In every class, there were several students who always wrote in ways the rest of us knew were going to take them places. They penned the most breathtaking metaphors and crafted what sounded like flawless sentences. I didn’t know what made a good poem or short story at the time, but believed these stars’ work was in the ballpark.
Then, of course, there was me. What I wrote didn’t sound the least bit like anything the other students wrote. It didn’t even inhabit the same world as the pieces my professors handed out in fat, photocopied books of samples by people we considered real writers.
I’d heard the advice, write what you know, but I didn’t know what it seemed one was supposed to write about. Most of what we read centered on the lives of upper middle-class families, professional people like doctors and lawyers, often living in and around New York. We read about vacation homes on the Maine coast and life in small college towns, places I’d never spent any time in. Occasionally, the other students would write stories set in bars or about sex, the characters all in their twenties, as the writers happened to be.
I had gone back to school later in life, so was way past my twenties. I didn’t have much of a family to write about or at least one I thought anybody would care to know. My mother and father weren’t so great at the job of parenting and my most fervent wish in high school was to get away from them, as far and fast as I could go. Or at least, to get away from my mom. My father had already taken off, having decided to abandon me, before I had the chance to leave him.
Instead of writing about my family, I wrote whatever popped up in my mind. Feeling how the water seemed somehow heavier when a man swam by me in the pool at the YMCA, I wrote a story about a man and woman meeting and shedding their lives in the chlorine-filled water. After a bad first date with a rather tall man who spent the entire evening talking about himself, I wrote a story about a woman astonished to realize that she had suddenly started shrinking. I wrote a story about a husband coming back from the dead to dance with his wife one last time, and another about a woman, shocked to discover an endless length of thread suddenly spooling out of her mouth.
It took some time to learn how to wrestle my first unformed thoughts into pieces that resembled stories. Still, I knew that nothing I wrote remotely resembled any of the work we studied, neither the macho prose of Hemingway, the florid Southern tales of Flannery O’Connor, nor the dark sparse work of Raymond Carver.
At one point, though, I stumbled upon a story by the late Argentinian writer, Julio Cortázar. Entitled, “Graffiti,” the story instantly pulled me in, whisking me off to a city under siege that refused to let me go. Written in the second person, it described what might have started as a game but eventually became a courageous and risky love story in a very dangerous place. Cortázar’s inventive but accessible style, its magical quality and commentary on the repression in an unnamed country that could have been Cortázar’s native Argentina was the sort of writing I wanted to be doing. I subsequently bought all of Cortázar’s books and devoured them, including his handful of novels. But the short stories were what I most loved.
Reading Cortázar was like stepping into a world I had never visited before. The more I read, the more I concluded that whenever he sat down to write, Cortázar must have asked himself, “What if?” Or better yet, “What if this happened?” In the story, “The Southern Highway,” he takes the end-of-the-weekend traffic heading back into Paris, the city where he lived for many years, and stretches it out far beyond any normal traffic jam and has the strangers in the cars stuck there for days getting to know one another. In so many of his stories, the crazy occurrence seems like the most logical thing in the world. In the process, he helps us see how nutty the world we think of as normal actually is.
I would never in a million years compare myself to Cortázar. But reading him made me feel like my writing had a place. He gave me the confidence to embrace what I wanted to say and in the way I cared to say it, rather than feel the need to shape my words into a form they would never have been able to fit.
Have you had any similar epiphany when it comes to your writing? Or your art?
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