I tried to do this lots of different ways, but I often found myself hemmed in by language and it was difficult to find the words to match up with the actions I wanted to capture. I did not want to internalize any of it, and I definitely wanted to avoid intellectualizing what was happening, but it was difficult, as Olivia Newton-John would say, to “hear the body talk.” How do you write sensation or transmit raw feeling when those things are precisely outside the normal range of the sign and signifier?

I used to be a pretty serious middle-distance runner and whenever my races went wrong—I mean really, really wrong—my coaches used to say: “You’re thinking too much. You need to let it go and just trust the rhythm. You know your body knows how to do this.” Sport and literature usually don’t seem to share much common ground, but I come back to that coaching advice all the time when I’m putting together my stories. If I feel like I’m pushing it too hard and thinking and worrying too much, I try to let go and feel my way through the scene.

Murakami: "Suffering is optional."
As Haruki Murakami teaches, writing and running are actually quite similar: Both require a weird individual discipline that can’t be faked and a person has to put in countless hours alone before there is any public significance to what they do. HM’s best line about running and writing—“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”—feels just about perfect to me and I think it captures the idea that all aesthetic challenges must eventually come back to real-world practical concerns. Those athletes who hit the effortless three pointers, or fire one-timers into the top corner, or throw a baseball one hundred miles an hour may seem amazing to us, but for them, it’s all part of their routine and they are really just auto-piloting their bodies down roads they’ve travelled thousands of times before in isolation. If everything’s working right and the rhythm is on, I want my stories to feel like that. I want them to go into ‘the zone,’ into that strange place every athlete knows but doesn’t quite understand. I want the story to seem inevitable, as if every action is unfolding exactly the way it should.