blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Glimpsing the Glimpse

Write enough stories and you will eventually find your voice. I heard this over and over as an undergraduate and graduate student. It wasn’t bad advice but it seems to me now that I might have saved myself some angst if I’d been encouraged instead to discover the thing that may be easier to get a handle on: write a few stories and you will begin to discover what your ideal distance from your material is.

Henry James once referred to his own distance from his material as “the glimpse.” I take James to mean that a piece of gossip he hears at a dinner party or the sight of a man on a London street he supposes is an American—his too-tall hat and rude manner give him away—catches his attention. He’s intrigued and curious and begins speculating about what he’s seen or heard. He jots down a description of the man and a snippet of the overheard dialogue, or he doesn’t, but one way or another the image or the anecdote stays with him. His imagination begins to fill in what he doesn’t know.

Other writers (Philip Roth, maybe?) lose the will to write if their subject is not more closely woven into to their own experience. I have known such writers to use their surnames in stories until the last draft when, with a touch of a key, Ken becomes Michael.

I have nothing against writing fiction that’s based in autobiography or on direct experience. Nor do I have anything against writing about things that are as far from one’s own experience as possible. I’d love to be able to write a novel about prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes in today’s corporately run prisons, but I won’t because I can’t. It’s a great subject but it’s too far from my experience for me to achieve the necessary depth. Another writer, equally removed from the prison system, might well be able to manage it. It’s all in knowing what distance is right for you. Writers should probably avoid material that forces them to let “the will do the work of the imagination” (Yeats). Someone needs to write the prison novel, but alas it’s not me.

I’m firmly in “the glimpse” group.

“Zeke’s Dead” began when I saw and overheard (glimpsed) women I did not know talking about their husbands in ways that seemed, to me, shockingly disloyal. My loyalty to my husband wasn’t tested, but I have to admit I wondered how far I would have gone had I been included in their conversation. In my first draft of the story, the husband/protagonist who overhears his wife reveal intimate secrets was too passive a character. The story failed because it wasn’t clear what he wanted. His pride was hurt, sure, but he had no conception of how to recover. He didn’t know the meaning of revenge. A passive protagonist is a liability for a story and yet I’ve fallen into the trap more than a few times; thus my failed story went in a drawer.

Not too long ago I reread the story. The scene with the women spilling secrets about their husbands’ penises struck me as salvageable. I remembered who these women characters were and suddenly I saw that I could also make them band parents. My husband and I had been band parents of a successful middle school rock band and I understood firsthand the pitfalls, pleasures, and pettiness that can accompany the role. It’s probably not a whole lot different than being the parent of a high school quarterback who makes the high school varsity squad when he’s a sophomore.

It never occurred to me to write about my son or his actual bandmates or their parents because, as I said earlier, I’d already learned what my proper distance from my material is: glimpsing distance. The group of band parents whom I actually hung out with at festivals and venues is far, far too complicated a subject for me to render as fiction. My imagination quickly becomes overloaded; it shuts down when faced with the contradictions, changeability, and subtleties of actual people.

My husband accuses me of idealizing our friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. “Why is it,” he asks, “that the characters in your stories do mean, cruel, stupid, and dishonest things, but you never think anyone in your life is capable of that stuff?” It’s a question I can’t answer convincingly. I like my friends, my family, my children, and even, for the most part, the other real band parents. It’s a fiction writer’s job to crystallize her characters. For me, real people, people I know, aren’t crystallizable.

And yet, I’ve also come to see that if I don’t, to some extent, come to like or accept my made up characters, I tend not to get them right. I’ve learned over time not to choose passive characters—they tend to make stories, especially mine, inert—and not to condescend to my characters no matter how flawed they may be.

Back to “Zeke’s Dead.” I took the characters from the salvaged scene written a decade earlier and was able to imagine for the first time that the women chatting around the kitchen island were the mothers of middle school rock-and-roll geeks. These mothers know some of the stuff I know because I was a middle school band mother. And yet nothing in the story comes from an actual event or is based on an actual person. At the same time, because my distance from this material was both close and far away—the right distance for me—I feel with some certainty that all of it could have happened.

I was pleasantly surprised when the husband and wife in “Zeke’s Dead” found their way, more or less, to a happy ending. That almost never happens. The short story, I tell my students, is a dark genre.  end