"Sparrow," craft, and hope (re. a follow-up Q from Corinna Luyken)
Hi everyone and, as always, thanks for being here.
First, I wanted to provide this updated version of the list of unknown-but-wonderful short stories that you all compiled. I put in the missing stories, per your emails. Any omissions or format errors are on me; I was working, ineptly, in the file that Mary G. so generously put together.
But still: this is a pretty amazing document, and I thank you all for it.
Now, on to our question for the week: a follow-up from Corinna Luyken after our discussion of last Thursday.
Speaking of hope… I keep thinking about the “Sparrow" story from your most recent collection, Liberation Day, and how it has a surprising tenderness (it is similar to Gappers in that respect)— which sneaks up on the reader at the very end.
“Sparrow” feels like a great example of what you were discussing in a recent Story Club post(s), Why We do This— in which you talk about specificity, and respect as a byproduct of increased specificity.
It strikes me that in “Sparrow", the defining characteristic of the main character seems, at first, to be her complete lack of specificity. This, in turn, leads to a noticeable lack of respect in the way she is described by the narrator/townspeople— “She always seemed to be reading directly from a book on how to be most common”, “she didn’t have, as the expression goes, much to recommend her”, and “she was...experienced by most people as a slightly puzzling blankness.”
And yet— the main character in “Sparrow" is, herself, described by the narrator with precision. The story begins, “She was small and slight and her eyes were dark beads on either side of a beaklike nose. She moved quickly, head down, as if, we sometimes joked, scanning for seeds. She had a way of seeming to dart from place to place. She had a way, too, of saying the most predictable things. When a truck went off the road in front of the little store where she worked, she said, ‘That’s too bad. I hope no one was hurt.’ When it started to rain, weather drizzling or pouring, she’d say 'It’s raining cats and dogs.’ When someone said the sandwich she was eating looked good, she’d say ‘It's a good sandwich.’ “
At first these precise descriptions of Sparrow are descriptions of the (many) ways in which she seems to be (tediously, boringly) common— in her language, spirit, and life. But as the story progresses, something shifts. And by the end, the readers’ sense of Sparrow as a person, as well as the interestingness of her life, has deepened. The story ends with a tenderness that feels a lot like respect, and the weight of this shift is almost entirely in the last paragraph, and in particular that very last sentence. It’s a beauty. And because of it, the story has lingered with me long after reading it.
Which makes me want to ask you, not just about writing for a younger audience (and resolution and hope) but also about the connection between specificity, tenderness, and respect.
Both "The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip" and “Sparrow" begin with a judgmental worldview and build, slowly, toward something that is more generous. For me, as a reader, that aura of tenderness and generosity feels hopeful— in the best possible way.
Which is interesting, because though we talked about hope quite a bit in our last conversation…you are not necessarily described as a “hopeful” writer. And yet, I find hope in your writing… and I find both “Gappers" and “Sparrow” to be stories of hope.
As I mentioned last week, I've been thinking a lot about hope as it pertains to the ending of a story. And I think a truly hopeful ending is a very, very difficult thing to do.
What about you? Is this something you think much about when you are in the midst of writing? Is it something you try NOT to think about?
And when you have written hopeful stories, did you find yourself stumbling into that hopefulness, or (“Gappers" aside) was it ever something you set out to do with intention? More specifically, with “Sparrow", did you have a vision for that final paragraph and sentence early on, or did it take you by surprise?
Thank you, Corinna Luyken, for this follow-up. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and generosity of these insights.
As I mentioned somewhere in the comments last week, at this point in my life, I think a “hopeful” story is a “truthful” one; one that honestly takes into account what it has put into motion. This isn’t necessarily going to be an "uplifting” story, but it might be felt as hopeful because it, let’s say, reasserts basic sanity.
The reader feels: Yes, that which I found being raised in my mind is also that which the writer felt being raised in the mind of the writer, and then the writer did his best to acknowledge that thing.
I’ve sometimes used this example: if you and I and some friends were in a cabin somewhere and suddenly heard a pack of wolves outside, it would be good - a relief, a step toward that “basic sanity,” if someone were to say, “Guys, I’m pretty sure there’s a wolf pack out there.” Whereas, if we all just clammed up - that’s denial. And denial is, I feel, one of the most negative things a person (or artist) can do.
I think, for example, of the stories in Tadeusz Borowski’s monumental collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman. They’re all set inside a concentration camp, and are based on Borowski’s personal experiences. And they are bleak. But they are so good, and tight, and honest, that, somehow, they seem to affirm…something. We might catch just a glimpse of decency in one of them, which then affirms that decency exists, even in that hellish place. At the very least, Borowski is not falsifying anywhere in the book. And his clear gaze, his willingness to say, again and again, “Thus it was,” strikes me as hopeful.
For me, “Thus it was,” is a hopeful statement. It’s also a trusting statement - it says that if the writer shares with us how things were, in a new and truthful way, we will know what to do with that new truth.
This idea allows us, maybe, to sidestep the old “happy” vs. “sad” ending dichotomy. We get to just keep our eye on “truth.” And I’m not talking here, really, about Big Universal Truth, but the truth of the story - it’s “inter-truthfulness,” we might say - how well it knows what it is.
The writer’s task, then, is to ensure that her story is honest/has integrity in this way - that it catches the bowling pins it has put in the air.
Now, what does this idea of a story honestly taking itself into account feel like, as we’re writing that story? (Like so many things in writing, we can’t, unfortunately, just “decide” to do it, or “vow” to do it - the “craft” is to, somehow, “get ourselves to do it.”)
Maybe I can shed some light on this by talking about how “Sparrow” got written.
Here’s what happened, approximately:
I dreamed a few lines, in that language. (I’d been reading Gertrude Stein and she had, I think, rubbed off one me.)
This “waking with a story idea” happens to me sometimes, and usually I just go back to sleep, knowing that the world probably doesn’t need a story in which I become a snowplow and speak in a British accent as I have a long argument with Moses of Biblical fame, except Moses is a Toyota Prius who is also, sort of, my cousin, Rex.
But every so often something tells me I’d better get up and write those lines down.
This dream came during the pandemic, in the middle of a long, cold winter, in our old house in Oneonta/Delhi NY. What made me get up was how strong and insistent that voice was - it was easy to “do” and was, in fact, so impossible not to do, that the voice in my head was keeping me awake.
So, I got up, went to the kitchen table, wrote those first few lines, and then more lines kept coming. It was going pretty well, and then it sort of peaked - that initial energy wore out. In that lull, as sometimes happens, I saw (or “pre-saw”/anticipated) the shape of the story; this boring woman, who had, by then, fallen for this guy, was going, of course, to get dumped on.
The tone of the story had already foretold this ending.
And suddenly, I had the urge to go back to bed. I didn’t want to write that story, because it felt like such a foregone conclusion. (I’d set her up to be crushed and now I was going to just…crush her?) Those early minutes had been spent in a state of discovery but this, now, felt like something different.
But I still had that voice working pretty well in my head and so, as I recall it, I just intuitively made a slight adjustment, a sort of mid-course correction, that was a form of aversion, really; it was almost as if I said to myself, “OK, but what if it doesn’t end badly? Is there a way we might, without falsifying, get to that place?”
And the story started to move, as if all in its own, in a new direction.
Practically speaking, I became aware that my story had a narrator, who wasn’t, necessarily me; I asked myself: “Wait, who is this speaking? Who’s telling this story?” It had been me (who else?) but now I gave myself a sort of visceral permission to let it be someone else.
And then I found myself in a state of slight opposition to whoever that narrator was.
Who was it?
Well, the voice sounded like a collective “we,” I noticed. (“We imagined that Randy thought about her the way we did,” for example.) Who was this “we?” It sounded like the voice of a community - the small town in which this woman lived.
And this, in turn, made room for that “we” to be wrong – too sure of itself/themselves. I could “turn against” the narrator(s) of the story; they became characters, separate from me, the author. And therefore, the events of the story could start outrunning that collective narrator’s understanding of things - surprising “them,” in effect.
And that’s what happened. (That’s what this slight mental adjustment allowed to happen.)
So, to me, yes: the story’s got a hopeful ending. It says, basically (as they used to say over at the New York Lottery): “Hey, you never know.”
That is: we human beings tend to judge too soon.
We get some partial information on a situation and our mind starts running forward, projecting. We think we know what’s happening. We’ve seen it before! We’re so wise!
But, when we judge something or someone, that’s a very limited (and limiting) process. The universe is bigger and more ornery than we can ever really account for. And judging (even thought its necessary in every moment of the day, and we can hardly not do it) presumes that we know more than we really can know.
So, in the end, I see “Sparrow” as making a sort of sideways case for mercy, really; for patience, tolerance, for holding off on judgements, especially negative ones, for as long as we can.
The narrator(s) of that story look at Sparrow and go, “Oh, we know you, and we know how the world treats people like you. How sad.”
And the story says, “Are you sure? Seems like you kind of don’t know.”
In that sense, it’s also a story about storytelling – about how our early, crude, inaccurate view of a thing can get refined over time, and when the refinement happens, it feels like….well, like love, or increased tenderness, or a greater degree of presence/abiding.
That’s what the writer (me) went through, and its what the characters go through (that community narrator is a little chastened by the end) and it’s what I hope the reader goes through, too - the reader identifies, at the outset, a little too trustingly in that collective “we” narrator, and feels, by the end, that she was initially misled - she corrects her assessment of that collective “we” narrator, just as I did.
So the whole deal is an enactment of that arc we follow so many times in real life: from sure/judgmental/superior/aloof, to unsure/open/equal to/more fully engaged.
The reader, by the end of the story, might look back at the reader she was back at the beginning, and feel, a little, like: “Aw, too harsh.”
Of course, we also sometimes go in the opposite direction - from tolerance to judgement, and that can be a story too - I think of Chekhov’s “Enemies,” maybe, which is the story of a man who, in a single night, acquires a prejudice against a certain type of person that abides for the rest of his life.
My guess is, you can come up with more examples of both types of story, dear readers.
As for the ending: I remember just arriving at that last paragraph and finding that, you know, the table had been set - and I felt an urge to turn back toward that mother. It was a surprise to me, that change in her, but also one that, it seemed, my subconscious had been steering me toward all along, via that “specificity” you mention: I’d made two specific lovers and a specific mother for Randy, and put her through some specific stages vis-a-vis her opinion of Randy’s relationship with Gloria/ “Sparrow.”
So, when I turned my mind to her, there at the end, I knew just where she was.
The specificity (as it tends to do) had narrowed the path of the story; there were only so many options available to me now, given what had come before.
This is often how endings feel to me. What I’ve already committed to - what I’ve revised (I hope) into undeniability - has ruled out millions of other options and brought it all down to a handful of variables.
We’re often in a particular room, with certain people, and even certain objects that might want to get used (that’s not the case here but it often is). Certain issues remain hanging over the story or, as is the case here, the reader (I feel) is looking over at me for some final (subtle!) disposition. “How am I meant to understand this?” she might be imagined to be asking.
And my instinct was to turn to that mother and say, “Well, what do you think?”
As usual, I’ve made the process sound simpler and more intentional than it really was, but I wrote a whole first draft that night and all of the above was in there – the early certainty, the realization that the narrator wasn’t me, the reversal, the wedding at the end, all of that.
What surprised me about the story – what often surprises me about stories that I manage to finish – is that the story was articulating a truth, or a position, that I recognized from real life but had never seen clearly before – something I believed but didn’t know I believed.
In “Sparrow,” this had to do with the idea that love is…well, it’s kind of insane, really.
If Flawed Person 1 has a certain set of weird traits, and Flawed Person 2 has a different set of weird traits, and if those sets of weird traits turn out to be complementary – if one FP wants what the other has to offer, and vice versa – well, that’s LOVE.
That’s what love always is.
That’s all it can ever be: the union of two flawed people whose “flaws” (quirks, needs, desires) turn out to be complementary.
It’s not some sort of rational exchange of value; it’s more like two bent-up puzzle pieces from two different puzzles finding one another and, to the mutual satisfaction of both….they fit.
The outside world can look at a relationship and say, “Wow, those two are odd and strange and weird and, to me, anyway, unlovable/troubled/to be pitied or scorned, and therefore that will never last,” but that doesn’t matter one bit to the two people who are, it seems to them, perfect for one another, and having the time of their lives.
Writing “Sparrow” taught me about that notion, or, really, reminded me of it, and because I wrote it so quickly (that first draft, anyway) I was made more than usually aware of the details of the process – specifically, of how my own boredom led me to consider an alternative arc for the story.
My habitual story-arc is something like: the world crushes the meek. But my boredom was saying, “Hey, George, you do know, right, that that’s just your habitual stance, right? The world is bigger than your habitual way of thinking about it. It certainly sometimes crushes the meek, but does it always? Is there any way that you might make a little room for something unexpected to happen, as it so often does in the real world?”
And I guess, that (that right there) was craft – making the little mental adjustment, there at the kitchen table in the dead of winter, that allowed something new(ish) to happen in a fictional world that was starting to become a bit overdetermined.
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