Tonight, I am thinking about the boldness of good writing. A while back, I promised a post on other stories (that I didn’t write) that were published in the current issue of On The Premises. The first-place story, Elisha Webster’s “Swedish Fish and the Shape of the Universe,” is good for two reasons: it is detailed and it is bold.
Webster uses the detail to set up the boldness. She describes, with loving care, a trek through the cold to buy gas. The scene is crystal clear, so that I am seeing the way snow makes an evening brighter, and I am feeling the expectation of some otherworldly events that tends to come to me whenever nature gets the best of man, however briefly. Here’s just one example of Webster’s attention to detail:
“Yup,” I said, pulling out a copy of The Purpose Driven Life, a pack of Camel Lights, and a handful of papers. I put them on the counter. A free cigarette must have broken in my purse, because a handful of receipts left brown tobacco droppings everywhere. “Hang on. I’m finding it. This thing’s a black hole,” I said, just as I found my wallet.
The effect this builds is to make the narrator feel very ordinary. While I was enjoying the details, I began to wonder if anything was going to happen.
That’s when my forehead hit the glass.
This is the bold line that changes the story, and it affected me as if I myself had just walked into a wall of glass. From that line on, the story becomes magic realism, strengthened by the powerfully ordinary presence of the narrator. And the line doesn’t come out of nowhere — when it comes, the reader immediately sees that Webster has been carefully setting up for it from the story’s first moment.
I don’t know in what order the story’s elements came to Webster. I don’t know if she always knew she was writing magic realism, or if the story became that way. What I do know is that it takes a bold writer to write the sort of crazy line that launches a story into the unknown.
“I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.” He also remarked that Kafka’s “voice” had the same echoes as his grandmother’s — “that’s how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.”
It’s all too easy when writing to second guess everything. But sometimes a man becomes a cockroach. Sometimes my forehead hits the glass. The result can often be good literature, bold and wild and true.