There were 17 others sitting around the table as I wandered into the story workshop class in the basement of the history building. Habits formed in college die hard, or not at all, and I was a minute late. I also hadn't read the syllabus sent in advance by the instructor, a young novelist from Honduras with a penchant, she'd soon tell us, for tales of queer women who "spend half their life longing for the love of straight women," and so did not know that the use of laptops was discouraged until after I opened my air book and was reminded of the preference for note taking on plain old paper.
The others students are all much younger than me, and let's get this out of the way from the top, all are much smarter than I am, too. Most are computer science or bioengineering or math majors, with a few humanities types and a senior who said she's a literature major, but not a writer. There may have been a freshman or two, but most were new sophomores or juniors, and a few were already-world-weary seniors eyeing graduation next summer. "I am still undecided about my major, which probably sounds mixed up for a junior," one boy told the class, though it sounded about right to me.
The teacher asked us what we thought stories were. I figured they were tellings of something that happened, with a beginning, a middle and an end. I guess I had heard that somewhere. Others said they were morals brought to life, themes expressed in language. No one said what flashed in my mind, thinking back to Charles Breslin in Louisville many years ago, quoting Elbert Hubbard, no doubt, who said "life is just one damn thing after another."
Turned out, it didn't really matter what we said. It was a pleasure watching the teacher, so young and eager and yet so competent, ask questions clearly designed to get the students talking, and then slipping in a bit of perspective here and there. She's new to teaching at Stanford, though she was a Stegner Fellow last year and did a few stints as a teaching assistant. I think she's taught elsewhere, and she's been published plenty.
She put up a six-word story that she said is kind of a familiar trope among creative writing teachers, but wanted to test it out on us anyway. Would we agree that it is a story? Or something less? Or something else?
She said she's always been told that Hemingway wrote these words, but that she couldn't prove it that morning when she searched wikipedia. In any case, they run like this: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."
Could such a short series of words really be a three-act story?
She never actually said, but the more we talked about them it became clear that they do work as a story.
I liked that Papa takes for granted that we will bring a whole set of images and associations of our own to the reading, that when we see "For sale" we will think of a classified ad, and expect the muted, matter of fact tone. In that sense, and I bet this is true of all great fiction, the reading is really a dialogue. With what is not on the page, but in our heads and hearts and pasts, just as important in rendering the story as what is on the page. A great writer, then, is one who sees deeply not only into his own secret self, but into ours too -- and knows how to pull our levers in a way that fills out the story he is telling.
It also has a certain narrative drive. We read, 'For sale" and we are compelled to ask, What's for sale?
When we learn that is it baby shoes, we immediately conjure images of little shoes and -- more tender still -- little feet that go inside them, and which are attached to little legs and arms and body and face and goo-gooing lips.
By the time we read, "never worn," the emotional chords of resonance are already vibrating, and as we begin to wonder why they had never been worn, and who it is that is posting the ad and why, the whole preceding story takes on a new richness and new meaning.
Being an asshole sometimes, I thought maybe the neighbor stole the shoes and is trying to sell them? Maybe Aunt Tilda gave the baby two pairs of shoes and before one was worn out, the baby had grown too big to wear the second pair?
Maybe maybe. But we tend not to read the words that way, and just why that is -- why we all seem to bring the same set of associations to the tale -- is a mystery.
All this was crashing through my brain as I sat after class in the Bender Library, a beautiful sun-drenched and book-lined room that occupies the entire fifth floor of the Green Library on campus. Sitting at one of its desks, a writer, or a reader, can look out into the distance over the tops of tall palm trees and live oaks. Inside, pine floors, rich carpets, and deeply comfortable chairs, and the 15-foot windows make the room my favorite on campus so far.
Our assignment was to read two stories, starting with Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain," and then decide how we'd change the story to make it more interesting to us.
As for Wolff, there is not much I would change. There is Anders, a sour-on-life book critic, as he is standing in a slow-moving bank line late one afternoon just before closing. Robbers come in and before long he is shot in the head. Then Wolff writes, "It is worth noting what Anders did not remember" as the bullet traveled through his brain, moving slowly compared to the explosion of neurological responses set in motion by its entrance. "He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her -- before it came to irritate him...." Or any of the beautifully rendered magical moments that had comprised his life thus far. Instead: "This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat. Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi."
He takes no special notice after saying hello, not until someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. "Shortstop," the boy says. "Short's the best position they is."
The incorrect grammar -- they is -- explodes in Anders' head, like a bullet would later, and dazzles him in its sound. It "rouses him," and he stands out in the field waiting for the pitch, repeating it to himself, "they is, they is, they is."
That's what he remembers, as the bullet works its way through his brains. And you know what, that's what I am remembering as I work this out onto my laptop. They is, they is, they is.
The magic of language, its sound, and the power of stories. I'd say Tobias Wolff knows exactly what a story is.