A View from the Inside
(Apologies in advance for the length of this post. In the future I will try to be pithier.)
In your (generous, amazing, gratifying) responses to “Getting to Know You,” a few of you were nice enough to mention a story of mine called “The Falls.”
Serendipitously, this story was recently featured on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. In this series, Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor, asks a New Yorker writer to read and discuss a work from the magazine’s archive. The short-story writer Will Mackin, author of the wild and truly original collection, Bring out the Dog, chose “The Falls,” and he read it so wonderfully that he taught me how to, in the future, read it, and then he and Deborah (a wizard of editing, with whom I’ve been working gratefully for the last eighteen years) had a beautiful discussion about it that, of course, I found moving (“That story still works?”) but also inspiring – two bright minds talking brilliantly on the topic of fiction.
Listen to the story here.
Read it here.
In my classes at Syracuse, I’m always a little reluctant to talk about my own stories – it feels a little…you know.
But I also have to admit that this is what I crave from the writers I love. I want to hear how they wrote a particular story. Not so much what they think the story means, but how it actually came about. What I’d really love is a keystroke-capture recreation, that I could watch to see how the thing grew along the way – like one of those fast-motion films of the lifespan of a tree.
After all, that’s what a writer really knows about – the unfolding, the mistakes, the breakthroughs, the mindset she was in that allowed the thing to happen – the kind of pencil she was using, the view out the window as she worked, what she learned from writing it.
I’m not making any particular claims about the story’s esthetic value, by the way – just saying, “Well, whether it’s good or not, I do at least know how it happened.”
I had (to understate it)…a long apprenticeship. I’ve written about this in other places but, to summarize, I got sidetracked trying to imitate other writers I loved (Hemingway, mostly) and, in the process, was keeping my actual charms, such as they were, out of my work. I tend to be funny in real life (when stressed, when happy, when moved) but those early stories…were not funny. Not at all. They were dull and methodical and always seemed to be looking to some authority figure outside of themselves for approval.
Then, around 1988 or so, when I was in my early thirties, I had a breakthrough of sorts and started writing…well, like myself. The resulting work was faster and weirder and more contemporary and funnier and it had a ton more energy than the Hemingway imitations and, importantly, when I was in the middle of one of them, I always had a strong, joyful, sense of what to do next – I had strong opinions about them, which had never been true with, you know, “By the River, Near the Town, Near That Other Town.”
So that was good. I started getting published. One of the stories, “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” made it into The New Yorker, and two got into Harper’s
’, and I got an agent and, steadily (stealthily) writing at work, had, by 1996 (seven long years later, and by that time I was 38) finished and sold a first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.”
But the first-book money was, of course, not enough to let me quit working and by now my colleagues and supervisors at the environmental engineering company where I was working as a tech writer had figured out that I was writing at work, which, of course, made it harder. (For a time, I was carving out thirty minutes at the end of the day, precisely timed to occur between clocking out and racing for the bus, and this one guy somehow intuited this, and would stand in the doorway during that precious half hour, talking to me about how great Zane Grey was, because he wrote “real stories,” unlike, presumably, me.
Ah, the memories!
Also, I had a technical issue. The stories in the book were all in first-person, present-tense. There was a certain taut, ironic tone in the prose that I was beginning to feel a little trapped by. I was feeling burned out on that voice, but also, good God, I had written and sold a whole book in that voice, a book that, it seemed, was going to do all right – and so I was afraid, afraid that if I tried something new, the world would withdraw its fondness. After so many years of having no success I felt that, if I stopped writing in that voice, I would go back to being that earlier, constantly rejected, guy, and that was a sickening thought.
But that voice had gone dead for me and all I could do in it was repeat moves from the book – also scary.
I remember sitting at my desk at work, rather desperately resolving to write in some other (any other) voice.
There’s a certain move, just before we start writing, where we are sort of inviting certain tonalities in, and keeping others out. We incline that little voice-making machine in our mind toward this and away from that. We’re instantaneously establishing the mental basis for the writing to come; “deciding” the sound of the writer we’re about to be.
So, I said to myself something like, “Do third-person/let go of all of that minimalist restraint you’ve been training yourself in for the last seven years/but still be funny.”
I was doing something we used to do in Chicago, as kids, to get attention: imitating someone’s voice and attitude. Sometimes it was a real person (a teacher was always good) or it might be someone we’d invented - the embodiment of a certain type, for example - someone very critical, or nerdy, or very optimistic, or whatever.
In this vein, I blurted out what is the first section of what would become “The Falls.” I was drawing on my own nervous, self-doubting monkey-minded tendency, ramping this up for comic effect and, in the process, was making this guy named Morse – a neurotic family guy, apparently walking home from work. I had a friend from my job in mind too – a certain gesture he would do, of throwing up his hands when he laughed. There was a sweet, self-doubting quality about him and I felt a kinship – we both had small kids at home and were doing our best not to fail them, I guess, by doing work that was hard and dull and keeping us away from those very kids.
I saw myself in him, I guess I would say – two nervous brothers-in-arms.
So, I took some of him and more of me and combined them to make Morse.
Then I just…printed those pages and put them in a manila folder I had on my desk for my fiction (hidden there among the Kodak files) – a two- or three-page scrap, in Times Roman 10 Pt (my preferred font, which I used, while writing at work, to distinguish my stories form the technical reports I was editing, which were in Times Roman 12 Pt).
Then, a few weeks later, I tried that same exercise but instead attempted to imagine the voice of a certain guy I’d seen around the village where we were living – he wore shorts in all weather, had this sort of Prince Valiant haircut, would walk around muttering to himself.
And this resulted in a second swath of text, about a guy named Cummings, a poet (of sorts), and those pages went into that same folder – a start, I thought, on the second story in my next book.
In both sections, I was doing something I’ve come to think of as “third-person omniscient.” The difference between this mode and “normal” third-person limited has something to do with the idea of trying to minimize or eliminate that omniscient presence that is located…nowhere. Who IS that omniscient narrator? I’m trying to get into the character’s head as fast as I can and (this is key) into his diction as fast as possible.
So the story starts out in third-person limited (“Morse found it nerve-racking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as the school was being dismissed…”) and then, with the next line (“because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert”) starts to edge into Morse’s diction - the words “wacko” and “pervert” are, subtly, his words, not “mine.”
Then I took six months off from writing, to catch up at work and at home and to do the sort of things writers have to do before a book comes out, like giving any interviews that come in (if we’re lucky), and doing the final edits, and…well, pacing nervously about one’s office worrying about reviews, when one should be tech-editing a report on cyanide contamination in a residential community.
When I came back to writing six months later, I just decided, for a reason I can’t remember, to merge those two sections into one story. I just, you know, pasted the Cummings section in after the Morse section in the same file, and then read them in that order, and suddenly those two men were in the same world (once I’d made a few adjustments, i.e., created a river for them both to walk along).
That was an interesting moment, in retrospect. I was sort of saying, “You two guys are in the same story, because I say so, and because my subconscious spat you both out around the same time and, also, I’ve got literally nothing else going on writing-wise and am afraid I’m no longer a writer. So…you two go into the same story and…figure it out.”
This is one reason for the story’s unusual structure, a feature Deborah points out in the podcast. They were both just there, and I didn’t know why, and the story didn’t. So, the reader feels that tension, or, we might say that defect – it becomes the question the story is asking: “George, why are these two guys in this story?” The honest answer would have been, “Because I have no other story ideas.” Or, “Because I just…I did it, o.k.?” Or, “Right, exactly, that’s what the story is trying to figure out too.”
So, process produced a structure (two guys walking along a river, thinking their thoughts) but it wasn’t at all intentional – that is, I had no big plans for the structure. I just did it. And then (and herein lies the “art”) I noticed that I’d done it/accepted it as a feature of the story.
Also, putting them in the same story now made my subconscious start asking (in that complicated way it asks things): “What might these two have in common? And how do they differ?” I didn’t have to have an answer; their adjacency meant that the story would answer this for me.
Writing this story, I discovered a trick I’m still using to this day: if I make a person in enough detail, this creates plot. That is: if, over the course of a few pages, I make a vivid, funny person that the reader feels some connection with, anything that happens to that person is going to feel meaningful.
Let’s say I make Hal, a guy with very low self-esteem, who is always imagining that other people are judging him. But he’s kind of sweet, is always doing things for other people (things that, if this was an actual story, I would provide details about him that would make you like Hal and see him more clearly.) If I then have Hal step into a crowded elevator and fart – that’s plot. Because we know and love Hal, that fart means something. And might cause him to then do something (more plot!). Like, maybe, finally fed up with his own obsequiousness, he storms in and quits his job. Or, you know, he swears off beans forever.
So, this was the case with Morse and Cummings. Having spent most of the story on internal monologues that (I hoped) had them real and distinguished them from one another — because we knew who they were — what they did was going to matter.
In the event, there was no direct interaction between them; I just gave them a chance to react to the same event: two girls, in a canoe, in distress, out there in the river. My memory is that this happened in the game, as a sort of Hail Mary – my quickly improvised answer to the question that, by now, I had started to notice the was story asking (“Why are these two guys in the same story, walking along the river when, so far, they’ve had nothing to do with each other?”)
And I can’t overemphasize what a light, playful decision it was. Literally just: “I feel that I need something for those two guys to both see and react to. Hmm, o.k., two kids in a canoe.” No thoughts of theme or any of that. (Actually, I just now remembered, at one point I had a dog in the story, a drowning dog, based on a recent incident in which our dog had fallen through the ice on the Eric Canal and I had gone into to pluck her out, as our five-year-old stood watching. But, in the context of the story, “drowning dog” didn’t seem like enough – a person could reasonably make the case for not risking his life to save a drowning dog, maybe? Something like that. Turning the dog into two kids “raised the stakes.”)
Along the way, the main thing I was doing was messing around with where each section began and ended. When was it best to cut away from one man and over to the other? Also, trying to make each little section shapely – one of the challenges of internal monologue is that it needs to be linked to things that are happening in the real world, and to at least seem to imitate the pace of real thought. I also remember working to make a geography for Morse and Cummings to walk through, that would help the reader see the whole thing unfolding.
Also: the original section I’d written for Morse got cut down by at least half, maybe more. Likewise the Cummings scene. And the other scenes came about that way too: I’d (way) overwrite, then go back through and try to separate wheat from chaff. Where were the funny bits? What was mere scaffolding? What were the facts (of motion, of decision) that added up to an escalatory feeling within each section?
The basic move was: overwrite, then radically scale back.
The ending, as Will and Deborah discuss, is odd. The story feels, maybe, a little truncated, if what we’ve been wondering is, “Will Morse save those girls, or drown, or what?”
But here’s another facet of the short story form that I expect we’ll be discussing again (and again) here in Story Club. A story has a surface dimension (let’s call it the overstory) and another, deeper, dimension (the understory). The overstory, in this case, is whether Morse will save the girls. That’s what we think we’re supposed to care about and what we (very naturally) do care about. The understory is somehow related to the Joycean idea of the epiphany – it’s what the story has really been about all along. The writer might not realize it until that moment when the understory breaks through the overstory and the story tells us, finally, what it’s been about all along.
For me, reading/hearing it now, as a teacher of literature, and not as the person who wrote it, “The Falls” seems to be about something like commitment; the cost of that but also the costs of its opposite, independence. Morse has a family he loves and is committed to and he always feels like he’s failing them and often he is. Cummings is alone in the world (but for his mom) and is only concerned with himself – his writing, his fame, his vainglorious internal victory narrative. Which is the better way to live? At the moment of truth, what we’re really wondering, I think, is whether either man will attempt to help the girls. Will either find it in himself to step outside of himself? Morse has, by being a father and husband, trained himself in this, and/but it has cost him. Cummings has trained himself in, let’s say, the joy of ego. He is really loving all of that thinking about himself and his career. So, at the moment of truth, he can’t quite commit – he decides to go for help, which the story has already told us, will come too late – it’s now or never, and Cummings says, essentially, “Yes, this is very sad, but I have a life ahead of me and now I have to get back to it. Fame awaits me!” He’s a ridiculous guy, of course, but…I see myself in him.
But, as Will and Deborah allude to, I also see myself in Morse. I basically split myself into these two guys, each of whom is an exaggerated version of very real parts of myself.
At the fatal moment, Morse goes toward the river and Cummings turns away. And there are costs associated with these decisions. Morse may die. Cummings is going to have to live…with that. Or, even if we imagine Morse saving the girls, Cummings will still have to live with that.
Anyway, that’s how I see it now. At the time, as I was trying to find an ending, I just noticed this: whenever I wrote past the moment when Morse jumped into the river, I felt a drop in the energy of the story. I realized that (artistically speaking) I didn’t care (the story didn’t care) whether he drowned or not. Part of me knew that the story, by having him leap, had just answered its most urgent question, which has to do with Morse’s ability to transcend his limited self, in service of others, even if that effort is likely not going to work.
The answer, as I understand it now, is: he can transcend himself, he just did it, which means that maybe we can, too.
So…how fun it is, to think about something written so long ago, by that person I used to be. I can still see that little village in my mind, that village that never existed but was based on, but is not exactly, Pittsford, NY, where we were living at the time, a beautiful little town that has, running through it, not the Taganac River, but the Erie Canal (no waterfall, of course).
The story feels wild to me, a little out-of-control; kind of nicely cartoonish and misshapen; I wonder if I could still manage something so wild.
And then I think: Oh, yeah, for sure, I’m going to have to try that soon.
Next post, we’ll start working with a little Hemingway masterpiece called Cat in the Rain. No need to go find it and in fact I’d rather you didn’t – I’ll send it along in the body of the post. This will all work better if you haven’t read it first. (If you have, no worries - just try to, uh, forget what you know about it.)
We’ll approach the story a fragment at a time, via the method I used with Chekhov’s story “In the Cart,” in my book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
Thanks again for being here. I don’t know about you, but I am having so much fun with this.
Is it just me, or is anyone else thinking today, on the Tenth of December, that Story Club has the potential to save a life?
Thank you so much, George, for your warmth, generosity, and inspiration, and for creating this community!
George, as someone who gave a shout-out for “The Falls” on the getting to know you post, I really enjoyed reading about how the story was born. I was struck by how as a reader, the only version of the text I can conceive of is the finished product, and so it’s hard to imagine you writing beyond the end of the story as it currently exists; the final line is what I love most about this story, and it’s so powerful and complete that in my imagination when you wrote it you knew instantly that the story was over because, duh, tautology-alert, there is it, the perfect finish to the story.
This led me to try to express why the last line is so important, and what it does to me as a reader. On the most basic level, from the first time I read the story and then called my wife and read it aloud to her over the phone because I wanted to share it with someone else immediately, it’s heartbreaking and heroic and despairing and hopeful, and that mess of emotions that it stirs would be ruined if anything else happened to resolve that ambiguity.
During a later reading, I remember being struck by how powerfully this story asks and answers a key question about the human condition: Why do you do when all the alternatives are hopeless? It’s impossible, of course, to do nothing, to watch the girls drown, but it’s also of course impossible to swim to the snag, and so we get to watch as Morse tries figure this out himself and juggle the impossible and unthinkable outcomes and there’s something thrilling about his thoughts circling around and justifying one course of action while his body has already taken flight. While reading I always appreciate the action that Morse’s body takes, independent of his mind, and see it as deeply moral and heroic and true: that watching the girls drown is the thing that you really can’t do, more than any of the other things that you can’t do, that cuts across your fear and despair and rationalizing and justifying. Knowing whether or not the heroic moment succeeds or fails is counterproductive: if it succeeded, the story of Morse feels as false as the thoughts of Cummings; if it fails we lose that glimmer of hope and our empathy with Morse gets broken and replaced by something else: sorrow, sympathy for his family.
Today, in light of your teaser about looking at sentences as a creative driver, I thought more about the rhythms and cadences of this story, and the ways in which Morse’s thoughts tumble out and over each other like water rushing over the falls. A good deal of the humor and the tragedy of this story for me is what’s happening in Morse’s head and how he can’t seem to stop it, this interior flood of memories and resentments and fears and bits of occasionally forced gratitude. In this way the final sentence feels like a kind of release from Morse’s neuroses: the sentence starts with his normal tumble and turmoil: eight thoughts on top of each other, separated by commas. Then the sentence suddenly slows down as he makes his decision, as we get this lovely “threw his long ugly body out across the water.” If the problem in this reading of this story is Morse’s indecision and anxiety, then this sentence brings it to a close quite nicely: even for just a split second, Morse and the reader are given a moment of grace, and the noble act is mirrored by a calmness of language and thought.
Anyway, glad to have some time today to sit back and think about this stuff; reading literature creates these moments of grace for me where I can sit back and ponder all these questions about being human.