In late August, his son began to insist aliens lived in the cornfields that stretched west from the outskirts of the town they lived in. Not playacting. Not childlike. They needed, his son solemnly said, to be ready for…
One Key to Complexity is Point of View
“One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” James Baldwin’s advice has always whispered in my ear as I write, but one of the earliest admonitions I ever received about storytelling came from an editor who said he loved my story, but needed the last, climactic scene reimagined. “Just because it happened,” he said, “doesn’t make the reader believe it.”
Both Baldwin’s and that editor’s suggestions have probably been given in every fiction workshop ever conducted, and another writer, in person, gave me a keeper. Nearly forty years ago, after he read an early story of mine that began and ended during the same week, Russell Banks said, “Gary, there are more than four days in a week.” He meant me to stay in the story longer, but when I said something like nothing much happened on the other three days, he said, “It’s your story, Gary. In there, something happens on the other days.”
He meant “imagine.” He meant for me to allow my autobiographical narrator to become the character he needed to be in order to complicate and deepen the story. For that to happen, I needed to shift the point of view. Change his situation. His dreams. That imagined narrator did things on those other days. He looked for a job and was humiliated. He became belligerent with a stranger who, in turn, used his authority as a verbal fist to show him exactly how little prepared he was to enter a blue-collar world. That different lens demanded the use of those other days.
Which is how “Corn Maze” was written.
Ten years ago, our nine-year-old grandson, while my wife and I drove him to a promised cavern tour, warned us about aliens who lived in the cornfields we passed. There was no talking him out of his conviction. At the site, we rode a boat through the cavern that opened onto a lake. The ride was completed without incident. On the way home, an hour’s travel, we endured another round of his warnings.
That October, as we’d been doing since he was four, we took him to an elaborate corn maze in one of those fields where he’d told us the aliens lurked. He hesitated. He warned us. And then, because there were hundreds of visitors, many of them children, going into the maze, he gave in. Nothing to see there but ordinary behavior that, at best, might be mentioned at a family gathering.
But what if these events were combined and the story written in the third person and free to open up possibilities beyond the autobiographical? What if the boy is a bit older? Even when he was nine, I was impatient with my grandson’s fantasy. As if his childishness reflected on me. That was temporary, but what if the boy is the man’s son? Now it’s ongoing. Now it’s the adult who will be acted upon, not the boy.
That boy’s father has years of impatience built up. He’s carried it so long, it’s soured into arrogance and anger and embarrassment. Now there is tension. Now the father as well as the son is under the sort of pressure that breeds recognition. Now there is a story. Slipping under a colored ribbon is opening a forbidden door. The rest is the detail of location and weather and darkness that pulls a moment into significance. With the punch that comes from telling the story from the best angle, the one that guides the reader to the pleasure of discovery.
GARY FINCKE’s books have won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, The Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Nonfiction Prose, and the Wheeler Poetry Prize. His latest collections are The Sorrows: Stories (Stephen F. Austin, 2020) and The Infinity Room: Poems (Michigan State, 2019). His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in such periodicals as Harper’s, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Missouri Review as well as in Best American Essays 2020 and Best Small Fictions 2020.