Listening for the Shape of a Story

I was lying on my back in the brush pasture at dusk last night – when’s the last time I did that? I mean, just plonked onto my back, in the grass, in the woods, even? Said, Hell with the mosquitos (yes, I’m regretting having worn shorts) and surrendered to gravity, to the lack of gravity of the moment and just put yourself down against the waiting earth? I didn’t know why I did it just then, but there I was. Maybe it was the late bluing sky as the last of the day’s overcast melted, flat light from the west running the earth’s greens and golds and browns bright and fast across the land, shadows looming and spreading in their wake. Maybe it was the sound of birdsong, urgent, mysterious and everywhere around me. Or the smell of hay. We’d not hayed the brush pasture, but from below, where the horses used to graze, the windblown remains of windrows seeped the scent of a later time in summer from uneven, golden phonograph grooves.

I know that a large part of it was that I was listening, beyond the birdsong, for a story, any story. They’ve been elusive lately. I mean, there’s the novel I’m supposed to be writing (fun but trashy), and the one I’m supposed to be rewriting (good, I’m told, but apparently a bit inaccessible), and the one I’ve rewritten four times now and given up on (some really good bits, but disjointed and unconvincing). And the short stories out for review, waiting their four-to-six month litfic journal “please allow…” purgatory before consignment to the editorial bitbucket with the customary. Thank you for considering The BarfSplat Quarterly; as you know, we receive many…

No, but the real stories. The ones I find myself inside of. In Niall Willams’ brilliant, brilliant, brilliant This is Happiness, he tells us that one of the characters we admire most believes that everybody is living inside a story, and they’re better off the sooner they can figure out what sort of story it is.

I’m often lost as to which of many stories I’m inside of at any given moment, but that’s the life I seem to have chosen. I absolutely love stories, you know. Love to tell them, love to hear them. Love being inside of them, so have tended to resort to the strategy of placing myself in situations where the stories just happen to me. Stepping out onto the story interstate against the light, as it were, and trusting that I’m going to get smacked by a good one, leaving me just with the rudimentary task of writing down its license plate and filling out the literary equivalent of the police report.

I had a grand time of that in Ireland, if you remember, but it’s been a bit of a dry spell since. Sure, I took a little time catching my breath when I got back to the farm, but I assumed that once I got back out on/over the road, the stories would start coming again.

And it’s not been for want of trying. Devon and I were in Colorado last month. Some time late in the previous century, my best friend from high school and my college girlfriend married (now that’s a story) and have since raised and assembled an amazing clan. Now their second eldest was getting married, so we flew ourselves out in the Twinkie for the wedding. Breathtaking vistas on the way, unexpected detours. Amazing wedding, of course, with stories, stories, stories going back to when Conor’s great great (great?) grandfather came across the Great Plains on a wagon train and settled in what became Walsenburg. (Trust me, if you look west from town and imagine trying to coax a loaded Conestoga over the Spanish Peaks, you’ll have no doubts why they stopped where they did).

But somehow none of those stories took the right form to land on a page. I’ve bounced around half a dozen western states since I’ve last written and could probably wring out a story about each, but again, somehow.

Tonight I’m a far cry from that pasture, listening in a Holiday Inn outside of Minneapolis (named by a hybrid portmanteau of the Sioux word for “water” and Greek for “city.” Minneapolis, that is – not the Holiday Inn). D and I are planning to spend the week visiting friends around Minnesota (“cloudy water”) and Wisconsin (“river running through a red place”).

And I’m sure there’ll be stories – old ones retold, and new ones in the making. I’ll try to catch a few, but sometimes they just get away. Sometimes there isn’t time to put them down into words that make sense, but sometimes, most recently it feels, they just don’t have the right shape. They have to have the right shape, they have to have a point.

A story without the right shape is like an unresolved melody, a sentence without a verb, a joke without a punchline. Martin Shaw writes that a story can be seen as a ritual put into words, and a ritual is a story told by actions. This works for me: like a ritual, a story needs a Why. Why are you doing this, why are you telling me this. And I found myself thinking as I lay there in the grass among the mosquitoes, as I type in this in the anonymous antiseptic air-conditioned hotel room, that I’ve been short on the hook, on the Why.

I don’t yet have a hook for this post, and as I twist and turn around how what I’m now writing has anything to do with lying in a brush pasture half a continent away, I don’t think I’m going to be able to find one. Sorry.

But I’m going to keep listening.

4 responses to “Listening for the Shape of a Story

  1. It would seem to me your story is about a guy looking outside of himself for somebody else’s story. You are the story. Your imagination will take you the rest of way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maybe you were lying in nature waiting for a story to approach you, but in the meantime, you decided to approach the story but haven’t quite allowed it to find its center.


    • My guess we all have our process. A friend told me her wisdom for writer’s block: To begin, you begin. So I stare at the blank page with a few floating ideas and just start writing. One of the key words for me is Permission. I allow myself to fall on my face. Usually something unexpected happens. Of course my blabberings are just that. I meander. I don’t subject myself to the marketplace. I only hope to become my best critic.


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