Today’s, post is about the value of being present in the moment in fiction.
A short story is really about a moment in time. Usually, an important moment. Well, why else are you going to write a story about it? It’s always about something that is emotionally significant. Sometimes it’s also about something that is also politically or sociologically significant. Either way, this moment has imparted wisdom, an enlightenment, to the person who lived it. If it happened, then in order for it to be fiction, it’ll be embellished or abstracted like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five, where the bombing of Dresden imparted upon him the wisdom of the absurdity or sheer mindless violence of war. The subplot of an alien species watching was most likely a way of putting us in the mind of someone who didn’t know anything about Earth culture or war, so they had to view the war neutrally – nobody’s a good guy or bad guy, just people fighting, killing each other, destroying their painfully crafted works of art all for… reasons.
More often, the fiction is not something that the writer experienced. He or she witnessed something and put him or herself into that person’s shoes. Perhaps it’s a thought experiment, a what-would-happen-if after realizing what a news article really means, or a series of events are pointing to, or perhaps she is creating a kind of parable from a bit of wisdom she wishes to impart to the world (like Sophocles telling the story of people in cave chained up so that they can only look at their shadows). Sometimes something happens, but it’s too complicated, the writer must streamline it, fictionalize it to encapsulate what it means. Turn moments into Moment.
A short story if well crafted enough will communicate that moment of enlightenment to its audience. The audience can sit back and think about what they’ve just read and let the meaning filter into their consciousness. That for me is my favorite part of reading a really well-made piece – the thinking. That point where I have to ask myself, “what did that really mean?” And my mind will jump from detail to detail.
If the story is painfully and carefully crafted, it’ll have many beautiful pleasurable moments within the moment, finely crafted details that give you hints to understanding the greater whole. After all, a story should be like a fractal, where the smaller details echo the larger and fan out into a bigger meaning.
If those smaller details of the story are carefully crafted (as in worded in way that is original, surprising and at the same time specific and honest), it stays with you. It lingers as it should.
I just read Stuart Dybek’s short story Pet Milk (Pet is an old fashioned brand name of condensed milk, original to the East Coast – which most likely has been replaced by national brand Carnation). He talks about nostalgia and how beautiful the small and ephemeral moments are, even if at the time, they seemed so ordinary. The small beautiful details stick out like. “Pet Milk isn’t real milk. The color’s off, to start with. There’s almost something of the past about it, like old ivory.” And he describes the way he’d watch it swirl in his grandmother’s coffee. “[It] would swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.” He gets more descriptive when it’s used as part of a drink he has on a date with his girlfriend, “the crème de cacao rising like smoke in repeated explosions; blooming in kaleidoscopic clouds through the layer of heavy cream.”
He later describes the meal and then kissing his girlfriend. And he describes her with that same poetic, bittersweet nostalgia, “I caught the reflection of her face in the glass covered [painting] ‘The Street Musicians of Prague’ above our table….The reflections of her beauty startled me. I had told her once….But, this time, seeing her reflection hovering ghostlike upon an imaginary Prague was like seeing a future from which she had vanished. I knew I’d never meet anyone more beautiful to me.”
I also read ZZ Packer’s short Brownies. Another trip down memory lane, but of a different sort. It’s the story of a troop of black girls in Atlanta who come into contact with a troop of white girls. Both are Brownie troops, but one is viewed with envy and the other doesn’t see them at all.
I’d love to go into the political implications, but want to save that for another post. (Because there’s a lot to say, and this story is so good, it deserves it’s own post.) Instead, I want to go into the beautiful details like when little Daphne, the quiet, sensitive girl, decides to clean the bathroom. The rest of the troop watches her:
“We all looked back at the bending girl, the thin of her back hunched like the back of a custodian sweeping a stage, caught in limelight. Stray strands of hair were lit near-transparent, thin fiber-optic threads….She abided, bent.” A portrait of quiet strength that is transformative.
Or one of the den mothers of the troop who is trying to emotionally work through her divorce while watching over the children, “But when Mrs. Hedy began talking about her husband, thinking about her husband, seeing clouds shaped like the head of her husband, she couldn’t be quiet, and no one could dislodge her from the comfort of her own woe.”
But the descriptions of nature are what stick with me the most. “The sun was setting behind the trees, and their leafy tops formed a canopy of black lace for the flame of the sun to pass through.” As if the trees are the walls of these girls’ secret world for them to speak their mind freely. Or when the girls are walking through the darkness of night. “The stars sprinkled the sky like spilled salt. They seemed fastened to the darkness, high up and holy, their places fixed and definite as we stirred beneath them.” I can see the sky filled with sparkling crystals and the girls transfix by it’s beauty. There’s probably a political interpretation of these images as the story is political. (The blackness of the lacy trees, the servitude of the girl, the whiteness of the “salty” sky.) The wonderful part about them is how evocative they are. They appear concretely in the mind and the beauty of their wording stay with you, so you have to keep thinking about them and that is what a good short story aught to do.