A Literary Christmas

December 2, 2009

As he drove, he looked at the people who hurried along the sidewalk with shopping bags. He glanced at the gray sky, filled with flakes, and at the tall buildings with snow in the crevices and on the window ledges. He tried to see everything, save it for later. He was between stories, and he felt despicable.
                 — Raymond Carver, 1938-1988
                      American fiction writer
                      from “Put Yourself in My Shoes”

I have been feeling, if not despicable, at least not the woman I wish to be, the woman who accomplishes things, who never forgets a birthday, who is excited about having her picture taken for the jacket of her new book (because she not only finished her novel but sold it), who isn’t going to be starting at Square One again a month from now to work toward the same Six Goals of a Quality Life.

I am, like the novelist described above, between stories, in two senses. As a writer, I am stalled. I completed a short story I’d begun in about 1995 and sent it out for an October 31 deadline. Through November I never got back to working seriously on the novel, never made that fall into fiction, and I very likely will continue to have difficulty through this season so full of distractions, when my creative energies will go to making Christmas and participating in Holidailies.

This morning I was between stories as a reader as well. Last week I finished The God of Animals, a novel by Aryn Kyle, whom I met at Bread Loaf this year. I let a day or two go by, and then started in on Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage. The voice and the point of view in that novel are dramtically different from that in Aryn Kyle’s book, and I felt unsettled. Maybe I hadn’t let go enough of the Colorado ranch I’d inhabited an hour or so a day for the month it took me to read The God of Animals and was not really ready yet to move to Baltimore to follow one couple through their thirty-year marriage. Kyle’s Alice Winston tells the story of one summer in her life in close first person narration. Tyler’s point of view is broader and more distant, and it put me off.

Instead of struggling with the Tyler book, I looked for something else, a short story in a magazine, perhaps, since The Fiction Fifty was over the river and through the woods at my studio. The red jacket of  A Literary Christmas, resting in the basket of holiday titles that I had just repositioned for the season, caught my eye. I plucked it out and sat down with it.

A Literary Christmas is an anthology published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in 1992. Described as a collection of “great contemporary Christmas stories,” it contains 27 short stories by some modern masters of the form, including Tobias Wolff, Edna O’Brien, Grace Paley, and Ron Carlson. Most of our traditional Christmas stories have their roots in the visions of the season made popular by Charles Dickens and Clement C. Moore, with chestnuts roasting on an open fire and stockings hung by the chimney with care and Dylan Thomas’s close and holy darkness. According to the editor, Lily Golden, “it may seem incongruous to use the highly-developed and self-reflexive modern short story to depict the commercialized farce that some feel the Christmas season has become.”

I know I bought this volume the year it was published, or at the latest, the next year. The individual titles looked familiar, but I couldn’t recall the content of any them, including the excerpt from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I knew the work of many of the contributors, and thus I knew that the stories would be rich in craft but short on sentimentality and treacle. I certainly meant to read and remember all the stories when I bought the book, but as with so many of the books I acquire, it became a prop, a part of my Christmas decorations more looked at than used, and a symbol of how I develop good intentions but fail to follow through.

The first story I selected, the one by Raymond Carver, did not disappoint, and it showed me elements of craft that I think I lack skill in — showing a very small number of characters in a brief but crucial moment in their lives, with backstory revealed in carefully-placed details as the present action unfolds.

When I finished, I made a decision. Reading this book will be my Advent practice. One story a day takes me to the Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28. Christmas will be over, I will have read the equivalent of a novel, I will have been able to ponder the True Meaning of Christmas from 27 different points of view, all of them likely to be thought-provoking.

I also decided to post a link each day to some other piece from my December Markings. In looking for a suitable one for today (well, two for today, since I missed yesterday) I noticed that I had never converted the work from 2004 from the old format I had been using to the WordPress format.

There’s another project to help me move toward being that woman I want to be. I hope you’ll check out what I was thinking five years ago. And thank you for reading, so much, so often.

From the Archives
December 1, 2004
I Heard the Owl Call My Name: . . . . I had to discover what [the appearance of an owl]  might be a sign of. There’s the novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name. It was Margaret Craven’s first book, published in 1970 when she was 69. It tells the story of a young Anglican vicar who ministers among the Kwakiutl people of northwestern British Columbia as he is dying of cancer. To hear the owl call your name is to have your death foretold. Loren Cruden, a woman who studies Native American culture for its healing practices, puts a different spin on owl symbolism. She takes the appearance of an owl as a call to die to the past and take on something new.

December 2, 2004Let the Holidailies Begin!: For the next week or so I’ll be working on staging my Big Fat Holiday Extravaganza. . . . Today I wrote the invitation and checked my address list. . . . And I made sure I looked at the place in my party notebook where I’ve written in big letters, “Remember that it takes four hours to assemble, stamp, and address the invitations, even if you already have them duplicated and the address labels printed.”

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