On Reading

22 Aug

View from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – can you find Waldo? Sometimes sifting through reading and ideas for stories feels a bit like this.

Twice this week, I thought, “this is *just* the thing I need to be reading.” It’s a curious and satisfying sensation, especially when that reading is incidental or meets a need in an unexpected way. I picked up Mark Doty’s slim book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy in preparation for a class I’m teaching at Hugo House in October.  In my notebook, I ended up copying long passages from it (and I’m still reading it, so perhaps more on this later), but the kernel that first caught my attention will also, I think, help a lot with my in-progress short story collection, “More Like Home Than Home,” which explores themes of migration:

“[…]why resist intimacy, why seem to flee it? A powerful countercurrent pulls against our drive toward connection; we also desire individuation, separateness, freedom. On one side of the balance is a need for home, for the deep solid roots of place and belonging; on the other is the desire for travel and motion, for the single separate spark of the self freely moving forward, out into time, into the great absorbing stream of the world [….] We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” (p.6-7)

Doty goes on to explore how to “think through things” – how attending to precise detail in objects is more than just that, how “intimacy seems to confront its opposite, which is the immensity of time” (p. 21).

Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask,” in Best American Short Stories 2011,  is the second item that set off little internal bells that said “yes, this.” It’s a multi-generational story, from the perspective of an adult thinking back to his childhood understanding of his father’s life, surviving the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia while his parents and sister had not. The story jumps in time to different ages when the narrator picks up details of his father’s story about a refugee hiding in his parents’ rabbit hutch in Brno, and his father’s struggle with the weekly task of slaughtering a rabbit for dinner. The central object of the story, a hare’s mask used by the narrator’s father in fly fishing, contains both that sense of intimacy and that immensity of time. In the contributor’s notes (which, in BASS, can sometimes be enormously helpful in a practical sense, and can sometimes a source of solace), Slouka writes:

“I had to warm the actual event, knead and stretch it until it became malleable to the imagination. The basic material is historical fact [….] Who knows where these things begin, really? [….] I sensed a story about history’s losses, time’s compensations, a child’s ability to misread the world. To get at it, I had to mix three generations. It was easy enough; in my heart, they were already blurred.” (p.343-344)

Reading these three texts – Doty’s essay, “The Hare’s Mask,” and Slouka’s note on the story – rearranged something subtly in my mind. I’m not sure it would’ve happened if I hadn’t read all three in close proximity to each other. I read Slouka’s story today before my morning walk and writing time. When I finished, without knowing exactly how, I just knew it would help me with a short story I’ve been struggling with, that I’d been spending too much space summarizing. It’s not totally explicable (who knows how these things begin, indeed), but, huffing up to north Capitol Hill, where it’s quiet and where the moss takes over the sidewalk, specific images started coming to my mind, enlivening what I worried was static and making sense of other images and ideas that had seemed disconnected and hazy. I realized that something in her past, in her family’s past, was heightening those conflicting desires Doty writes about, that need for both intimacy and freedom.

Two men in orange vests were at an intersection (this is not an image my story but what I actually saw on my walk today). One of them knelt on the asphalt and was pointing at a small divot in the road, possibly a hole. “This looks strange,” he was saying. He brought his eye to the street, peering toward a storm drain. I realized there was a divot in my story, that thing in her past, something to look at more closely. I haven’t decided yet whether to yank it open for the reader to see what’s beneath it, or whether to draw the reader’s attention to the divot itself and what it suggests. My guess is that I’ll have to yank it open for myself and then decided how much needs to be buried again.

Related posts:

1. The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy

2. Glass Steak

3. Summer

One Response to “On Reading”

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  1. Background Reading for a Novel-in-Progess | Anca Szilagyi - April 18, 2013

    […] On Reading […]

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