There are many things I look for in a story—a vivid character or place, a memorable situation, a new way of seeing something. I like to be pulled in for a ride where I’m not quite sure where I’m going but feel confident that the driver does know and will indeed deliver me to the right place. I find that some of the most satisfying moments in fiction are those where I might gasp with shock or surprise only to immediately see that I should have known, that indeed there is a carefully scattered path of bread crumbs that led me there. To find surprise and logic in the same moment is a feat I greatly admire. Sometimes it grows out of physical forces and action and other times it is simply a quiet shift in awareness. Either way, the world is forever changed for those at the center of it and there is a kind of emotional truth to which we, the reader, respond.
I’m drawn to humor, especially those fragments that might spring from the darkest cracks. What is happening might not be funny, but the dialogue or description is. There is the desire to laugh in spite of a serious situation; sometimes it’s a deflection for the character avoiding the dark side, and sometimes it grows out of irony, highlighting innocence or ignorance, and sometimes it is simply the way a character views the world, but the result is finding yourself perched there between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry. The marriage of tragedy and comedy is not unlike that of surprise and logic; it often wakes us up and shines a light on what is most vulnerable.
I think this is why I love the voices of children and adolescents; children are immediately victims of whatever adult world they are born into and there is an emotional honesty that can’t help but come into play. My very first writing teacher, Max Steele, once told our class that we would never be the writers we were meant to be until we had dealt with our mother issues. I heard this as an eighteen-year-old and it is something I have thought about ever since. In fact, in my own writing classes, I refer to it as: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother and have been both surprised and delighted over the years to see how often a character’s mother, or the absent mother, ends up being the key to whatever is missing.
I was delighted in my reading for Ploughshares to discover all of the above. There are vivid characters and places and there are those wonderful moments of illumination. There are memorable young voices looking for ways over or through the walls that define their worlds and there are mothers (and fathers) looking at it from the angle of parenthood. I did not come to the table with a thematic agenda at all, but it is uncanny how works put on the table together will often strike up a kind of dialogue. I’ve taught for over thirty years now and am always amazed at how often the workshop stories have common variables—sometimes the connection is as obvious as a plot line or obvious theme, and other times it is something subtle, like a reference to a place or a particular time or maybe both characters have cats or mothers who have cats; whatever they share is often worth mentioning just for the sake of conversation, sometimes providing a natural call and response to a larger theme or recognition. Then it is impossible not to step back and see the greater context of it all—the Zeitgeist.
Needless to say, the ghosts of our time are hovering close and references to the varying roles of women’s lives are present as are racial tensions and class divides. Likewise, the role of man is examined; there is reference to the wounded man of Paleolithic cave art, and I was struck by the many ways men are wounded: in nature while struggling to survive as in the ancient painting, and then emotionally through love and loss, physically at the hands of another human, and psychologically when bred on rigid ideas or prejudice, hatred, and the desire to inflict wounds on others.
This collection is one of prose—amazing essays and short stories—but along the way, I was fortunate enough to receive some poems from Wendell Berry, which are also included. The titles themselves could serve as road signs for what is within this volume: The Muse, Composition, Service, And Where are You? And then there’s the one that I think needs to be on billboards everywhere: Old Man, Dead Rooster, a poem that speaks to the haves and have nots. A good story, after all, thrives on what is missing and being sought: freedom, salvation, acceptance, understanding, a simple answer or possession or new way of seeing. Will they find it? Will they get there? That’s a story to be told, and there are many wonderful ones up ahead that I hope the reader will appreciate as much as I have.