Casualties of Grace (Plus: Giveaway!)

Photobucket
photo by heanster

GIVEAWAY: Today’s guest will be offering a giveaway of her debut to one randomly chosen commenter based in the U.S. or Canada. Winner will be chosen in two days. Good luck!

Therese here. Please welcome debut author Sarah Gerkensmeyer to Writer Unboxed. Sarah’s prize-winning book, a collection of short stories called What You Are Now Enjoying, released just yesterday. Sarah, who is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, has received numerous writing scholarships for her work. Her acclaimed stories have appeared in a plethora of publications, including The New Guard Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She currently teaches creative writing at SUNY-Fredonia, where she also co-directs the Mary Louise White Visiting Writers Series.

Sarah wrote to us a while back to say:

I’ve written a short essay…in which I try to grapple with why so many of us write sad stories. This is a common complaint of my creative writing students–that I only assign sad stories for our reading. I began to get hung up on why so many of my own stories are sad. As an emerging writer, I’m very self conscious about what my stories–a very personal part of myself–might reveal about myself to complete strangers. Are these stories a direct part of me and my own experiences? Why do writers return to these sad stories over and over again? For me, I strive to find a sense of hope in that obsession.”

I read and adored her essay, and I think you will as well. Enjoy!

Casualties of Grace

My creative writing students often complain that I only assign sad stories for our reading. And, for the most part, I have to agree. With stories like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” and Junot Diaz’s “Nilda” and Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water,” it is a sad lot. Stillborn babies, deceased siblings, love gone south… At times I do worry that I’m a stormy cloud in the classroom, forcing my students into stories of melancholy and heartache and loss. But then I began to challenge my students’ complaints. “Take a look at what you turn in to me each week,” I said. “Your stories are sad, too” “Oh,” they said. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.” And of course I started thinking about my own stories. I began to take stock, cataloging the suffering souls and the bitter pessimists. “So,” I ask my students now, “Where does this leave us?”

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot now during the gray, cold period of the post-holiday blues. The gift giving is done. The family gatherings have long since dispersed. New Year’s resolutions are already fading. And here I am, about to release my first book. I feel exposed and vulnerable. My stories are almost out there. And the characters in my stories—well, they’re sad.

clickable cover

Sometimes my students and I end up discussing John Keats and his theory of Negative Capability. How it seems that he believed that a good writer (for him, someone like Shakespeare) is able to drop clean off the page and allow his characters to live on their own and fend for themselves without the burden of too much authorial scrutiny or judgment. When uncertainty and mystery enter the scene, we should be able to back away from the story slowly, our hands in the air, and leave those characters to their own devices. And isn’t this a nice thought, that none of it is our own doing, especially for those of us who look over our work and realize how sad it all is? Such a relief to think that our characters are the ones at fault. They are the ones who pursued the jilted man with the drinking problem and the dying dog (A story that I haven’t written yet. But it seems that it must be told).

In an interview in The Paris Review, John Irving said, “I can’t say I have fun writing. My stories are sad to me, and comic too, but largely unhappy. I feel badly for the characters…. Writing a novel is actually searching for victims. As I write, I keep looking for casualties.” As a writer, I have a hard time believing that the casualties in my stories aren’t pieces of myself. Another character is dropped onto the page, blinking up at me, wanting something, feeling sad. I blink back, wondering.

The smart, funky, well-turned stories in What You Are Now Enjoying keep the reader not just guessing and leaning forward but in a perpetual state of wonder. Sarah Gerkensmeyer is an original, a sneaky sorceress of a storyteller.” –Stewart O Nan

Now that I’ve gathered some of my stories in a book and tried to step back a bit, I see the same skin of longing and loss over and over again. I see characters stuck within a familiar inertia of quiet panic. And I see myself, trying to do something about it. I like to allow my characters to get upset, to stomp their feet, to ignore their mothers’ advice and make a scene, as Charles Baxter suggests in his wonderful book of essays The Art of Subtext. I poke around and try to push my characters out of that state of inertia and stasis. I let things happen. I give them a shove and hope that, whether or not they end up feeling that shove, something shifts—perhaps into a moment of what Flannery O’Connor called grace. I want to give my characters that chance, whether they recognize it or not.

I’ve just started a two-week stay at the Vermont Studio Center, folded up in the snowy Green Mountains. I’m among the first group of residents of the new year. We’re all working hard. We’re all tucked in our studios, trying to make something. And when we walk out into the glare of noontime, ready for lunch, I see that there is uncertainty and anxiety among all of us. But we are here together. And maybe that’s what I need to start telling my writing students next semester. When that common complaint arises again, that all we read are sad stories and that this seems to be all that we write, I guess I need to tell them who cares. I guess I need to tell them that this is right. That this is a story each one of us is telling, over and over again. Together. Hunting for the next casualty. Trying to do it, I hope, with something like grace.

Readers, you can learn more about Sarah and her short story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, on her website, and by following her on Twitter.

And don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of What You Are Now Enjoying. Write on!

0

Comments

  1. says

    Sarah,
    Thanks for this thoughtful essay. I suffer the opposite problem. I infuse my characters with too much goodness and then let bad things happen to them. I am making a conscious effort to balance the goodness with deep flaws in my characters. I do find many of my favorite stories feature sadness, but happy stories lack suspense and conflict, which keep the reader engaged. Thanks again and best wishes on your short story collection.

    0
    • says

      Hi CG,

      Thanks for reading my post and for your thoughtful reply. I’ve heard from writers who are too nervous to write “good” characters because then they think they’ll be too protective of them and won’t let anything happen to them. Such an interesting spectrum to contemplate.

      Best,
      Sarah

      0
  2. says

    Sarah,

    Fantastic essay.

    I think, for those of us who write “sad stuff,” it’s because it’s easier to tap into. Yes, I have memories that are wonderful, but usually boring and with less impact than the sad or bad ones.

    Why is it that we can remember each time we felt alone, abandoned, outcast, mistreated, or the like? Maybe pain touches a deeper nerve than joy…lasts a lot longer. I know that for myself, I usually don’t have to “work through” the good parts of life, but when dealing with the bad…well, that can take years.

    0
  3. says

    I love that this truly wonderful and thought provoking post came along right when it did, Sarah. I am a writer of sad books. Books that start with hopeful intent, but whose characters insist on pulling away from potential contentment to become victims of their underlying unhappiness.

    When a reader comments/complains that a story I’ve written is terribly sad, my very first thought is, well yes, but it’s truth. It isn’t sad merely to be sad–it’s the story the character has given me.

    Sincere thanks for defending books that may indeed be sad, but certainly unforgettable.

    0
    • says

      Hi Barbara,
      You raise such a good point about stories that are unforgettable… We remember the stories that haunt us most, and that haunting is often a sad one, to some degree.
      Sarah

      0
  4. Keith Hood says

    This reminds me of a Facebook conversation I had a few months back about something Richard Bausch said on his Facebook page. Daniel Mueller had posted the quote on his page. Bausch wrote, “We think too much about the meaninglessness of existence; we have taken in the idea of life as an absurd proposition, and all our suffering becomes ridiculous. But a writer senses meaning in ‘the mystery of things,’ and reports about the discoveries that come from merely setting narrative in motion, letting people move and breathe and be in the prose, and that is what finally connects us all, across time and distance and the grave itself. We are about SHOWING the human journey as itself, what Conrad meant when he said that above all he wanted to make us SEE. Wanted to make us feel the ‘solidarity of the human family.’ It is such important work, what Bill Maxwell called ‘this blessed occupation.’”
    My part of the conversation said, “Hey Dan, Thanks for this post about Richard Bausch I’ve been thinking about this subject, particularly in relationship to two short stories that I’ve recently read and loved. One story is “The Proxy Marriage” by Maile Meloy. The other story is “Majorette” by Lauren Groff. Both stories have endings that are very different from the endings of most short stories. I’d argue that both stories, especially “Majorette,” argue for meaningful existence as opposed to a meaningless existence. “Majorette” is in Groff’s collection Delicate Edible Birds. “The Proxy Marriage” can be found online at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2012/05/21/120521fi_fiction_meloy
    Dan responsded, “Thanks, Keith. I adore Lauren Groff’s collection and know the very story of which you speak. And now that I think about it, I read Maile Meloy’s story as well when it came out in the New Yorker last year, I think. And I think you’re right about the endings affirming meaningfulness. 


    I summed things up saying, “Put more bluntly, both stories actually have happy endings and how often does that happen in short fiction?”

    0
  5. Kate Burak says

    Melancholy is the flesh and bones of life!
    I remember one day in class when I, off-the-cuff, threw out “ah–happiness is overrated,” and one student tweeted it, not believing what she was hearing.

    0
  6. says

    In reading and writing I want to experience what I can’t or won’t in real life. Maybe writing the sad, angry and crazy aspects of ourselves (?) is a way to getting them out of my system so that in real life we can live that little bit more relaxed and happier.

    0
    • says

      Lara–I think your thoughts really hit on how I try to make sense of my family life and my writing life. I’m most definitely happiest when I’m writing, and I think I’m a better wife and mother then–even if the material is dark.

      0
  7. Eileen Dandashi says

    Your words rang true. When your protagonist has worked herself/himself free of the written page, you have done your job as a writer — you are forgotten in that moment.

    Thank you for your very insightful interview. I will enjoy reading your book.

    0
  8. says

    Lovely essay! This line, especially, struck me: “Such a relief to think that our characters are the ones at fault.” It’s such a beautiful conceit, that the writing comes from us but is yet a separate thing.

    0
    • says

      Thanks, T. I agree– a beautiful conceit, but one I’m not always sure I can duck behind. I know my subconscious, at least, is in there somewhere, meddling around with things…

      0
  9. Lauren K. Alleyne says

    My students complain about that, too, and we look at Margaret Atwood’s ‘happy endings’, and I have them choose the scenarios they best liked reading. Of course, they are always the ones with the most cutting conflict. Stories are the things that let us see our sorrows clearly, that holds them to a necessary light.

    0
    • says

      Yes, Jill–this sensation of my characters watching others is familiar to me, as well. Sometimes I like it when they have a chance to be more than the passive watcher…but it doesn’t always work out.

      0
  10. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I agree with John Keats. Shakespeare’s ability to see the world through so many varied points of view is one of the great reasons his work lives on. As for sadness, even Shakespeare’s comedies can’t escape sadness, because as Shakespeare pointed out in so many different ways through so many different points of view, death is the universal tragedy of our existence.

    I think Gerard Manley Hopkins summed up it all up perfectly in his poem, Spring and Fall to A Young Child. No matter how beautiful or happy a moment in our life is, it is as fleeting as we are.

    Any artist who digs even the smallest amount will tap into this truth. This makes art infused with sadness, the knowing.

    0
  11. says

    I whined at my Short Fiction professor, saying something like, “What is wrong with the writers of the literary canon? Did their mothers abandon them at birth? Are they horrible disfigured? Can they not find a parking space at the In ‘n’ Out? Do only miserable people qualify for a Norton’s Anthology?”

    I don’t remember his answer.

    But now I’m a writer, throwing rocks at my characters after they’ve fallen in the mud. As a writer and a reader, though, a story is only satisfying if there is a glimmer of hope, a turning ever so slight toward some truth or redemption. I’m not talking skipping-in-the-sunlight happy endings. Just hope. Even the hope of hope. Before that, all’s fair in love and fiction.

    0
    • says

      Yes–Patti, I agree. “Even the hope of hope.” Even with a writer like Flannery O’Connor who has such intensely dark endings–I’ve always felt that she offers that chance for hope or insight (even if her characters are too emotionally blind to see it and accept it). Thanks for reading!

      0
    • says

      This is the crux of the topic for me. Hope or redemption. Maybe this is why I have trouble reading short fiction. The pervasive sadness, the sense of life unresolved, disappointment, longing or grief is just a little too much like real life. I do think part of the role of fiction is to reflect and examine real life, and allow us to process and understand it better than we are able to when it is happening to us. There’s very little comfort in that though we are wiser. However, while it’s true that the stories that stay with us are the most melancholy or disturbing, for the most part I’d rather read, and write, stories that, for all they torture our characters, do allow them to grow and leave them with a ray of sunshine. A reason to go on. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own metaphysical beliefs. I learned at an early age that too much existentialist navel gazing is bad for your health. ONe has to look out and beyond one’s own miserable existence and see what might be. And my own work reflects that.

      0
      • says

        Thanks for the insightful notes, Mary Ann. Yes–I’m always looking out for that ray of sunshine, as well. In the longest story in my collection, I was very aware of that near the end of the piece, hoping that there was a strong sense of hope along with the main character’s melancholy reflections.

        0
  12. says

    Reading your blog post, Casualties of Grace, I said to myself, “That’s why it’s been so hard for me to get back to my novel. I mean, my protagonist’s got to face a tough scene at the age of ten. I’m worn out. I’ve got to go back and face my fears. But, maybe, after finishing my rewrite, I’ll send her out into the marketplace and just maybe someone will love her. Thank you Sarah for giving me the jump start. To your sad stories…thank you.

    Nanette

    0
  13. says

    How on earth does a character, especially a fictional one, “live on their own and fend for themselves?”
    I appreciate the insight into stories and how they all seem to be sad, but I don’t understand your point about characters.

    0
    • Keith Hood says

      Look at the context of the comment. Sarah wrote, “How it seems that he believed that a good writer (for him, someone like Shakespeare) is able to drop clean off the page and allow his characters to live on their own and fend for themselves without the burden of too much authorial scrutiny or judgment.”

      It’s kind of the old “suspension of disbelief” axiom. Of course, a reader always knows that they’re reading fiction, something that is made up, but a well-written fictional character has verisimilitude, the character seems so real that the reader can forget that they’re reading something made up. As Sarah says, the author “drop[s] clean off the page” and the characters “live on their own and fend for themselves” in a way that the reader can’t see the author’s hand in the matter. Does that sense of it for you?

      0
    • Andrew says

      Agreeing with Keith and Sarah here, but I just wanted to add that this metaphor of an author “discovering what their characters do” is not uncommon. I hear authors say this kind of stuff all of the time.

      Not only is it common, there is a sensible way to talk about what is going on in the writing process that grounds this metaphor. Here’s one example.

      Authors often ask themselves about their characters “Is this believable?” or “Would my character really do this in this situation (given what we know about my character)?” As readers we sometimes judge stories on similar grounds. How many times have you said of a character, “Oh, they would never do that!”

      If the author is being careful. So the act of writing really can be an act of discovery whereby the author comes to “see what their characters do” because of constraints the author might implicitly have for their characters or the logic of the world they’ve created.

      0
  14. says

    Hi Clayton,

    Thanks for joining the conversation. This is a debate that I’m really interested in–just how much a writer can pull herself deep into her subconscious and “discover” the story as she goes. I think it’s a “nice thought”–the idea that a character can live a full life right there on the page without authorial intrusion…but I’m not sure it’s completely possible. I think I have to claim these characters and their moments as extensions of myself, to some degree. And so it’s a strange process–to have others read our work and have access to a piece of ourselves… Thanks for reading!

    0
  15. Jane Cook says

    I find I mistrust anyone (real or fictional) who’s too darned happy!

    Thank you for the post, it was quite insightful.

    0
  16. says

    “Sneaky sorceress of a storyteller” is a wonderful quote for a blurb. Love it!

    Lisa Cron talks about the brain’s fondness for stories as a way to prepare for the unexpected, the unsettling, or the downright dangerous. In that context, it makes sense that sad stories would resonate and linger beyond the capacity of their happier cousins. We want to decide if we might have managed the challenges better than the characters, lest one day their struggles become ours.

    0
  17. Nick Sigan says

    Sarah:

    I took a look at my own horizon and realize that there is much more sad then I thought. And life is good and I am, for the most part, upbeat. I think sad is just a good vehicle; it is a vehicle that is noticed. There are many others we just don’t pay that much attention to them. We don’t even look up when they drive by.

    Nick

    0
  18. says

    Congratulations to Eileen Dandashi! Eileen, you were randomly chosen to receive a copy of Sarah’s book. She will be in touch with your shortly to arrange details.

    Thanks for all of the comments, everyone, and thanks again to Sarah for sharing her post with us.

    0