More Story Seeds

As a fiction writer, I’ve been intrigued by how something of apparently little consequence, whether overheard, experienced, or imagined, can generate an overwhelming desire in me to start a novel, becoming an “essential,” as Alice Munro puts it. The American Heritage dictionary defines essential as “Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent.” In my own work, I’ve been surprised at how that seed or essence implants and then grows a story within which the seminal force may be buried, perhaps forgotten as I write, but still traceable.

Begin with Overheard Conversation

For instance, once I was in a cluster of conversation at the California Historical Society where the director, standing near me, said, “The Pomos had a name for everything.” This comment describing how the Native Americans would name features of their landscape—rocks, trees, hills—struck me as incredibly beautiful and powerful, and served as inspiration for what several years later became a contemporary novel set in Northern California. In the manuscript, a character speaks the incidental line of dialogue—I wanted to retain the novel’s seed within—but it’s the reverence in the context of the statement that guided the making of the story, which became not at all about Pomos, but much about people loving one another and living with a sense of place. 

Munro’s “Essentials”

In the Introduction to her Selected Stories, Alice Munro reveals the seeds that germinated several of the selections. The revelations are brief, suggesting only an image, conversation, person, or situation that sparked the stories, and they’re fascinating. Munro’s clues to her stories’ beginnings tease me to want more, to follow her from where the sprouting began to the full bloom, to guess how the seed spawned the story. Perhaps this guesswork is risky or misguided, but it’s also instructive.

Begin with a Gesture

“Simon’s Luck,” Munro says, began with “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens.”

Begin with an Image from Another Person’s Memory

Two pages later in the Introduction she says the story “came from a story told me at a party by a man who had been hidden in a railway car, as a Jewish child in France during the Second World War.”

Begin with a Hybrid: One + One = Much More Than Two

Here we have a hybrid, a common occurrence in writing. Putting two or more essences together sparks a more complexly layered story. In Simon’s Luck, Munro gives her character Simon the railway car story for his own. Simon meets Rose, the story’s protagonist, at a party for faculty of a community college where she teaches drama. Before meeting Simon, Rose had been in the bedroom of the party’s hostess and observed the hostess, the girlfriend of the host, kneeling by a basket containing a tortoiseshell cat suckling four tiny, blind kittens. “’That’s Tasha,“ the girl said. “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” 

Simon and Rose strike up a conversation and, through subsequent narration that includes the railway car story, we’re taken to a scene in Rose’s house, where she is in bed with Simon after the party, and she is telling Simon he is lucky to have survived. Simon is a sexy, attentive man, ready to fix her furnace as The Humble Workman, or make “triumphant smacking noises against her navel” as The Mad Satyr. Rose allows herself to fall for him. He cooks “a remarkable supper from the resources provided, while Rose did nothing much but stand around watching, and change the sheets.” He offers to plant her a garden, digs up the yard, and works the soil. She is delighted with him and cries out, “Oh, Simon, you idiot, you’re the man for my life!” She expects him to call her and return the next weekend, but she doesn’t hear from him.

Hurt and unable to face what she perceives as abandonment by him, she leaves her rented house and drives, abandoning her life and the phantom of love. In Vancouver, “Luck was with her,” and she lands a part in a TV series. A year later, she discovers that Simon died of pancreatic cancer, something he’d had for a long time. 

Where does a seed go? How does it grow into the story?

The railway car story seed is easy to trace, but what happened to the girl bending over the kitten basket? Where did that essential image go?  An essence is hard to put into words, which is why people write thousands of words trying to get at just what is there in a gesture seen, felt, and remembered.

The dialogue line could be a clue: “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” Or there could be a clue in the lines of narrative: “She knelt down by the basket, crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected…” and “Rose knew by now that when she found people affected, as she did this girl…it was usually because she, Rose, hadn’t received and was afraid she wouldn’t receive the attention she wanted…she might be doomed to hang around on the fringes of things, making judgments.” Here, perhaps, is a build on the essential image, a way of understanding Rose’s character. She needs attention: Has she been poorly mothered? Abandoned? We learn Rose has a seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, who has a paternal grandmother. No maternal grandmother? And where is Anna living? With her father, Patrick? Not with Rose. Has Rose neglected her? We learn Anna is “so silent, so fastidious, so unforthcoming” with her Rose. 

Lesson: Write & Read to Discover Psychological Underpinnings

Do the potentially abandoned kittens resonant in Simon’s character? We know he was separated from his mother at an early age. Is it his sense of abandonment as well as Rose’s that keeps each of them from allowing their feelings of a weekend to flourish into a real relationship, no matter how short or long term?

Waiting for Simon’s call, Rose tells herself, “Better lose him now.” She’s fantasized that he’s gone to Europe, camping, or to get married. As she drives, she imagines that maybe he’s turning into her driveway at that very moment. But she argues with herself: “Even so, even if that were true, what would happen some day, some morning? Some morning she could wake up and she would know by his breathing that he was awake beside her and not touching her, and that she was not supposed to touch him.”

Now we learn more about poor Rose. “Never since Patrick had she been the free person, the one with that power; maybe she had used it all up…” She imagines that if she were with Simon, she’d hear him one day at a party telling his railway story, saying, “And then I knew I’d be all right, I knew it was a lucky sign.” She imagines Simon having power over her to hurt her. In leaving, she avoids giving him that power. 

Lesson: Enrich Meaning through Narrative and Action

We’re told from the start of the story that Rose “gets lonely in new places.” She easily abandons home, easily gives up her own power. She’s done it before. Will she do it again? Munro puts us in the car with Rose as she drives away from the pain of what she perceives as Simon’s abandonment of her. She finds her own luck in the TV show, the new start, but it appears she’s repeating her patterns. In the end, when she learns of Simon’s dying, she thinks it unfair, preposterous, that “even at this late date [she] could have thought herself the only person who could seriously lack power.”

The story’s essence comes from that basket of kittens, vulnerable and completely helpless to prevent being abandoned, and the mother cat, powerless to overcome an instinct that if her kittens are touched, she will abandon them. Rose’s fears—of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of truly giving and receiving love—make her powerless and helpless. She is the cat and the kitten.

See “Gatekeepers & Story Seeds” for more Munro.


Gatekeepers & Story Seeds

Gatekeepers & Story Seeds ~ Session 1 (2010) Followup

Watercolor of peapod by Christine Walker

In the Read to Write Books course in fiction craft, “Gatekeepers” is my term for the role that first and last sentences play. “Story Seeds” are the tangible or ineffable things without which a book would have a different essential reason for being or not exist at all.

Employ a Masterful Gatekeeper 

Mastery is knowing when and how to bring a reader into the story. At the reader’s point of entrance—the first sentence—the author can swing the gate wide—“Come on in!” —or tap it slightly to invite the reader to step in, then push the gate wider, step, push wider. Some books have layered gatekeepers—one narrator  kicks open the gate and eventually leads the reader to another narrator. Life of Pi and Heart of Darkness, which we’ll cover in Session 2, are examples of layered narrative.

Mastery is also knowing when and how to end the story, whether to close the back gate, leave it ajar, or swing it out to extend the story beyond the book.

Lesson: Choose a noun to do the work of several adjectives

Isak Dinesen’s first sentence from Out of Africa, examined in depth in an earlier post, contains the remarkable phrase “at the foot” (“of the Ngong Hills.”) It’s an instructive example of the heavy lifting a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word can do for a writer. “Foot” opened up vistas of discussion in the workshop sessions. It animates Dinesen’s landscape and lends a human quality. It evokes elevations. It’s a body part, but not a particularly lovely one. It’s serviceable. It connects us to the earth, as Dinesen felt connected herself and wanted her readers to feel connected. It grounds us, implies reverence and a glance up to the Ngong Hills, which echo throughout the story.

Close the gate firmly

In the last sentence, the glance is a long look back from her departing train—the hills are “levelled out by the hand of distance.” The back gatekeeper closes her story for us softly, yet firmly, on a time and place (her farm, colonial Kenya, Africa) that will never be the same again for her, or for us, other than in her memoir.

Lesson: Choose language and punctuation to entice readers

J.M. Coetzee’s first sentence from Disgrace doesn’t draw us in with its beauty. In fact, it does just the opposite. The first half threatens to shut the reader out: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has…” The commas constrain, the information doesn’t tantalize. We already may know more than we care to about this guy. Then Coetzee kicks open the gate: “,to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” To his mind? We snap to attention. Is the narrator giving us insight to more than this man knows about himself? Does the man just think he’s solved the problem of sex, and the narrator is telling us he hasn’t. Or is this smug commentary coming from our protagonist? It’s suddenly compelling. And in what way is sex a “problem”? And only “a” problem? With “problems” of sex, might we lend our sympathy? And why the equivocation in “rather” well?

Coetzee infuses his intimate and difficult human dramas with encompassing concerns of the human condition. In Disgrace, sexual power, domination, vulnerability, and disgrace, as experienced by the characters whether male/female, black/white, stand for political and cultural power and control in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa. The story contains the larger themes, but its intimacy isn’t diminished by them. There is no polemic in sight.

The first sentence sets the pace and the constraints the man faces. By the sixth word, he’s boxed in by his age and gender; his life is faltering just as the series of commas sets a faltering pace. Due to having sex with a student, protagonist David is cut off from his university career, diminished by his choices to play by the rules or not, partitioned off from his daughter during and after her brutal rape by a trio of men. The rape leaves her determined to stay on her farm in spite of mounting racial tension and hatred directed toward her, a vulnerable white woman.

Leave the gate open

In the end, Coetzee lets us out the back gate and leaves it gaping. David speaks the last sentence: “Yes, I am giving him up.” He’s referring to the lame dog he’s brought to the kennel to euthanize, but he is also referring to his wounded self and to his damaged country. The gate opens onto hope that damaged people, damaged countries, with histories of despair and violence, can heal their souls.

Story Seeds

I call them “story seeds.” Alice Munro calls them “essentials.” Marsha Arnold, a participant in the Sebastopol 2010 course, uses the term “story seeds” differently in her teaching, so she suggested “heart of” for our discussion. That works. Story seeds may have a tangible or ineffable quality but, in my definition, they aren’t “ideas.”

To me, a story seed is sensory. It may come from an image, memory, gesture, overheard conversation—any number of sources. I may have an idea when I start a project, but it’s the story seed nudging something in my heart and mind that provides the guiding essence. I may not have an idea, and yet that seed planted whenever begins to grow into words and images. If I can’t disengage, if I trust the writing process, I eventually have a book—hopefully a good one!

Touching the Seed

In the Introduction to Alice Munro’s Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries, 1997), she reveals several “essentials.” She says, “I don’t talk about these beginnings or essentials very much, because they are hard to explain and tend to fade anyway after the story has been put out in the world and become a stranger to me…But I can tell you that in Walker Brothers Cowboy, it’s the father speaking to the tramp.” 

In the story, a little girl, on an outing with her father, is frightened of the tramp. She doesn’t understand what he says to her father and can only witness her father’s response and gesture:
“I’ll roll you a cigarette if it’s any use to you,” he says, and he shakes tobacco out carefully on one of the thin butterfly papers, flicks it with his tongue, seals it and hands it to the tramp, who takes it and walks away.”

Within this short scene, the essence of the story is established. There is dialogue—adult to adult—that we can’t overhear or understand because we are within the girl’s point-of-view. The offhand camaraderie between the father and the tramp excludes the girl; it shows her, and us, that there is a world in which her father moves where he is not fully known to her. 

Growing the Story 

The gesture foreshadows the pivotal scene in which the father, a traveling salesman, is feeling frustration and failure at his demeaning job. Accompanied by his daughter and son, he stops (outside his sales territory) to visit a former girlfriend, whom the daughter doesn’t know. The woman clearly has had a relationship of some kind with the father. Again, we see the scene through the girl’s consciousness; she intuits the sexual tension between the woman and her father. The girl is in the bud of her own sexuality, not fully aware, yet cognizant that the drinking and dancing and other things she witnesses are not to be mentioned to her mother. She does understand that the woman “digs with the wrong foot,” meaning the woman is Catholic, and thus different, not acceptable to the girl’s mother. Yet her father had befriended the woman, as he had the tramp. 

(Side note: Here’s “foot” again with another entirely different meaning. What a hard-working word!)

On the car ride home, the girl’s world has changed, opened, darkened—“like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” She has glimpsed past her own tight childhood boundaries into an adult world—secret, forbidden, mysterious—and though she returns to her safe haven of home, we know this day has been a defining one, begun with that simple intimate gesture of her father rolling a cigarette for a homeless man.

A Masterful Lesson

How Munro went from the rolling of the cigarette to this powerfully imagined and deep story is her mastery. Kelly Shaw in the Petaluma Workshop commented on the craft involved in rolling a cigarette and the charity in the gesture. The father makes light of his gift —”if it’s any use to you” —creating an atmosphere of intimacy that infuses Munro’s writing.

Lesson: Mimic the Gesture

Try rolling the cigarette paper, thumbs sliding back and forth over fingertips, the tip of the tongue on the paper, the lightness of the cigarette between your fingertips as you hand it to the tramp. This sensation of touch and offering is something “kindly, ordinary and familiar” from which grows the extraordinary story—”something you will never know” but will keep trying to understand and imagine.  

See “More Story Seeds” from Munro.