Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wedded to My Seat: Keeping Faith With a Story

My new novella, The Wedding of Anna F., has been published this week in Big Fiction. Here is how the story, about a woman who believes she is Anne Frank, begins:

The interviewer is coming today. So. Here is the simple part: choosing what to wear. I’ve told my little assistant buzzing downstairs—no, that isn’t fair of me, she isn’t little, she looms over my life, in fact, and she’s more than an assistant, she’s almost a kind of nurse, at times—I’ve told Maia to leave me alone for a bit, to let me be quiet, so I can get ready for my time with him, and then for my birthday celebration to follow; because I need a rest after having spent the whole morning in my study, organizing my documents and letters, the private papers that will sum me up, in my eighty-third year—work that has been the easier part of this day, now that I think of it, at least compared to what’s going to come later on, compared to what is coming on now.

I hope I can manage it all. I don’t tire easily, thank goodness. For my age I’m still fairly sound—apart, that is, from the slight deafness in my left ear, the result of being left lying in the mud at Belsen. Of course, no one knows I’ve ever been there. But this much is true: I’ve never needed or wanted much rest, since then.


Such "easy" lines, as I look at them now--easy in the sense that all work has been erased, all the sleepless nights spent worrying over a story, a voice, that wouldn't leave me alone; all the clumsy drafts hidden behind this one, the final, polished version; all the hours spent staring at the keyboard struggling to understand what this stranger was trying to whisper to me; all the moments when I leapt from my seat because something that had eluded suddenly barked, clear; all the doubt; all the frustration; all the hours when I could have been out in the sun.

And yet the lines aren't "easy," even now. They are a suspension bridge, the kind made of ropes cast over ravines in jungle places. They led and lead into a place that is both dark and light, both myth and reality; they go places I didn't expect at all. Even now I can feel the swaying, the tension, the danger, though all the work is behind me. There were many times when I thought I wouldn't finish this tale. It is too hard, I told myself. It is too strange. There be animals in the shadows.

How do we keep faith with stories . . . not just the stories we write, but the stories we read?  Where does that faith come from? A story is such a fragile thing. Today I met with a few students, and we discussed how stories are powerful, how they have the ability to move us and arrest us, stop us dead in our tracks, at the same time. How anyone who knows how to tell a good story holds the keys to a city.

But stories are tents, too. They are tenuous, canvas and stake and knot against earth. They can, and do, collapse if we don't put our backs into them, and even if we do. There are no guarantees. There is no law on earth that says a story must be finished, or when it is finished that it must be read.

I kept faith with Anna over several years. I put her aside for long stretches of time. I came back to her when she grew noisy and her mystery unbearable. I set her aside again when her impossibilities wore me out. I lived. I worked. I moved to a new state. I picked her up again like a cold I kept catching over and over. And slowly, slowly, something started to take shape. I felt better. She got stronger. I picked up an ax. The bridges behind you don't matter. Cut. Chop. Burn. The only way, for a writer, is forward. A path through the trees.

Now here I am. The story is finished, the faith is . . . what?  Not "rewarded." Reward is the wrong word.

Faith is not a stolen bicycle.

Perhaps it is the chair Anna sits in as she tells her story. Is that what faith is? Hard but steady. Adirondack you take over and over again.

Forget all the rest, the story says, forget everything up to now.

Sit with me.