Manual Simply Whisperings

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Year in and year out, I taught classes on everything but creative writing: literature by women, one semester; another, modern fiction. One student, a Vietnam vet—chopper gunner—became a nurse and now works in White Plains. Another, then a teenage mother, became a school administrator in Westchester. Hour after hour of caring for children, living vicariously in a dangerous way through their successes and failures, was costly and sometimes terrifyingly lonely, but it was also gratifying.

I felt a part of a large network of mostly women who cared for one another, who sustained one another—trading tidbits of advice, gossip, spotting one another when there was an emergency, negotiating playdates, going on school trips. Those days fed into my work.

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Quietly, to myself, I said, the river that feeds the stories has the same source; the lives of my characters come from the same energy: they too once waddled around a playground, or were held, or not held, as they cried to sleep, and they have been betrayed somehow, damaged, torn up along the way.

But the creative aspect, the confrontation with the primal nature of caring for children—and twins at that—taught me, again, the humility and grace of giving in to time itself. Once, I read in a childcare book that the love you give your babies will eventually come back in the end, and I took that to heart because it applies to creative work, to the stories.

You might not see it, though. It was heavy and, in revision, had to be retooled. With a story, I feel I can rotate it like a jeweler staring through a loupe.


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I read deeply into Native American folklore. I read history.

Robin Spielberg

I read poetry. I reread the Bible. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel. I studied Sufi dervish tales.

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I searched for a sense of form. That might sound grand—in this self-effacing age of false humility, when nobody is supposed to speak of internal grandness—but when I was working, alongside, in my imagination, my fellow short-story writers—William Trevor, for a few years—I had to feel, somehow, that I could pull it off.

I was building a body of work that would be about the violence and isolation and desolation and joy and grief and grace that I had seen, in my own life, in my own way. But I believe that every good writer has to whisper words of encouragement that, when exposed to the public, would sound delusional. When you diminish the power of the imagination to make visionary work—Woolf creating Septimus Warren Smith, or William Faulkner entering Benjy-time, or Toni Morrison creating Milkman in Song of Solomon —when you question the ability and validity of one soul, any soul, to inhabit honestly created characters, do you diminish, in the public mind, respect for the power of the imagination?

At times, I heard a critical voice that said, Who are you to write about two homeless men on the shore of Lake Superior scratching a lottery ticket? Have you been homeless? What do you know? If readers thought my stories too dark, or too violent, then I would reply, quietly, in that assuring voice that only I could hear: What country do you live in?

Have you ever had a sister like mine? Or a brother? Have you seen people destroyed? Have you watched a dying uncle smoke a cigarette in the hospital, twisting off the oxygen cylinder with the Seattle gloom outside, the cancer eating his gay beatnik lungs? Have you prayed in a small Irish church, some ruins in Cork, with the sky overhead? We imagine this couple, on a sunny summer day, with the sound of cicadas in the trees, and we spell it out for ourselves—and our readers—and a story begins to unfold.

As long as there are exactly enough words, in the right tone, and as long as there is some kind of active movement, the reader fills the rest. The reader sees it all. Each story is born of a completely different admixture, a combination of my dream life at the moment, my concerns, and the demands of the story itself, not only the characters in a particular situation, but also the internal structure and language and voice.

What I do, I say, is extremely expensive. Working this way, using up so much time for such a small form, is costly, I say to myself. Munro wrote her first several books in the busy confines of her life as a mother, catching stories and bits of time the way I did.

Whisperings - Moments of Insight and Inspiration

Grace Paley wrote amid her political activism, a busy life in the streets of New York. Most of these I keep to myself with all the selfishness that seems necessary to protect my own artistic spirit. One aspect of being a writer that is seldom discussed in these openmouthed days, that might look shameful, is that a writer, any good writer, does indeed have what seem to be trade secrets that help sustain the hard work. How did you make all those leaps in a single story? Where do you get your ideas? What ideas, I say. A blind man leaning into a cane on a busy street, looking forlorn as he waits for traffic to abate.

The side of a supertanker docked in Cleveland in the hot sun, once a proud seaworthy vessel, now a ragtag museum. A baby clutching life in the ICU. Truth is, for about ten years, I never once looked at that list of credos. But it was there on the wall.

Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.

And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity. It might take time.

The Whisperings of the Spirit

It might take years. Grandly, with ego, I sometimes honor myself—no one else will do it—for keeping a story at bay, for letting it sit, lonely and abandoned in a file, a physical file, while I move on and my subconscious does the work. Hemingway had that practice of holding off on a piece, stopping in the middle of a good line until the next day, and perhaps it is a little bit like that, except lasting months.

Literary form is often misunderstood. The form of something is created within the work, as part of the process, and you discover it as you write. He moves between two completely different modes and in doing so proves a point: an artist can work in many voices—the fucked-up junkie or lost hobo in the Depression and the lonely widow in her mansion along the Hudson River. You can go anywhere. Richter, in a New York Times interview, said something that I broke up into a found poem:.

Form is all we have to help us cope with fundamentally chaotic facts and assaults. Formulating something is a great start. I trust form, trust my feeling or capacity to find the right form for something. Even if that is only by being well organized. That too is form. T he organizing principle around a story, the container that creates the form, is the limitation, the open space at the beginning and at the end; the sense that the entire thing must take a form—the text—with eternal open space before and afterward. Everything must resonate within this space. The best you can do is to organize—and this includes the lyrical resonance of the language and images—inside the limited space as best you can—I whisper to myself—and cut it off, end the thing, in a way that resonates out toward both sides of the story.

To plan ahead is not the way to go, I think, and that includes research. Find an edge where you feel you have succeeded, might be better advice to the beginner. On the other hand, Beckett is right. It can be small, fragmented, but it has to pull. What will happen to her when she has a baby?

Protect the fuel pellets, I whisper. Delineate the line between the losses you have suffered, the pain, and the narratives that you might find by using them as fuel. Instead I searched out—swinging a net wide—for stories of the kind of men who hung around her in our youth: brutal young men who keyed into a teenage girl with exploitable instability. Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone.

The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake.


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As I was driving down the expressway one day I realized that I, a pound human being was in complete control of a 4,pound vehicle. I was its master. As long as I remained in control, remained its master, we—the car and I—would arrive safely at our destination. But, if I were to let the vehicle get out of control, then chaos would result.

Today is what counts. Put out of your mind the fears, weaknesses and confidence destroying thoughts of a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. Today is the day you banish fear forever. But, you ask, how? Fear and faith.