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Original Essays | January 14, 2014 0 comments
The Scar Boys — my debut young adult novel and the reason Powell's was nice enough to invite me to write something for their website —... Continue »
Roomsby Lauren Groff
This friend is the kind of person who makes you drunk with exuberance, and after I heard about his method, I decided that I, too, would become a plein-air scribbler, sunburnt and prolific. For an afternoon, I sat at the park down the street and waited for inspiration to descend like Glinda the Good Witch and touch me with her twinkly wand.
Instead, the white sky above was too much like a blank page, infinite in possibility, and, terrified, I slunk on home. I do best in small, dark places, and would probably write well in a closet, if it weren't for the indignity of sitting amongst the coats.
The truth is, I like enclosure. Though I once tried to be a poet, and failed abjectly (I love character and extended narrative and the gentle swing of prose too much), had I succeeded, I would have been drawn to form. A villanelle has a three-pronged elegance that presses against its subject and squeezes out a sad, surprising juice; the strictly alternating rhymes of ottava rima crack open a vast narrative expanse. Within her confines, a formal poet finds the space to move and to be moved.
Short stories are like this: a story is self-contained, pushing both reader and writer with the urgency of its form. If a novel is a state fair, replete with butter sculptures and death-trap rides full of youth gone green, a short story is a room you wander around in. You fondle the knickknacks, peer into the drawers, read the half-finished letter on the desk. Then, a short while later, you leave.
Enclosure happens in the other direction, too: my stories are fixed to the place where I've written them in a way that my novels are not. I have written a number of long narratives, though only one so far has survived infancy, and while I wrote them I carried them around everywhere I went: in the shower, at the grocery store, when I'm reading the work of other writers. Because I never stop writing a novel, it is larded with location. A story is a sudden eruption that owes an immense debt to what I have just read and experienced, and takes its flavor directly from the place where I first wrote it. Most stories take many drafts and many years and many rooms to realize, but the room in which I first felt that lovely furious white heat is indelible.
Each story from my collection Delicate Edible Birds is marked with the room where I first wrote it, some stretching back over 15 years ago, deep into high school. "Fugue," a story of a woman who has lost herself, had its mysterious birth when I was a junior at Cooperstown High. On the way to Albany from Cooperstown, there's a small town named Sharon Springs, which seems little more than a crossroads with a traffic light until you turn down the twisting hill and end up in a cold sulfurous vale with vast, disintegrating hotels from when the place was a spa-town. I was in my Agatha Christie phase and stuck in Murder on the Orient Express when my mother took that turn out of curiosity. We found ourselves in one of the hotels, in a strange shadowy room full of antiques. I sat down and scribbled the first idea in the back of my book, which I still have, and which has no resemblance to the final story.
My version of the Abelard and Heloise myth, "L. DeBard and Aliette," comes from a medieval French course at Amherst College, in a cold white room in Johnson Chapel. Brain kindled by the love story, I wrote in the margins of the notebook until the end of the class and beyond, when I looked up to find the room empty. Later, the story took the form of a failed novel; and then, seven years after its beginning, in a wintry study drooping off of my apartment in Madison, overlooking icy Lake Monona, it finally combined with two other failed stories, one of the 1918 flu epidemic, the second of Ethelda Bleibtrey, an incredible American swimmer.
"Majorette," a story about, well, a majorette, came the year I was a bartender in Philadelphia, right after college: my writing room was a dusty, tiny bedroom at the top of a house in Manayunk, and the story in which the majorette feels squeezed by others' expectations is a direct product of my claustrophobia and the subtle disappointment of my family that I had chosen to waste my expensive education.
The next few years I lived in the Bay Area in California, and "Blythe" was born in our miniscule cottage in Atherton. A friend of mine had just sucked all the life out of my life, and I was taking an exhausted afternoon nap when the first idea for the story popped into my head, but it didn't take its final form until I had read a number of profiles and biographies of female artists.
Two years later, also in Madison but in my dirty all-vinyl kitchen, "Lucky Chow Fun" was born. This is a story of a young girl in Templeton who discovers that the men of her hometown are actually pretty nasty at heart. I was so frustrated with my novel, The Monsters of Templeton, that I wanted to write one quick story set in Templeton. I was looking out the window, drinking coffee, when a little girl packed into a fat jacket came struggling over the snowdrifts, and set off a series of memory-petards (my dear little sister at age eight; my gawky self in high school; swimming; the Foo Kin Chinese Restaurant in Cooperstown, on and on).
"Watershed," the story of a marriage gone before it was truly alive, came from a rainy day in Louisville, where I was the Axton Fellow in Fiction after my MFA. My apartment was brown and cold, and the roof leaked, and I had been deposited there two days after my wedding, which took place during a terrific rainstorm. I was grieving for my new husband, and felt that constant rain was following me everywhere: writing the story was both exorcism of self-pity and an anxious act to stave off potential tragedy.
When I first moved to Gainesville, my office was in a tiny room painted robin's egg blue, the sole window of which was high and afforded a view of only treelimb and sky. I had just read Maupassant's Boule de Suif and the collected letters of Martha Gellhorn, and something in the color of the room sparked an undercurrent of egg, bird, sex, war, which led to the title story, "Delicate Edible Birds."
A year after my wedding, my husband and I took our honeymoon in Brazil and Argentina. The day we were to visit the Argentine side of Iguazú Falls there was a pell-mell tropical rainstorm, from which we huddled in our hotel room. On the wall there was a letter to the guests where somehow the greeting Señor Pasajero was bizarrely translated to Sir Fleeting in English, thus giving birth to the story of the same name.
The most recent story in the collection was written in the room where I sit now. Because we were expecting our son, I had surrendered my eggshell office for his nursery and took over my husband's yellow, high-ceilinged office on the first floor. There's a bay window that is about six feet from the street, hidden behind magnolia and loquat trees. Sitting essentially on the street, seeing without being seen in turn, makes me feel sneakily part of everything that happens outside. City office workers park outside, and I have my favorites, the ones who unselfconsciously sing as they pass or dress up for every conceivable holiday (Halloween sexy witches, Martin Luther King tees). Bo Diddley Plaza, where all the homeless of Gainesville congregate during the day, is only three blocks away, and it's fun to watch muttering people rattle their shopping carts up the street or steal oranges off my neighbor's tree. The first-person plural voice of "The Wife of the Dictator" comes directly from this feeling of community, and is the only way, I'm sure, I could have written the story.
Sometimes in this room, though, there is too much light, too much space, too much distraction. I am trying to darken the walls with books and to draw the curtains when it's writing time, but productivity has suffered. The room is almost too expansive to write in. Some days I find myself absurdly longing for the preteen me who sat with a new journal and flashlight under a sheet-tent at night, and in that close, warm space, wrote billions of crappy poems, beautiful only in the sheer joy of composition.
Those days, the closet where my husband keeps garage-sale stuff beckons. I find myself slowly moving away from the lovely windows, away from the desk, sitting on the floor, then in the corner.
Soon enough, I'm sure I'll probably craft an ad hoc desk from abandoned milk crates and defunct keyboards and close the door and sit in all that beautiful, close darkness; working, thrilled, confined. I can't wait to see what comes of it.
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Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, which was short-listed for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Atlantic, and Ploughshares and have been awarded a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Gainesville, Florida. Please visit www.LaurenGroff.com.