I learned early last week that my short story collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories, won the 2012 Juniper Prize and will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2013. So over Palm Sunday weekend, I reread and very lightly revised, really I should say tried to refine twelve stories. Some of these twelve stories I published while in graduate school at the University of Arkansas program in creative writing, and one story, published in 1992, started on a worksheet in undergraduate creative writing classes at Missouri State in 1988 or 1989.
That’s a lot of years gone by. Not to be too presumptuous and pretentious here, but I understand now what some favorite authors write in the beginnings to their selected or collected poems or stories. W. S. Merwin’s “Note” at the fore of his Selected Poems yields the perfect, brief example of one part of the struggle. He says plainly and quickly: “I have not changed the poems I have included. That is not because I thought they were beyond improvement but because in certain respects I am no longer the person who wrote them.”
Cheever says something similar at the start of The Stories of John Cheever, wishing he could reverse the chronological order of the stories and appear first as an “elderly man.” Tobias Wolff marks a similar wrestling with the old in his “A Note from the Author” from Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories.
So if the greats struggle thusly, unknown newcomers should as well, no? Maybe even more? For most writers, unless they are very lucky early on, I’ll bet that first collection of short stories comes to publication after years of writing and publishing in journals and magazines and does not include everything you have written.
Between 1988 and 2012 a great deal has happened to me, and I like to think I have made some good things happen. I married Tamara Sue Gebhart in 1991. And, inspired and called while researching Irish Catholicism for my first novel Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010), I converted to Catholicism in 1995. Both major changes have, thank God, stuck.
What was it in those undergraduate days (1988-1990)? The shadow of Raymond Carver? The neophyte’s rebelliousness against the Atlantic Monthly doctrine of all stories ending “up,” as in, for the most, happily? The slow, King James-ridden, dusty, bloody rise of Cormac McCarthy-style hyper-violent lyricism? Where did we earn such dark and cynical topography, such narrow territories and lowered expectations? We were, after all, undergraduates at a giant state university in what was then one of the safest cities in America, Springfield, Missouri. Who painted our skies so ominous? I do not know. Certainly none of the teachers demanded or encouraged this similarity. All that styling above was surely en vogue in our attempts at fiction; and that’s how I tried to write; every story had to end mysteriously or better yet abruptly without much resolved.
Graduate school was surely a blessing. Dozens of grumps annually grumble about the homogenizing effect of creative writing workshops and MFA programs, and how they make us all write the same, how they have ruined American fiction. That’s not my experience at all. If I published an anthology of all the great short stories that came across worksheets in my years (1990-1994) at University of Arkansas, the variety and innovation would rival any Best American or New Stories from the South.
It was my wife who during graduate school dared me to write something, anything with a happy ending, and the challenge made a great difference. First it was unachievable for me in the standard, Hollywood sense: After struggle, two lovers are reconciled (or just reunited) and, in cascades of rainbow light, ascend the hill with a wave at the departing reader.
But with this challenge, I did begin to write stories in which characters sought love or tried to keep ahold of what they thought was love, and in many cases I wrote characters that strove to leave behind depravity and find a more humane capacity of love.
It is the profound depravity of one of the stories that troubles me the most. And I considered removing it from the collection after rereading this past weekend. As I said I have changed. And certainly I know some of my readers well (I don’t have many; so it’s very easy!). Some are my parishioners at Saint Paul’s. I warned them that my first novel Morkan’s Quarry was a novel of a particularly vicious war in the Missouri Ozarks, in which violence often prevails, in which often the only God is death, and in which people say and do terrible things. To my shock, they are asking regularly after the sequel.
How to warn anyone of the differences between a war story (rife with war’s total allegiance to evil) and these stories, which, though they strive for some grasp of love or some better capacity to love, may be deemed, wrongly I think, pornographic?
Published in Western Humanities Review in its Summer 1994 issue, “Pleasures of the Neighborhood” is a narrator’s first-person account of his deadly depravity, not just an ongoing affair with the next door neighbor’s wife. The narrator is an entomologist and a feeder, one who objectifies the female body and is aroused only by that body’s ability to gain weight. There are line drawings, diagrams, charts, naked faceless figures all hatched from his fevered mind.
Wow! Serious, obsessive, full-blown, sin-racked depravity. Rereading one last time before these stories become a book in April 2013, I even dreaded being with that voice again, that living (and in this case deeply creepy) voice, without which a story is not believable, not publishable.
And yet, there’s no dodging it. At a time in my life I conceived this monster and wrote what he said, shaped it into a beginning, middle, and end, and made that voice good enough that a major literary journal published it, sickness, sinfulness, line drawings and all. On this reading I was astonished to find myself impressed with the monster’s self-realization, his struggle for healing, even cheering him as he claws his way toward humanity, and toward an understanding of what love might really be.
I’ll write more here soon, I imagine, on art and spirit, as well as fiction and history as I review these pages, these twelve stories, the old and the new. But I am not sure you can revise yourself free of a short story once written and published. And you cannot absolve yourself of the raw fact: you conceived the monster, shaped its beginning, suffering, and denouement. Then you found the monster a publisher.