11.08.2006

Shifting Things by Joy Williams

Shifting Things
by Joy Williams

All thanks goes to the Reader of Depressing Books for making this available online.

My father is a congregational minister. My grandfather was a minister. My family is Welsh. I grew up, an only child, in Maine. This is not a paragraph from one of my stories. It is a paragraph from my life. My real life.

I was fascinated by the words in the Bible, and the stories. The stories aren’t comforting or sentimental, they’re tremendous and ruthless, and the words—horses and fish, blind men and dead men—all those words meant something other than what they appeared to mean, they were representations of other things, things I could and couldn’t imagine. Water wasn’t water, seeds weren’t seeds. This thrilled me. Everything, as image, was totally something else. There were levels of meanings in images, in sentences, in stories.

*

I wanted to write.

*

The year I went to college I received three copies of Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling for Christmas. It was as though my loved ones were saying—So you want to be a writer! Well, it took this woman seventeen years to write this book which is about the search for reality in a world of illusion and nightmare. It’s pretty much unreadable but it’s supposed to be a work of art. We guess this is how it’s done and it’s by a woman too so... good luck.

*

I wrote to Flannery O’Connor’s mother once. I said I really liked her daughter’s stories and could I have a picture of her. Meaning her daughter, of course. She wrote back and said I sure could not.

*

At the time I didn’t realize what it was, the true nature of the peculiar gift the writer gives the reader.

*

I like the short story as a form. The intensity of it, the swiftness. Assemble the ambulances. Something is going to happen.

*

More can probably be found out about a writer from a single paragraph of work than from any interview or essay. Gertrude Stein said that paragraphs are emotional whereas sentences are not. She also said that the American way of writing was the disembodied way of disconnecting something from anything and anything from something. She suggested that something was always floating above the American paragraph—the well-done American paragraph—something detached from what it said and what it did.

*

Here is a paragraph of mine. Turnupseed lived on the mainland in a little cement block house on land sucked senseless by the phosphate interests. Every time he tried to plant a tree in the queer, floppy soil, it perished. What does that tell you about me? It tells you that I sometimes find safety in the comic, because really there is a pit, a panic beneath everything and the comic is a safety net there to keep from falling further. It swings there kindly and yet it should be removed, really. Don’t count on the net. Fall further.

*

I write out of a sense of guilt. I believe in guilt. There’s not enough guilt around these days for my taste.

*

A woman recently told me that after reading my first novel, State of Grace, she kept dreaming that her house was burning down. I was charmed by this of course. At the same time, I suspected it had been said before about someone else. Words, you know. They’re around. They’ve been used a lot.

*

I don’t dream much. I know this is not a good signifier. Writers are supposed to dream and keep diaries. Woman writers are supposed to, that is. Men don’t have to necessarily. I frequently have nightmares. They take two inarticulatable forms. There are no images in them at all. They are pure fear and dismay, a sense of the tremendous strength of the dark, a sense that I have not done what it was I knew I should have done.

*

What I can conjure up in the daylight hours when I close my eyes tight are the faces of people. They are all totally unique, people I have never seen before or written about, blooming and fading one after another behind my shut lids. I don’t understand it. They come in the bright Florida sunlight. I would prefer them to be in the shape of animals... other things. But they are the faces of people. Strangers, very clear, but without their stories.

*

The writer has to maintain a curious disassociation with the world. The act of writing in itself is a highly self-conscious retreat from the world. I live in beautiful places but I have to stay cooped up in a small, almost dark room if I’m ever going to get anything done. And I have to stay there for hours and hours, day after day, making this thing, setting this created, unreal thing in motion, a story. The literal isn’t interesting, but the literal must be perfectly, surprisingly rendered because the search is always to see things in a new way. That is essential.

*

And then it just seems preposterous. There I am, choosing my words so carefully, trying to build this pure, unanalyzable, transparent, honest thing in this dim room with the shades drawn and out there is the world, indecent, cruel, apathetic, a world where the seas are being trashed, the desert bladed, the wolves shot, the eagles poisoned, where people show up at planning and zoning meetings waving signs that say My Family Can’t Eat the Environment. That sentence is ill, it is a virus of a sentence, and as a writer, I should be able to defeat it and its defenders handily. With the perfect words, I should be able to point out, reasonably, that in fact the individual’s family is eating the environment, that they are consuming it with sprawl and greed and materialistic hungers and turning it into—shit. But perfect words fail me. I don’t want my words. I want to throttle this person, beat him over the head with his stupid sign.

*

I think what happens to many writers is that they reach a certain age and they look around and think, My God, what an indulgence this writing is—stories! I mean, really—and then they go out and involve themselves in a more active way with the world. Writers must never engage the world in their stories. The writer must write stories. Or get out in the world and beat people over the head with their stupid signs.

*

Oh thou lord of life, send my roots rain, Hopkins wrote. Some writers write too much. The rain doesn’t come, but they write still. And they are wilting while pretending they are a tree in bloom. Sometimes the literary establishment encourages them in this belief.

*

I was once at lunch with a well-known writer and his family. It was our first meeting. Other people were there as well. It was a beautiful winter day in Key West. There I was, being friendly, drinking my eleven martinis or what have you, hair brushed as well as possible, napkin in lap, nibbling and chatting away, only to have the well-known writer remark later—“I expected her to be more twisted.”

*

Jean Rhys once said that to be a writer you have to be a demon or a fraud. I don’t feel myself to be particularly demonic and in person I am an absolute fraud. Everything rests on the awareness that a hidden life exists.

*

There’s a lot of flash in the story form these days. A lot of dazzle and dependence upon the net. Houdini said that of all his tricks the most difficult to perform was the wet sheet escape. The wet sheet treatment was used in lunatic asylums to restrain violent patients. It was very difficult to escape from being bound in a wet sheet. But this escape was not popular with the audiences. They wanted him to escape from chains and dead whales and water-filled safes. These things were easier to do than they appeared. A lot of fiction is stagey now—the equivalent of making an elephant disappear—right before your eyes. It’s easy to make an elephant disappear. The farmers of Zimbabwe are doing it every day.

*

The equivalent of the wet sheet escape in fiction, perhaps, would be to create a character who gets out of life having lived it, having truly spectacularly lived it, used it all up. This would have to be done with words of course.

*

The surface of a good story is severely simple. Clean and treacherous as new ice. Below the surface is accident, chaos, uncertainty—beautiful, shifting things. I believe in the mystery of things, their spiritual rhythm. I am not interested in man-woman things much. In-out. Or love. I am interested in loneliness, obsession, desperation. Well, perhaps I am interested in love. I am not interested in woman-woman matters much. Feminist matters. Support and consolation matters. Transformation is what I’m interested in the most. What it is that is beyond and beneath things. Moments, the levels in moments.

*

None of this is what I long to say. I long to say other things. I write stories in my attempt to say them.

1 comment:

meg said...

thank you for sharing this!