One of the most fascinating, and annoying, questions asked of writers is about the origin of a story. We hope that if we could pinpoint the real beginning of a story, it would reveal all that a story holds—certain aspects of the author’s personal history; the experience, fact, or image that caught the author’s imagination; the path through language from imagination to a coherent work of art. We wish to be able to extrapolate the mysterious process of writing fiction.
Many stories draw upon either the experience of the writer or another’s experience as reported to the writer. This is not an assertion that every story is autobiographical (or biographical), only that something of the writer’s own life is of necessity part of every story. A number of writers find their stories through research, a method of educating oneself and also of procrastinating. For still other stories, and other writers, the inspiration may be as fleeting as a landscape glimpsed from a passing train.
But the process of writing always remains mysterious. There can be no definitive answer to a question about a story’s origin because the best stories are manifold and open to multiple understandings. A single origin doesn’t seem enough for the stories we love and reread. Furthermore, a story presents changed meanings over time to a faithful reader, for the story we read in middle age is different from the one we first encountered in adolescence. A single glance from a train doesn’t account for a story’s beginning—it’s too monocular, too limited—and yet that may be the way the story’s creator remembers it. A story undergoes many changes as it’s written, making it a complicated journey from the starting point.
We do want to know where a story came from, and by that we mean the whole story, not only the tiny flash that began the imaginative process. Implicit in the question is the respect we have for the story, and the answer we suspect: Not even the writer really knows where the story came from. If that were known, why bother to write?
John Berger’s “A Brush” epitomizes a kind of silence I associate with the short-story form. In the story, the reader finds a slow, almost offhand perception that presents itself when one is looking the other way, or, as W. H. Auden said in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
We are all self-preoccupied; the narrator of “A Brush” is no exception. In Paris, he makes his way through his routine, giving no evidence that he is either lonely or happy in his solitude. We experience what he wants us to—chance meetings, a slow revelation of character and history by those he notices, and, finally, the shock of understanding, a moment of real attention. In the story’s ending, we understand how much the narrator has come to value and gain from his urban friendship. The narrator of “A Brush” is both the reader’s informant and a character involved in the story’s action. Berger’s masterly writing conveys with equal grace the recent history of Cambodia and the patient skill required in making art. At the story’s simple and exquisite ending, the narrator summons both fact and feeling.
Salvatore Scibona’s “The Woman Who Lived in the House” has an eccentric and delightful ending. The story is about many varieties of togetherness. Ásmundur Gudmundsson has a few easy relationships—with his father-in-law, and with a sister and niece—and several complicated ones—with a dog who’s crazy about him, an unsuitable lover, and his disgruntled wife. Scibona throws us right into the story with the announcement from a television set that Ásmundur’s latest investment, the one he and his wife put everything into, has failed. In no time at all, the marriage follows suit, in Ásmundur’s determination an act of God, who, “after twenty years of giving them the stamina and will that makes young Eros turn into the companionship of married love,” ends it in a comical street accident. The whole story is a dance of attachment and separation, connection and alienation, and, finally, of love lost and love renascent. The ending is both a surprise and a joy; the one we didn’t know we were waiting for at last is back with us.
Anthony Doerr was included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
in 2002, 2003, 2008, and now appears, for a fourth time, with “The Deep,” a story that combines the author’s preoccupations first with the natural world as it is seen through science and then with the interior, often secret, lives of his characters. In the case of “The Deep,” Tom’s interior life is dominated by his heart, a defective organ: “Atrial septal defect. Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. His heart will have to do three times the work. Life span of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Best if he doesn’t get excited.”
The voice of science—and Tom’s mother—urges extreme caution. Tom’s spirit looks at those small numbers—sixteen, eighteen—and wonders how cautious can he be and live. Tom’s heart keeps him slow, careful, and quiet. His life is different from that of the other children, particularly other boys. The tension in the story is between the restrictions imposed by his literal organ and the desires of Tom’s metaphorical heart.
In Lauren Groff ’s “Eyewall,” a hurricane rages outside and inside the narrator’s three-hundred-year-old house, flinging this way and that her chickens, furnishings, books, and her past. For all that is destroyed, something whole and new is created by the rollicking lively narrator. Groff ’s story is poetical and laced with humor, as the dead drink excellent wine with the living, and the storm rocks on.
Christine Sneed’s “The First Wife” narrates a story about inevitability in a doomed relationship, a kind of wry love letter from the cautious, somber narrator to her beautiful, unfaithful, and predictable husband. The story is a consideration of a cliché—the handsome movie star’s infidelity. A reader might well ask the star’s wife: Why is it that we go on asking questions to which we know the answer, starting things we know will end in failure? The answer is what Jean Rhys called “Hope, the vulture,” and because
it feels good to bet against the odds.
Often the ending of a short story brings a reversal of fortune, character, or the expectations established at the start. In Sam Ruddick’s well-choreographed “Leak,” there’s a comical reversal. A man believes he’s having a straightforward and, for all parties, satisfactory adulterous affair. Before long, it’s clear that he’s the innocent in the crowd that gathers, like clowns exploding from a car, at his assignation. The story’s title is a definition of what happens in every aspect of this lover’s duet, trio—no, quartet. Ruddick has a gift for understatement and for moving his characters along in ways that surprise and delight the reader.
It’s often said that in marriage one partner is the brakes and the other the gas. In Alice Mattison’s “The Vandercook,” the narrator is the caboose and his wife the engine. When the narrator, his wife, and children move across the country to the narrator’s hometown to aid his aging father and keep the family business going, the marriage’s balance of power and love is fatally disturbed. The narrator’s calm, rational voice doesn’t conceal the pain of a new understanding of his past and consideration of his future. By the end of the story what was whole seems corrupted. The beauty of the story lies in its sense of the continuity of the lives narrated. The characters will go on, but with a telling difference. Mattison’s story will be read and reread to trace the narrator’s understanding of his wife’s character and his own.
Dagoberto Gilb’s moving story “Uncle Rock” narrates a similar movement toward understanding, though in the case of Erick, whose difficult, compromised childhood is explored, there’s freedom rather than disillusionment in the end. Confronting cruelty, Erick gains a new understanding of his mother, of masculinity, and of his own strength. The boy who doesn’t speak in either of his languages ends the story with an evasion that protects both his imperfect mother and her lover. By speaking, Erick steps toward adulthood. He sees what he didn’t wish to, understands the unintended consequences of lush, powerless female beauty and male power, and moves into his own complicated life.
In Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” the mixture of realism and fantasy pushes the reader into a nightmare. A young boy’s parents isolate themselves in the joyful, arrogant belief that they can make a new Eden and raise their child in a utopia. The story’s narration of a mother’s love, and her manipulation of her weak husband and young son, mixes with the elements of horror. The blood announced at the beginning of the story covers the family by the end. Wilson’s story is most brilliant in capturing the innocent ignorance of the child and the ways in which every child is a victim of his parents’ choices.
Cath in Keith Ridgway’s “Rothko Eggs” lives in London with her mother. Cath’s parents are divorced, and she feels like their caretaker, more knowledgeable about them than they are about themselves. She loves art and thinks about ...