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Vol. 4, No. 3

Stalking the Wild Short Story
by Madison Smartt Bell

This spring a friend of mine invited me to shoot a round of "sporting clays." It was like golf, he said, but with shotguns. I've been familiar with guns since childhood, though I don't esteem myself much of a marksman. I figured it would be good for a walk in the park.
    In fact, the game involved a progress along a series of a dozen or so shooting stands. At each of these, orange ceramic flying discs (about the size of coffee saucers) were fired into the air, angled to mimic the flight of different birds. The discs came from all directions and seemed to move extremely fast. I had very small hope of hitting even one of these things, I thought, but I watched my companion carefully, so that maybe at least I wouldn't look stupid. As if his gun barrel was a pencil, he drew a line across the moving target, through and past—then bang, the quick acrid tang of burnt gunpowder, and the orange disc burst into splinters that scattered through the pellet-raked trunks of the surrounding trees.
    Expectations very low, I shouldered my rented twenty-gauge, and shouted for the target to be released. Pull--that's the code word. Without a thought, I swept the barrel across the flying disc and pulled the trigger. To my total amazement, the target shattered in the air.
    It got more complicated as we went on. The skeets were launched in pairs, or one directly after the other, or crisscrossing from two different launchers. They'd be coming at you or going away. I hit . . . well, not all that many, but a respectable number for a first time out. By jingo, I thought, I might actually be good at this.
    So I tried it again, a couple of weeks later, with the same companion. I felt the benefit of a certain experience. I felt like I knew what I was doing, and tried to do it consciously. Couldn't hit a damn thing all day. Shot after shot punched nothing but holes in the empty air, while the orange skeets sailed blithely past, unfractured, sometimes shattering themselves against a tree.
    "Looks like you're thinking about it too much," my friend finally observed.
    It was like that, too, with my first shots at writing short stories. They tended to be aimed at lofty ideas, and to travel well behind their targets.

 

~

"Where do you get your ideas from?" may be the dumbest and deadliest question a professional writer can be asked. A sure sign that the interview, Q & A session, or whatever, is headed for a nosedive. And yet, one does get asked this with some regularity, so I have prepared the following snappy reply: My ideas are dictated to me by demons.
    This answer has the effect (usually) of changing the subject pretty quickly. I assume the audience registers it as no more than a dodge, a jokey evasion. Which in a way it is. On the other hand, I actually do believe it.

 

~

Inspiration is hard to talk about. Most artists and writers can't talk about it without drifting away into pseudo-mystical hogwash. Or brainwash, even, for many writers who try to discuss the matter end up sounding like they're proselytizing for some kind of cult. And yet, certainly, a story without inspiration is no good of a story at all.
    In the middle of that dismal second day of skeet-shooting, something different happened. It was a hard one, a double simultaneously fired fast and low, fired from two different launchers so as to cross in midair. Forget about it. So I did. I just looked and pulled the trigger--once, twice--and watched amazed as both the saucers broke. Not so much as a thought had gone into it. Like all I had to do was hit the targets with my eyes.

 

~

What you see is not always what you get. My first desire to write stories was created by the experience of reading them: the pleasure of the experience the stories reproduced and of the way they moved me, at a subliminal level, toward their meaning. I had learned to enjoy reading quality stuff. It's easier to consume than it is to produce. Masterpiece fiction, as George Garrett would tell a fiction workshop to which I belonged, can be too limited a diet for beginning writers . . . because it's so flawlessly, so seamlessly achieved that you can't for the life of you figure out how it was done.
    I left school for what would have been the first semester of my sophomore year of college and went back to Tennessee to try to write short stories. By day I worked (ironically enough) in the warehouse of a book distributor. By night I wrote, or practiced the banjo. Probably playing the instrument was as useful in the long term as what I was writing then, but it would be years before I figured that out. The stories were so conscientiously constructed that they ticked through every movement. Each of them strained so hard after its intended point that it missed it altogether.
    In high school I had been drawn to the stories of Flannery O'Connor, for the hard-edged simplicity of her style and the way in which she could invest the rather ordinary events of her plots with meaning. Hers was fiction at the masterpiece level, but it helped that she'd left blueprints to a few of her artifacts, in the collection of "occasional prose" called Mystery and Manners. About the composition of the story "Good Country People" she had this to say:
    

    I wouldn't want you to think that in that story I sat down and said, 'I am now going to write a story about a Ph.D. with a wooden leg, using the wooden leg as a symbol for another kind of affliction.' I doubt myself if many writers know what they are going to do when they start out. When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.

    Now despite the fact that this story came about in this seemingly mindless fashion, it is a story that almost no rewriting was done on. It is a story that was under control throughout the writing of it, and it might be asked how this kind of control comes about, since it is not entirely conscious.
    
    All the secrets I know about writing fiction are contained in this passage. Of course (like anyone else) I had to live through them for a considerable time before I knew them well enough to act on them--to act, as O'Connor puts it, in a "seemingly mindless fashion." And weirdly enough, playing musical instruments or studying martial arts (something else I took up at around the same time) were just as pertinent to the whole enterprise as the practice of writing itself.
    At the end of my last year of high school, I'd made my first attempt to write a serious grown-up short story. The piece had the advantage of an external, arbitrary form, which was derived from painting. It was nearly plotless, imagistic, and depicted in its central segment the death of an old man. This center was balanced on either side by images of the deaths of a peacock and a bull. I called it "Triptych." The high-school draft had the disadvantage of being written in a ventriloquistic imitation of Ernest Hemingway's prose style. That term I took off from college I went back and rewrote it, somewhat less conspicuously, in the manner of Flannery O'Connor. It was a patchwork thing, but that last jolt was enough to make it sit up on the table and start stretching its clumsily sutured limbs. After its fashion, it lived. "Triptych" was sufficiently viable, in fact, to become my first published story and to make it into my first collection (thus bypassing a lot of other stories I wrote later, but tossed). But, even at its highest point of evolution, it was a work of craft, not inspiration--a put-together thing.

 

~

It was another couple of years before I actually managed to hit one on the wing. I devoted most of my junior year of college to writing an utterly awful novella. The conceit was to crosscut the wanderings of a contemporary car thief with a tale of the Oglala war-chief Crazy Horse. The project was overplanned and top-heavy with sophomoric philosophy and it evolved into the sort of disaster that this combination of ingredients would lead one to expect.
    I dogged my way through it anyway. I even made myself believe it was good. But shortly before it was done, I cracked. What set it off was something small: an image, out of real life, of a blind student in the food hall, locating the comestibles on his tray by touch. With that, a voice talking about it, and the first few scraps of phrasing. I had the notion in the afternoon, began to write that night, and by next morning the story was complete in its final form; a black-humorous disquisition on the class system displayed by the university's food service organization, told by a narrator in the midst of a quasi-comic nervous breakdown.
    For the first time I had brought one in alive.

 

~

During this same period I was learning Tae Kwon Do, and with others in what was then called the Princeton Karate Club, competing in small tournaments in the area. Our big event of every season was a tournament with West Point. Innocent of any natural athletic ability whatsoever, I had through persistence acquired some skill in the movements. In the ring I had no sense of rhythm or harmony, and my calculations of what was going on were inevitably completed too late, but because I was excitable and aggressive enough, I could still sometimes be dangerous. I went into a West Point tournament with a bruised bone on the outer edge of my right foot. In the first awkward clash that dime-sized spot got hit again. The flash of pure pain dropped me to the floor. The sensation was so brilliant that it didn't even register as either pain or pleasure; it was a blinding, searing, white light. I was tripping for a good few seconds there, washed in the flood of endorphins, while my teammates swirled around me, wondering if maybe I'd broken a bone. In fact I was in no way impaired and when I got up I won the rest of my three matches, without knowing how I'd done it, without any awareness that I was doing anything at all.

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