(This post is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)
May 1, 2011
Why did it never seem real to him that time was a limited quantity? Only with Rose is he aware of moments flying by, of a strand of pain running continually through him because of that.
— Robin Black, b. 1962
American fiction writer
from “A Country Where You Once Lived”
It’s National Short Story Month, as proclaimed by Dan Wickett at the Emerging Writers Network. I became aware of it (probably not for the first time) yesterday. The timing was good for me. I’ve been struggling with focus, trying to make productive use of the depression that has descended on me like a mantle. During April, National Poetry Month, I did read a poem every day, entirely for the purpose of posting a few lines every day to my Facebook news stream. It seems natural now to turn to fiction, to begin reading purposefully and widely again, to get myself back into my own work. Thus my plan for May:
- Read a short story every day, a mix of new ones (or stories that are new to me) and stories I have loved.
- Post a quotation from my reading on my Facebook and my Twitter streams.
- Write about the story here, or , in the alternative, do an exercise I read that the nonfiction writer John Behrendt does: take an incident from my day and turn it into a scene, a narrative vignette.
For this morning’s reading I chose Robin Black. I met her, sort of anyway, on April 16 in Washington, D.C., when she participated in a panel discussion at the Conversations and Connections conference about what it’s like to have your first book published. The “sort of” means that I was there to hear the panel, primarily because Dylan Landis, a writer whom I had actually met briefly last year at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, was going to participate as well. The panel turned out to be the best part of an excellent day-long event, and sparked an interest in Robin Black’s work. It turns out she’s a Pennsylvania writer, and we know a lot of the same people. One of our mutual acquaintances led me to an interview with her, which led me to an idea for a writing exercise, which led me to get out my purple pen again (the color I write fiction in), for the first time since March 1.
I was drawn to her collection by references in reviews to its being about people in middle age and older who are experiencing transitions, navigating the hard geography that the changes and losses of the later years present us with. Black herself is not yet fifty, yet the several pieces that I have read resonate with me, someone a bit farther along this road.
“A Country Where You Once Lived” concerns a man who has been estranged from his daughter, now thirty, for some sixteen years. He had taken his reluctant wife and daughter to England for a year-long research project. The project and the marriage came to an end together, and he returned home to America alone. It’s been five years since he’s seen either of them, and although the relationship with the ex-wife has softened from the anger that tore it apart, he remains appallingly distant from Zoe. “He had let his daughter go. Like a kite that requires too much attention, too much sensitivity to its ways. Too much care.” This trip is designed as rapprochement, a way to start rebuilding a relationship, although much has been lost.
I remarked once to a writers’ group that I can no longer “read for pleasure.” Every piece of fiction I approach becomes a teaching tool, a way to learn craft, an example of how to do the tricky things — slip in backstory, render dialogue realistically — sometimes an example of how not to do them. I analyze as I read. If I read to learn craft, I also read to learn about what it means to be human, to experience loss and fear and rage and despair, and joy and hope as well. It is the mark of a great story that I get to the end of it and have to remind myself that I was was supposed to be learning about craft, not just reading a story.
Though there is much craft to be learned from “A Country Where You Used to Live,” in particular the insertion of backstory and the unwavering point of view, it was one of those stories that gave me everything else as well. I spent some time this past week in a country where I used to live, metaphorically, anyway, when I attended the funeral of a childhood friend, and stepped back into the milieu I inhabited from the time I was seven until I was sixteen. There is a strand of pain that runs through me for times that are gone, structures of a life that have ended, even though it was necessary for that to happen.
“A Country Where You Once Lived” is available online. I put the link at the end of the quotation. Why not take a look, and get to know the work of Robin Black.