"The Stone Boy"
So, after that three-post-long digression, today we finally get to turn our attention to a story by that “under-acknowledged American master.”
I was first made aware of the work of Gina Berriault by Tobias Wolff, who recommended her collection Women in their Beds, which includes the story we’ll be reading, “The Stone Boy.”
As you may have gathered, I’m experimenting here, trying to figure out the best way to teach in this format (on-line, thousands of students).
This week, I’d like to try to mimic, as closely as possible, the way I teach at Syracuse. If I were teaching this story as part of what we call a “Forms” class (essentially, literature for writers, aka, reading to see what we can steal), I’d assign the story on, say, Wednesday, and then my students would have a week to work on it. The following Wednesday they’d come in with a list of things they wanted to discuss, and I’d come in with four or five of what I think of as technical “bits” - specific moves I want to them to notice - and we’d discuss, for three lovely hours, in a little alcove-like room overlooking the campus.
So: what I’d like you to do is read the story once, for fun, for pleasure. Then sit back and take a little time to let it sink in. Did you enjoy it? Did it move you? Does it strike you as an important story? Was it true to your experience of life? Did it remind you of something that has happened to you? Did it in any way advance your understanding of life? Has it become - does it feel like it has the potential to become - what we might call a moral artifact? Part of what I’ve elsewhere called your “moral armament?” Any reaction is valid. At this point, you’re just sort of basking in it.
Then read it a second time, trying to recall where you felt certain things on your first read. Or, trying to see what caused you to feel what you did. Can you trace the path your mind followed on that first read? Is there anything you didn’t understand? Places where you were confused about what was actually happening? Again: any reaction is a good one, just by virtue of the fact that you had it.
I always emphasize that writing things down is a way to force a deeper engagement with a story - taking notes, outlining, drawing pictures, whatever. We can read something, think, “Oh, sure, I’ve got it.” But it’s always interesting to see how forcing ourselves to articulate something shows us what we don’t know, and puts us into a more precise relationship with the story. (I had a prolonged experience of this while writing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I had twenty years of rough notes and figured I’d just, you know, type them up. But, uh: no.)
Meanwhile, I’ll be writing up notes on….well, on whatever strikes me as being technically important. On a longer story like this, what I won’t be doing is attempting any sort of comprehensive, grand overview. I won’t be saying much about Ms. Berriault or her times. I’m more like a docent who, standing in front of a painting, indicates a couple of salient technical points. I may just proceed by asking you, in subsequent posts, some questions about your reaction.
The thing I want to stress, again, is that any reaction/reading you may have is valid. I am not trying to overwrite that, or teach the “correct” version - because I don’t know it. I am just trying to honestly convey what struck me about the story as a writer, in the hope that this might be helpful as you process your reaction. For me, the subtext of that “noticing” is: maybe I can use this someday in my writing (after my “silo” has had a chance to process it, of course).
Again, I want to stress: there’s no question that isn’t valid. If a question arises in your mind, it is de facto valid - it didn’t just come out of nowhere. That is: accepting that question as valid and then working with it will, for sure, advance your artistic journey, even if you feel the question to be dumb or naive. If a person climbing a mountain has a pebble in her shoe, “taking out the pebble” is a valid activity. If a question is being genuinely asked, there will, I guarantee, be gold in trying to answer it.
Please note that, for just this post, I’ve disabled the Comments; that way, none of us will be able to Comment before everyone’s had a chance to read the story. I want us all to have some true “alone time” with the story, during which we don’t feel compelled to say anything about it. This, and whatever way you choose to work with the story, will allow your ideas to become more complex and nuanced.
Credit: Gina Berriault, "The Stone Boy," from Women in Their Beds: Thirty-Five Stories. Copyright (c) 1996, 2017 by Gina Berriault. Used with the permission of Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of Counterpoint Press, counterpointpress.com.