In the summer of 1993, after my sophomore year of college, I had a stroke that was supposed to leave me paralyzed from my eyes down. It didn’t, but there were lasting effects, and I wasn’t able to return to school until 1995. That first year back, I did an independent study with the poet Wyatt Prunty, writing stories. After a few early successes and publication in the student journal I got stuck: everything I wrote felt stilted and formulaic. Revision after revision seemed only to make things worse. It was 1996 by then and my study with Dr. Prunty had ended, though I continued to stop by his office occasionally. Eventually, at the end of my wits, I showed him the story that had been confounding me. He listened while I explained all the technical ways I’d tried to fix what I thought was the problem. Then he gave me a piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten. “There’s something my editor says to me whenever this happens,” he said. “‘Hold the world lightly by the throat.’” Prunty held his hand out like he was choking someone, but with his grip relaxed, so that his pretend victim wouldn’t suffocate. This idea has become so ingrained in my mind that I never write anything anymore without thinking of it.
Discussing the challenges of evaluating one’s own work—of developing what Hemingway called a “bullshit detector”—the writer Steve Almond stresses that writers need to protect “the improvisatory momentum upon which all narrative construction depends” while also acting as a disinterested judge of their own decisions. The issue, as I see it, is control. Dr. Prunty and I had been reading some of Peter Taylor’s stories the previous semester, and he advised me to look back at those to see what he meant.
Taylor’s stories all have a conversational tone about them, as if they are being narrated off the cuff. But his precise use of language and his skills of observation demonstrate his control over the narrative. There are no labored transitions; each story appears to simply have arisen whole. Yet each features a turn of events that is somehow both unexpected, and then, seemingly inevitable, leaving the reader under a spell of sorts. Here is how he begins his story “The Old Forest” (from his 1985 collection of the same name):
I was already formally engaged, as we used to say, to the girl I was going to marry. But still I sometimes went out on the town with girls of a different sort. And during the very week before the date set for the wedding, in December, I was in an automobile accident at a time when one of those girls was with me. It was a calamitous thing to have happen––not the accident itself, which caused no serious injury to anyone, but the accident plus the presence of that girl.
The framework of the whole story is set in the opening paragraph, and the rest of it simply unfolds, taking advantage of the momentum already established. We find out early why the event was “calamitous”: the girl who wasn’t his fiancée flees the scene of the “automobile” accident. This sets in motion all that is to follow. It seems inevitable because it’s such an essential part of the story, but I doubt Taylor knew that it was going to happen when he first began. Of the thousands of possible reasons why “the presence of that girl” might have been calamitous, having her run off allows Taylor to expound on the social customs of the time, and it turns the narrative into a detective story of sorts. All with apparent effortlessness and inevitability.
Here is a scene from the end of the story, after Nate, the narrator, and his fiancée, Caroline, have found Lee Ann, the girl from the car. She is safe; she just didn’t want the societal exposure she knew would result from the accident. Nate and Caroline are speeding away from town, as she has asked:
“It isn’t only Lee Ann that disturbs me,” she said. “It began with her of course. It began not with what she might be to you but with her freedom to jump out of your car, her freedom from you, her freedom to run off into the woods––with her capacity, which her special way of living provided her, simply to vanish, to remove herself from the eyes of the world, literally to disappear from the glaring light of day while the whole world, so to speak, looked on.”
“You would like to be able to do that?” I interrupted. It seemed so unlike her role as I understood it.
“Anybody would, wouldn’t they? she said, not looking at me but at the endless stretch of concrete that lay ahead. “Men have always been able to it.”
In my own book, Will & I, there is a scene at a debutante party in which I encounter a crowd of people for the first time after my stroke. These were people I knew, and though I’d changed physically, mentally I was the same person I’d always been. Yet the majority of the people there wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. I narrate the night as if I’m writing fiction through someone else’s eyes, building to the end of the night, when the escorts have to walk their dates down a runway to meet the wife of the club president. When my turn to accompany my date comes, everyone stands up and begins cheering. The last line of that scene is, “I felt hollow.” I had no idea that was going to come up when I started writing, but once it did, it felt perfect, as if everything before had been building to that. Then I went back and polished up the beginning to make it inevitable.