Woke up this morning with a terrific urge to lie in bed all day and read. Fought against it for a minute. Then looked out the window at the rain. And gave over. Put myself entirely in the keep of this rainy morning. Would I live my life over again? Make the same unforgivable mistakes? Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
I've crossed some kind of invisible line. I feel as if I've come to a place I never thought I'd have to come to. And I don't know how I got here. It's a strange place. It's a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation.
Happiness So early it's still almost dark out. I'm near the window with coffee, and the usual early morning stuff that passes for thought. When I see the boy and his friend walking up the road to deliver the newspaper. They wear caps and sweaters, and one boy has a bag over his shoulder. They are so happy they aren't saying anything, these boys. I think if they could, they would take each other's arm. It's early in the morning, and they are doing this thing together. They come on, slowly. The sky is taking on light, though the moon still hangs pale over the water. Such beauty that for a minute death and ambition, even love, doesn't enter into this. Happiness. It comes on unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really, any early morning talk about it.
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I loved you so much once. I did. More than anything in the whole wide world. Imagine that. What a laugh that is now. Can you believe it? We were so intimate once upon a time I can't believe it now. The memory of being that intimate with somebody. We were so intimate I could puke. I can't imagine ever being that intimate with somebody else. I haven't been.
She serves me a piece of it a few minutes out of the oven. A little steam rises from the slits on top. Sugar and spice - cinnamon - burned into the crust. But she's wearing these dark glasses in the kitchen at ten o'clock in the morning - everything nice - as she watches me break off a piece, bring it to my mouth, and blow on it. My daughter's kitchen, in winter. I fork the pie in and tell myself to stay out of it. She says she loves him. No way could it be worse.
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And the terrible thing, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, is that if something happened to one of us-excuse me for saying this-but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough. All this, all of this love we're talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory.
It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things- a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring- with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine- the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That's the kind of writing that most interests me.
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Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting the commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they an best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer's own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason - if the worlds are in any way blurred - the reader's eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing 'weak specification'.
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V.S. Pritchett's definition of a short story is 'something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.' Notice the 'glimpse' part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse gives life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky - that word again - have even further ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer's task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He'll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things - like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right they can hit all the notes.
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If we're lucky, writer and reader alike, we'll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we'll ponder what we've just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we'll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, "created of warm blood and nerves" as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.
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