A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 31

The Non-Epiphany

Students in my fiction courses often say they struggle with how to end their short stories and ask me to teach a class on the subject. It’s tough. Famous writers give wide-ranging answers as to their own approaches, whether they set out with a specific ending in mind or find their way to one. I interviewed Kelly Link once and she said she does write knowing her endings; journeying her way to them is the mysterious part of her process, which she described as opening door after door onto a series of rooms.

And there are some identifiable ending “types,” like the one that concludes the classical plot, in which the central question of the narrative is answered (will Gatsby win Daisy’s heart and thus by extension, attain the American dream, blah blah.) Conventional wisdom holds that readers want to see protagonists undergo some sort of change or come to some sort of major realization.

Then there are those who strongly oppose ending this way. In his essay “Against Epiphanies,” Charles Baxter argues that “the insight-ending has become something of the weird norm in contemporary writing. The reason I find these developments baffling is that discursive insights are so rare, in my experience, that they seem freakish. Another reason I am baffled is that, in retrospect, I can say with some certainty that most of my own large-scale insights have turned out to be completely false. They have arrived with a powerful, soul-altering force; and they have all been dead wrong.”

So how to end a piece if not by the traditional methods? Today’s poem and story may present a couple alternatives. Neither offers an “answer,” although both, at points, appear to be building to one. What are they building toward instead?

René Magritte, The Empire of Light (1950)

Poem

Faint Music

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

When everything broken is broken,   

and everything dead is dead,

and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,

and the heroine has studied her face and its defects

remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,

as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves

has lost its novelty and not released them,

and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,

watching the others go about their days—

likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears—

that self-love is the one weedy stalk

of every human blossoming, and understood,

therefore, why they had been, all their lives,   

in such a fury to defend it, and that no one—

except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool

of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic

life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,

faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.

As in the story a friend told once about the time   

he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him.

Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.   

He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,   

the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.

And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”

that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.

No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch

he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,   

scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp

along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word   

was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise

the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,   

and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up   

on the girder like a child—the sun was going down

and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket   

he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing   

carefully, and drove home to an empty house.

There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties

hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.   

A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick   

with rage and grief. He knew more or less

where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.   

They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears   

in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,”   

she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights,   

a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.   

“You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?”

“Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now,

“I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while—

Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—

and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more,   

and go to sleep.

                     And he, he would play that scene

once only, once and a half, and tell himself

that he was going to carry it for a very long time

and that there was nothing he could do

but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened   

to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark

cracking and curling as the cold came up.

It’s not the story though, not the friend

leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”

which is the part of stories one never quite believes.   

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain

it must sometimes make a kind of singing.

And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—

First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

—Robert Hass

Who is this guy?

This is the second appearance of Robert Hass in this newsletter; previously, he was featured in Issue Two as the translator of haiku by Kobayashi Issa. He has translated other Japanese haiku poets, too, and the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. Hass has published several collections of his own, as well as books of essays and criticism, and served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States. Like the haiku masters he translates, Hass’ work, Forrest Gander writes, “similarly attends to the details of quotidian life with remarkable clarity.”

Story

Viewfinder (Excerpt)

"Happens all the time," he said. "So they just up and left you, right? Now you take me, I work alone. So what do you say? You want the picture?"

"I'll take it," I said. I stood up and picked up the cups.

"Sure you will," he said. "Me, I keep a room downtown. It's okay. I take a bus out, and after I've worked the neighborhoods, I go to another downtown. You see what I'm saying? Hey, I had kids once. Just like you," he said.

I waited with the cups and watched him struggle up from the sofa.

He said, "They're what gave me this."

I took a good look at those hooks.

"Thanks for the coffee and the use of the toilet. I sympathize." He raised and lowered his hooks.

"Show me," I said. "Show me how much. Take more pictures of me and my house."

"It won't work," the man said. "They're not coming back."

But I helped him get into his straps.

"I can give you a rate," he said. "Three for a dollar." He said, "If I go any lower, I don't come out."

We went outside. He adjusted the shutter. He told me where to stand, and we got down to it.

We moved around the house. Systematic. Sometimes I'd look sideways. Sometimes I'd look straight ahead.

"Good," he'd say. "That's good," he'd say, until we'd circled the house and were back in the front again. "That's twenty. That's enough."

"No," I said. "On the roof," I said.

“Jesus," he said. He checked up and down the block. "Sure," he said. "Now you're talking."

I said, "The whole kit and caboodle. They cleared right out."

"Look at this!" the man said, and again he held up his hooks.

I went inside and got a chair. I put it up under the carport. But it didn't reach. So I got a crate and put the crate on top of the chair.

It was okay up there on the roof.

I stood up and looked around. I waved, and the man with no hands waved back with his hooks.

It was then I saw them, the rocks. It was like a little rock nest on the screen over the chimney hole. You know kids. You know how they lob them up, thinking to sink one down your chimney.

"Ready?" I called, and I got a rock, and I waited until he had me in his viewfinder.

"Okay!" he called.

I laid back my arm and I hollered, "Now!" I threw that son of a bitch as far as I could throw it.

"I don't know," I heard him shout. "I don’t do motion shots."

"Again!" I screamed, and took up another rock.

—Raymond Carver (Read the rest here)

Who is this guy?

Carver’s work has long been such a mainstay of creative writing curricula that many seasoned instructors groan at the thought of teaching him. But the fact is that encountering him as a high school student made a huge impression on me; I was introduced to new (to me) possibilities of fiction, and I’ve seen my own students—adolescents and adults of all backgrounds—respond similarly. There is still much to learn from him, widely-anthologized as he is. Just consider Jane Alison’s (whose craft book, Meander Spiral Explode was mentioned in Issue 28) close study of his story, “Where I’m Calling From.”

Prompt

Write a poem or story that does not end with the speaker or primary character arriving at a major change or realization.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com