The Sounds Of The Village ~ A View From the Keyboard

Recently I had the opportunity to work with Jo Anne Wilson at the Interlochen Writers’ Retreat, and am overjoyed that she has agreed to be part of View From the Keyboard. A woman with many remarkable stories, Jo Anne is lucky to have writing (and arting) spaces in a couple of beautiful spots in the world. Here she tells us about her work spaces in Provence. That’s France, you know?


Jo Anne: During the first few years in Provence, my writing space was this old desk, located in a building that was once a small shed on a lavender farm.  The shed is now a comfortable vacation house.  From the window I could look out over the lavender fields.   Often I had the company of one of the resident cats.  During the months I spent here, I was inspired by the beauty of the fields and the sight of Mt. Ventoux beyond them.  The quiet, country setting was really an inspiration to me. I often wrote in the morning, and then would head out for a walk among the lavender fields.  Even in winter, the rows of plants have a purple green hue that speaks of the promise of blossoms to come.


More recently, I spend my provençal months in the heart of a small village.  The owner’s of the house restored an old ruin, and created a modern home.  From the corner of the living area, I have a nice desk, my computer and printer, and all the conveniences of wifi.  If I look out the window, I see red tiled rooftops all around me.  This location is much less isolated than the lavender farm and, if I need a break or inspiration, I just walk up through the village to the local coffee shop/bakery and indulge in café au lait and a croissant.    

I had thought I was compiling a book of essays, working title:  Letters From Provence.  That may yet be the case, but in the course of summer workshops, I have found that I might be writing a memoir.  I’ve spent most of the past eight years living in Provence.  What I had thought would be somewhat factual, but interesting stories about markets, and people, and the weather, the food, and the wine…..is turning out to be more about me and how I’ve lived with all of these, and the ways in which they truly changed me as a person and how I live my life.  

I do have a website:  www.meetmeinprovence.com   I enjoy organizing trips to this region for individuals, families and small groups.  I originally called them Creative Retreats and they started (as you will see on my website) primarily for artists and photographers.  I have recently decided that the area is not only beautiful to see and paint and photograph, but is also inspiration for the writer’s spirit!

The following piece was written from the village house writing corner.

The Sounds of the Village

I live in the heart of a village in Provence.  The village is perched, literally, on a rocky hillside, and water flows freely from the rocks. The minute I open a window or step outside, I hear water running.

There’s a fountain in the tiny square outside the house: typical of several throughout the village.  There’s the big fountain in the main square with its tall cement center column.  At the top of the column are several spigots from which water falls into large clay flowerpots….no flowers, just water, tumbling and splashing. 

An old lavoire, a large tub like basin, sits opposite this fountain.  The village women used to do their laundry here. Its wide cement edges are slightly slanted inward … convenient washboard for scrubbing  clothes.  The basin is fed from the rocky sources, and water splashes and gurgles continuously through it.

Some village sounds change with the seasons.  Summer tourists bring a hum of voices, in many languages.  In the fall, children’s giggles drift upward as they head to the local school.   In hunting season, hounds bay and bark in the distance, while their tell tale bells clank and clink as they roam the nearby fields and vineyards.   

Other village sounds continue no matter what the season. Doves chortle and coo on the red tiled rooftops.  The Mistral whistles and wines its windy way around the corners of the houses.  Church bells chime the hour, and the little fountain outside my door burbles on. 

Thanks so much for letting us visit your spaces, Jo Anne. Writers, please consider contributing to View From the Keyboard. Guidelines here. – PMc←

Mount Carroll’s Market Street Commons ~ A Temporary View From the Keyboard

What was once known as the Kraft Building, a lovely old commercial edifice constructed more than 100 years ago, is now home to Mount Carroll’s Market Street Commons. After a devastating lightening strike to the old building and its resident businesses a few years ago, the place was taken over by Mount Carroll’s Community Development Corporation. Today the restored historic property is home to a number of small businesses and vendors, as well as a Welcome Center. Conveniently, the best coffee in town can be purchased here, and there is WiFi access as well. (We make good coffee at our house in Mt. Carroll, but we don’t have internet access. Or a phone. Or television.)

Dig the great tin ceiling, the original floors, and of course, the fancy new coffee making equipment. And that’s Philip up there in the first picture, in case you were wondering. Dig him, too. I do.

And These Are The Good Times ~ In Memory of Wilbur F. McNair (1919 – 1974)

My father didn’t believe in jukeboxes. I swear to God. “Damned things are all part of the syndicate,” he’d say. When I was ten, I didn’t know what the syndicate was. I knew the word somehow, knew of it: The Dick Van Dyke Show was in syndication, Father Knows Best, too. But the word didn’t fit for me here.

“The mob,” one or another of my brothers explained. Mob was a word I did know. I was from just outside Chicago, after all. Jimmy Hoffa was still alive. I had this picture in my mind of some guy in a dark suit and hat pushing the jukebox away from the wall at Sullivan’s—the tavern around the corner—and opening some magic door in the back of the machine and a whole silvery stream of coins would rush out into his leather satchel. He’d close it all up when the stream went dry, push the jukebox back flush against the wall, maybe touch the sharp brim of his fedora or nod to Mr. Sullivan behind the bar and walk out of the darkness into the day, the door swinging shut behind him.

My dad hated the mob. They were dangerous in ways that I couldn’t even begin to understand; always behind something or other that was wrong witch society, he said. Drugs. Prostitution. Jukeboxes. Dad had been an early union rabble-rouser, a card-carrying communist, and even as a kid I knew that the mob was the enemy of men like him. Sullivan’s was his hangout. HalHHalf of the place was a package liquor store, a place where you could get milk, coffee, dishwashing liquid, bread, a six-pack of Schlitz, a pint of Jim Beam. With fifty-five cents and a note from my mom, I could go in and pick up a pack of Kents. The other half, on the opposite side of low-slung doors, was the bar. I spent a lot of time in that bar. We’ve all read these stories about little kids having to face the darkness of smelly taverns in order to drag their drunken mothers, their drunken fathers home, the kids hating the whole thing. But it wasn’t like that for me. Sure, sometimes my mom would send me to pick up a loaf of bread for dinner, and I’d have to round up Dad while I was there. Other times I’d go there on my own when he wasn’t home before dark. Still other times my dad would call the house from there and invite us all to join him. Mom might or might not go. Don and Allen were in high school and too old, too cool to be hanging out with their family. Roger (twelve, two years older than I) probably was unwilling to turn off the television. But I’d go. I wanted to be there. I’d make my way down our street past the other clipped lawns and split-levels, past the hardware store with the three apartments above it, past the hot dog stand where in just a couple of years I’d sit at one of the read picnic tables and make out with a boy for the first time, and around the corner to Sullivan’s. There I’d push through the swinging doors, leave behind the bright lights and dusty shelves of the store, and step into the smoky darkness of the tavern.

Dad, in a suit coat and tie from a day at the office (having given up his causes in order to support his family), always sat at the bar, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He told stories and jokes to whomever would listen. “There were these two deaf-mutes…” (it was the sixties, remember) and he’d wave his hands wildly in some made-up, exaggerated sign language, ashes from his cigarette floating in the air, peppering the bright white front of his shirt. He’d order a round for his audience, “the usual” for himself. He’d talk as long as they’d listen. But sometimes there’d be no one to entertain, so he’d sit by himself and chew the inside of his mouth and squint through the smoke into the open space in front of him like he was looking for something, like he was working to figure something out.

When the tavern was crowded, I’d squeeze into a self-made slot next to my dad, push up against the considerable bulk of him. Six feet tall and 200-plus pounds, Dad made a good lean-to. When there was an empty spot, I’d lift myself onto the vinyl barstool, slide my elbows over the counter, ask for a Coke of a Squirt. “The usual,” he’d say and get a shot and a beer for himself. My dad would buy me sodas and BeerNuts and put his hand on the back of my neck. I liked the way it felt, this bellying up to the bar. I’d watch the plastic sky-blue waters ripple across the Hamms beer sign over the bar and admire the long elegant neck of the Galliano bottle that stood next to the shorter, clumsier bottles of house brands. I’d pretend not to while I listened to my dad telling a joke in a stage whisper to the guy next to him, try to memorize the way it went from traveling salesman to farm girl to the punch line so I could tell it to my brothers or my best friend later. It never mattered to me that most times I was the only kid there. I guess in a place like that, surrounded by grownups smoking and laughing and talking grown-up talk, I wanted to be something other than a kid myself.

And there was the jukebox. The flashing lights, the automatic arm flipping 45s onto the turntable. I’d watch the discs spin under the needle and I’d pore over the titles on the tiny slips of cardboard. G5…Lemon Tree. H7…Mr. Lonely. K8…Action.The jukebox stood where most jukeboxes do, next to the bathrooms. I suppose bar people knew that sometimes there’d be a line there, and those waiting were apt to pump money into the box. Or maybe the mob figured this out.

I’d lean on the juke, rest my palms on the glass, and look over my shoulder to my dad, hoping he’d get the hint. Sometimes I’d walk back and forth between the box and him and sing along with the songs. But he just wouldn’t get it. Finally, I’d have to ask for some money. I knew how he felt about jukeboxes, knew that he would tell me again: “Putting money in that box is like handing it right to the syndicate. My pocket to theirs.” But then he’d let loose a heavy sigh, clench his cigarette in the grip of his teeth, and reach into the jingle of his pocket where there was always a ton of change and junk. He’d pull up a handful of the stuff and dump it on the bar where I’d pick through the tobacco and buttons and lint for the dimes. And I’d take all I could over to the jukebox, where I gave my dad’s money to his enemy. The thing is, he let me.

I’d play something fast, imagine myself on American Bandstand or Hullabaloo and dance to the jukebox by myself. Women in pantsuits and high hair, women I never noticed anywhere in the neighborhood but here, would pass me on their way to the bathroom and tell me how good I was. Guys in sport jackets or shirtsleeves and ties or uniforms with their names sewn over the pockets would go by and say “Nice moves,” and “Shake it, baby.” Older guys. Guys as old as my dad.

I remember this one time. It was the kind of summer evening when the air hangs thick and unmoving and the sun takes its own sweet time going down, that kid of bright, hot early night that you’re grateful to get out of—even if it’s to be inside a bar with no air conditioning. Because at least it’s dark in there, and the darkness seems cool, especially when someone opens the door and the hot light of the slowly setting sun stings your eyes, heats up your skin. It was one of those nights when Mr. Sullivan plugged in the huge, old, freestanding fan and the tables closest to it filled up fast. The jukebox was right there, too, and I could feel the mechanical breeze blow against the back of my neck while I danced. It was the fan that brought the crowd to that side of the bar, I’m pretty sure now, but then I thought it must have been me. Those older guys leaned on the bar and watched me, or they sat around low tables and slapped their hands in time with the music on the wood tops. Sometimes they’d shovel a few dimes into the box and tell me to pick out whatever I wanted to hear, whatever I wanted to dance to. A man I’d never seen there before, thick dark hair and sweat rings under the arms of his striped golf shirt, slurred something to me as he went past. I didn’t get it, but he smiled drunkenly and said it again: “Give it to me, girly.” I, always the star, smiled back at the man and even as his date, a bleached blond, blue-eyeshadowed woman in red yanked him away from me, I went on dancing. I could see my dad from there, watched him and the wavy reflection of him in the grimy mirror behind the bar as he made his arm into the trunk of an elephant for the punch line of one of his jokes, watched him slap a palm on the bartop when he laughed, watched him run a hand over his VO5-slicked combover and then throw back one of the small glasses of whiskey and draw his lips away from his teeth, wrinkle up his nose. And when no one was around him, when no one was listening, I saw him slump inside his coat, his bigness shrinking some, his eyes squinting into the space in front of him.

I don’t know if he ever watched me, but every night I wished he would. That’s why I kept my eyes on him while I jumped around and spun in circles and twisted back and forth. I’m not sure what I wanted him to see in me. Maybe I hoped he’d recognize the same thing I saw in him when he told his stories, a need for that devoted attention, a desire for a certain appreciation. Maybe I just hoped we could dance together. But when he’d push himself up from the bar and walk to the bathroom, pass by me, he’d look at me like it was a surprise to see me there dancing in the dark, being cheered on by a few strangers. He’d reach out and cup my chin, let his hand trail across my cheek, and then he’d keep walking to the men’s room. I felt the pull of his hand on me. I wanted to follow him, to move in such a way that his palm stayed pressed against my cheek. But he’d walk on, his hands to himself again, and the door would swing closed behind him.

All of this was before I got to be too cool to be seen with my parents, before I’d rather be with kids my own age and did most of my dancing at parties with my girlfriends or sweaty-palmed boys a head shorter than I, before my dad suffered a heart attack one night on his way home from work and died when he was fifty-five and I was just fifteen. Too many cigarettes, probably, and too much booze. Mostly, though, he had a weak heart, a family ailment that took one of his brothers, and more recently, one of mine.

And even though it’s been decades since Dad died, not a year goes by when I don’t remember how I could talk him out of his dimes, and the dances I’d buy with them. I remember how it felt to sit high on a barstool next to my father, and I remember the crackling cellophane bags of BeerNuts we passed back and forth to share. I especially remember the soft warmth of his big hand on my neck, the cup and pull of his palm on my cheek.

Maybe it was that same pull that brought me to a different bar two years after his death. Away at college, I’d leave my early morning freshman comp class and walk down Main Street to Joe’s where they served twofers (two-for-one drinks) from 10:30 until 4:00. It was a place not unlike Sullivan’s, smoky and dark with beer signs and BeerNuts, but this was a small town bar with pickled eggs and pigs’ knuckles in huge jars of brine where the Galliano should be, and it was hard to be there for any length of time without somebody playing that song about Lucille and the fine time she picked to leave. But even so, it became my place. And the regulars—Gene, the pickled-up farmer, a wrinkly guy in coveralls who drank shots of blackberry brandy; Ernie, a maintenance man from school, complete with uniform, who was partial to shells of PBR; Dorothy, a woman fond of Black Velvet and Coke and white silk blouses, a woman who danced the twist no matter what I’d play on the jukebox—would buy me drinks, and I’d buy for them.

A couple of years after that, when I went to rehearsals at the community theater located on the bad side of a small Iowa city, I found myself pulled across the street to a neighborhood place whenever I had time between my scenes. I’d order a vodka and grapefruit, talk to the bartender and the union guys—grubby and stinking from the packing plant down the street—and pick a song or two off the jukebox. After opening night of the play, the cast and crew went across the street to celebrate, and the bartender called out my name. “The usual, Patty?” The other cast members swiveled their heads to stare. “The usual?” they said. I nodded and smiled, loaded up the jukebox with coins and selections so we could dance all night if we wanted to. I was twenty-one and a regular, drinking my usual in a sticky-floored, smoke-filled tavern with a bunch of working folks. It was as close to home as I could get.

All through my twenties I worked in bars: waitressing, tending, managing. For years I’d hang out in them, and for years I’d dance in them. Only I didn’t grow up to be a drunk, and I didn’t grow up to be a stripper. I just grew up. I’m closer to fifty now than forty, closer to my dad’s age when he died than I am to my own when I lost him. I have a real job now, and a husband. I have less time and—let’s face it—less energy than I used to. But every once in a while I’ll find myself in a tavern for some reason, maybe to use the phone or the bathroom, maybe to meet a friend or grab a beer with a co-worker. It’s never Sullivan’s, though it might as well be. Sullivan’s isn’t Sullivan’s anymore. It’s still there, but different. Painted bright white outside and in, they serve meals on tables covered with oilcloth, and the jukebox is gone. Still, in this other tavern, I get that same feeling from way back then. That time, that place. It’s that sweet, I’m-home feeling. And I’m pulled to the jukebox. I read the titles, shovel in quarters and dollars. I stand with my friends and bounce on the balls of my feet. I want to dance, but—I’m sorry to say—like most adults, I’ve grown too controlled, too stodgy to let loose so easily.

And at these places there is always some guy, some older guy (as old as my dad was when he died), sitting at the bar telling stories, being charming, buying drinks, getting drunk. He’s someone’s father, I’ll bet. Sometimes he’s with his wife, but usually she leaves early, leaves him behind so he has to stumble home on his own. He doesn’t seem to notice when she’s gone. I’ll slip in next to the guy, order my drink, smile at him. Sometimes we’ll talk. How’s it going? Having fun? The bartender will watch and roll his eyes at me while the guy slurs over his answers and drops ashes down the front of this shirt. Sometimes the guy’ll buy me a drink. Sometimes I’ll buy him one.

When I’m at the jukebox, he’ll slide by on his way to the bathroom, or maybe he’ll follow me to the machine to give me money to play something. Anything. My choice. A single play is at least a quarter; nothing costs a dime these days. And I wonder if the syndicate still owns the jukeboxes now that they take real money, dollars and fives. There are different titles now (All I Wanna Do, Let’s Dance), and still some of the same (Lemon Tree, Mr. Lonely.) The discs are compact, no longer the wax ones you could watch fall into place and spin under the long arm with its needle. You can’t quite see how it works anymore.

Then sometimes, and these are the good times, the man will nod or bow a little bow. “Dance?” he’ll ask, and reach a hand out to me. And I’ll slide my hand into his, feel its warmth, marvel at its softness. And I’ll step close to him as the music fills in the space and time around us, and I’ll look up into the face of someone’s father.

“I thought you’d never ask,” I’ll say.

And then, finally, we’ll dance.

“And These Are the Good Times” was originally published in 1998 by Sport Literate. It was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and also an IAC Fellowship Award in Nonfiction. I had intended to post this on Fathers’ Day, but wasn’t able to for various reasons. I do hope you all had a fine Fathers’ Day. -PMc←


Oh, Interlochen, I Miss You So ~ A Brief Summary of a Writers’ Retreat

How could it possibly have gone by so fast? Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat of 2011 was four days full of writers reading, talking, writing, eating, imbibing, walking, sharing, sleeping (just a little,) listening, and yes, drawing.

We are back at our house in Mt. Carroll, IL, and are happy for our own bed, our two crazy cats, our full-size refrigerator, our own cooker (as the British, Philip’s people, call it.) What I am missing, though, is so much. Of course, the trees. The beautiful smells of Northern Michigan, the lakes that are small and great. The creative aura that is Interlochen Center for the Arts.

I find myself thinking back to moments and people;

  • Ava and Philip with their heads down over their work on the reduction linocut print for the dedication of the Mallory-Towsley Building.
  • Dinner with Matt and Angela, their delightful children making us laugh and marvel.
  • Walking along Diamond Park Road and into the collection of houses near the lake, amidst the wetlands–a path I ran daily during my residency at Interlochen in 2001. A place that appears in my stories.
  • Meeting, talking with, and hearing the fine, fine work of my fellow faculty: Fleda Brown, Tony Ardizzone, Katey Schultz, and of course, Anne-Marie Oomen. (Oh yeah, and Philip, too.)
  • Annie finding her way in the poetry workshop.
  • Linda showing her chops as a real writer.
  • Jo Anne’s kind face and beautiful drawings, her collections of memories about travels and places important to her.
  • Joan lighting up like one of her own students as she made new discoveries.
  • Lindsey doing what she always does, writing her way toward understanding, and doing it so well.
  • Lynn celebrating her birthday with ballet turns, new drawings, a new section of work-in-progress, and plastic rings and cupcakes. (Oh, and two dead mice!)
  • Viki surprising me deeply and delightfully, despite my having known her for–could it be?–nearly two decades now.
  • Ferdy taking the risk and reading his work off his phone.
  • Theresa, Lindsay, John, Terry, leaving me lost in their worlds after their readings.
  • Lucricia and Sam, such a dear couple, each following their dreams and holding hands on the way.
  • Opera on the lakefront in the dark.
  • And Gail, dear Gail, on the other side of the wall, putting up with Philip’s high jinx and giving comfort and camaraderie just by being there. (And her writing!)
  • John and Meredith making the trek to hear us read and to hang for a while after.
  • Selling and signing books. Felt a little like Sally Field: “You like me! You really like me!”
  • Talking blogs with Kristen, whose own is both beautiful and mouthwatering.
  • Rachel making me feel as though my stories can move even the toughest of customers, and hearing her own affecting novel-in-progress.
  • Sharkie.
  • A hug from Delp, whom I adore.
  • An escape the weekend before the retreat (pre-retreat retreat) with Philip to Empire, watching the great lake roll toward the shore, eating marvelous food and watching junk tv and…well, you get the picture.
  • Dinner with a crowd of excited new friends at the conclusion of the week.
  • And perhaps most of all, dinner before it all started with Anne-Marie and David, two of the world’s best people (no hyperbole here) who are such a joy to be with. Anne-Marie has shown me so much about how to live a writing life of meaning, and David is evidence of how to live the rest of your life, too, with warmth and compassion, with generosity and good deeds. What a couple!
Yes, I’m gushing. And there is likely more to gush about. But for now, that’s what you get. If you don’t believe me, then you should see for yourself. It’s an annual thing.
Sharkita holding court at the dinner table. Everyone likes a big fish story.

“In Conclusion…” ~ Gerard Woodward on Endings

Why the Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers” is near its end, and as we face the final curtain (apologies, Frank) Gerard Woodward answers his own questions about endings:

Gerard: Perhaps it would be appropriate for an entry about endings to begin with one. In conclusion I would say this—there should be no hard and fast rules for how we end stories; as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, closed endings can work just as effectively as open endings, even in what we call literary fiction. What is important is a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.

There is a story I love that has a closed ending—though love is not quite the right word for a story on such a horrible theme—by the British novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor. It is called “The Fly Paper,” and I’m going to summarise it now, (I’m afraid an unavoidable problem in writing about endings is giving them away). The story concerns an 11-year-old girl called Sylvia, who is on her way to a music lesson when she gets pestered by a creepy guy. She is rescued by a kindly older lady who sees off the creepy guy, and then invites the girl to her cottage for tea, to let her recover from her ordeal. After a reassuring chat over tea and biscuits, the girl is horrified when a visitor arrives, and it is the creepy guy, who greets the elderly lady as a friend. The whole thing was a set up and the two older people have lured the girl into a trap, and there the story ends. This story is uncharacteristic of Taylor, and was written as a deliberate shocker. It is horribly prescient, written just a few years before the Moors Murderers put child abduction (and the role of a motherly figure as a lure) into the public consciousness. The whole story is beset by a bleakness of vision and a torpid provincial entropy—everything from the scruffy peripheral landscape that is seen from the bus, to the fact that Sylvia herself is recently orphaned, and has discovered herself to have an unappealing personality—“She did not go into many houses, for she was seldom invited anywhere. She was a dull girl, whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it.” The cleverness of this portrayal of Sylvia is very characteristic of Taylor—she makes her protagonist a little unendearing, so that her terrible fate is slightly more bearable, and even darkly comic. Had Sylvia been sweet, innocent, pretty and happy the story would have taken on a tediously moralistic good-versus-evil dimension, and would have been both too painful and too boring to read. Instead we have a marginal world where good and evil seep into each other, where misery and joy are different shades of the same colour, and the world is too tired to even notice that a child is entering hell.

In some ways this story might seem open ended, for we do not actually know what will happen to Sylvia. It is not described. The final sentence has the three of them sitting down to tea, “she noticed for the first time that there were three cups and saucers laid there.” But of course, the lengths of subterfuge and careful planning that have gone into the abduction of Sylvia can only indicate that her fate is to be a terrible one. Part of the horror of the story is that the reader is forced to imagine what that might be—without that brief bit of imagining on the part of the reader, the story has no power at all. So in fact the openness of the ending is very limited. It is only the nature of the suffering that is left open, the fact of her suffering is absolutely certain.

The closure of the story is dependant on an inversion, what is sometimes called a ‘twist’, so characteristic of suspense genres like the classic detective stories of, say G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown, or the novels of Agatha Christie. Like those stories, the twist in “The Fly Paper” is like one of those etchings by M.C.Escher, when a lattice of sailing ships suddenly becomes a lattice of fish—the background becomes the foreground and vice versa. In “The Fly Paper” the moral certainties of the world are completely inverted—little old ladies transform from safe moral guardians into their antithesis, tea becomes poison. This moral inversion is compressed into a single phrase in the story—after witnessing the entrance of the man into the cottage “Sylvia spun round questioningly to the woman…” In fact it is just that verb that does it, precisely chosen, as always with Taylor, it conveys powerful, urgent movement in space as well as the sense of a moral universe turning itself on its head. The story is very tightly, firmly closed at this point, but with just the right amount of pressure to keep the narrative flowing beyond the time of the story.

But it is perhaps indicative of the power of the open ending that the closed ending is so rare in literary fiction—unless the intent is to turn the world of the story upside down. This is very different from the ‘reveal’ of detective fiction, where the closed ending is akin to a set of answers to a puzzle that you have been trying to solve as you progressed through the story. The ending of “The Fly Paper” isn’t a reveal, because there were no puzzles in the earlier part of the story, no mysteries that needed solutions. At the same time there is a sense of satisfaction when a story ends like this that should have its equivalent in any story, and not just ones that set out to shock and horrify.

The danger of the open-ended story is that the reader experiences a sense of disappointment. In reading a narrative, the desire for a sense of completeness is very strong, and if this desire is unfulfilled the story has failed in a very significant way. You could go so far as to say the reader has been cheated, or even betrayed. This holds true for novels just as much as short stories, and in fact for any narrative form. However, leaving an ending open is very different from leaving it incomplete. Raymond Carver is a master of the open ended but satisfactorily complete short story. The endings are so open that, bizarrely, they can be hard to spot. When I use these stories in teaching, some students have difficulty in ‘getting’ their endings. Take the story “Boxes” for example. This is a deceptively simple story about a man and his partner helping his elderly mother move house. The story reveals many layers of complexity in the triangular relationship between man, partner and mother, but nothing extraordinary happens. A domestic chore is completed, the mother’s move is successful, as confirmed when the mother calls the narrator a couple of days after the move. And that is the end of the story, except for one thing. When the narrator puts the phone down, he is distracted for a moment by a little scene that is taking place across the street. A porch light has gone on and shown a couple in a ‘welcome home’ embrace. And the story ends like this –  “What’s there to tell? The people over there embrace for a minute and then they go inside the house together. They leave the light burning. Then they remember, and it goes out.”

Some of my students miss this ending, they misjudge its weight and don’t feel its impact. Of course, for it to work properly you have to experience it as the closing paragraph to what has gone before. It is cleverly downplayed (What’s there to tell?), and draws little attention to itself. But if the story is read with enough engagement the scene comes to life in those few words as a tableau of human frailty and love which binds together all the images of fractured and difficult relationships that have gone before (like the memorable image in the middle of the story, of a workman hanging precariously from the top of a telephone pole). And what could be more final than a light going off? And it is quite characteristic of Carver that the moments of significance are found outside the narrative itself, in the incidental epiphanies that are glimpsed far away from the action. Another good example is “Intimacy,” which ends with a vision of dead leaves. In this and so many other stories of Carver’s, you might wonder at first why it ends the way it does, before realising that it couldn’t possibly end any other way. And whether endings are open or closed or a bit of both, that is the effect one should strive for in writing them. Which is more or less where I came in.

This has been fun. Thanks to my fellow contributors—Dennis, Gina, Vanessa and of course Patty for putting it all together.

 

Thanks to you, Gerard, for your insight and questions. Chicago just ain’t the same without you here, by the way. Coming soon, Vanessa Gebbie shares her thoughts on the ever elusive art of endings. Thanks for reading. -PMc←

 

A Whole Lot of Writing Going On

Day two of the Writers’ Retreat at Interlochen and participants are bent over their work with a seriousness of purpose and play. So far we’ve had workshops and readings and craft talks; considered questions of truth and fact and first, second, and third person points of view; drawn and wrote and read back and commented and all been part of a writers’ (writing) community. Today the hike and write in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had to be canceled due to the promise of inclement weather, but after some first grumblings of disappointment, I think we all welcome the time to go back to our rooms or cabins or the nooks and crannies of The Writing House to write, rest, read, and respond to all that has come our way.

Tonight, June 21, 2011 readings by poet and memoir writer Fleda Brown and fiction writer Tony Ardizzone. Starts at 7:30 in The Writing House at Interlochen. Elvis Costello will be here, too. (Okay, not really here as in the Writing House, but in concert in Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen Center for the Arts.) Come on by.

Another Note From Interlochen

The Sound of the Trees

By Robert Frost

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat, June 20 -24, 2011. -PMc←