Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Karen Brown on the Spaces Stories Inhabit

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Karen Brown, author of Little Sinners (University of Nebraska Press), traces the sources of some of her ideas.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas? 
My much-perused copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, its pages stained from spilled wine, its pencil underlines, reinforces my belief that stories are built around place. “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box,” Bachelard claims. Rooms, attics, cubbyholes, and closets—the places that we inhabit and dream—are for me, intimate spaces that stories inhabit. I simply have to find my way in.

Sometimes, this path is cleared in my sleep, and ideas for stories occur as dreams, but not dreams. In them I visit my first boyfriend, long dead, and we meet outside his house where his wife and children still live. We stand in the shadows of a wooded backyard and watch a party light up the house’s windows. Family dogs come out to prowl around a swing set. I am filled with guilt for being there with someone who does not belong to me. I am afraid of being seen. But the dogs are gentle, and trot up to settle at my feet. The wife stands framed in the doorway and nods her dark head at me, and the old boyfriend takes me in his arms, into the folds of a leather jacket. In the morning, he climbs onto a motorcycle in a driveway filled with pale sun, and I warn him of the danger, how he might be hurt, and he shakes his head at me, bemused. It is cancer that kills him, of course.

I will spend all day wondering how I will use this. The images are too real to pass up. I can smell the leather of the jacket, the boy’s cologne. I have searched for his obituary online. I have found the town where his wife and children live. Somewhere in this mixture of dream and memory is their real story, and in the shuffling of all of these things will emerge the one I will make up. Can the dead lead us to our stories in dreams? Maybe my story will answer this question, or any other number of questions I have upon awakening.

A golden rain tree
Ideas for stories flit around me at all times of the day and night. They blow past, or flare up—the golden rain tree in my neighbor’s yard, its bright blooms giving way to seed pods like little orange lanterns. They are the power lines strung between houses, trembling and humming in early morning mist. Sometimes, ideas come over water—two Mute swans on Long Island Sound, rounding the point by the old cottage I see through binoculars. Its upper casement windows are open, and I imagine that inside a story of the inhabitants must be unfolding—from coffee to an argument to a sick child to a lost parent. The sun moves up the beach erasing the cold morning shadows. Later my run will lead me through a myriad of small paved roads to the one that leads past this cottage’s front door. I will stop and gaze through the shrubbery, looking for life—a tired runner pausing to catch her breath. The wild roses bloom along a nearby fence. The sea crashes on a rocky bulkhead below. If I stand long enough I will smell the way the sea mist has entered the open window and wet the cottage’s floorboards, and the way the sun has dried them, and I will imagine then the top of the bureau scattered with jingles and periwinkles and sea glass. Much later, if I am lucky—it can be days, or months, or years—someone’s footsteps will sound on the narrow stairs. A voice will call out. Someone will smooth a white table cloth.