Exploring the art of prose


Author: Kate Petersen

Author’s Note

I joke that I was raised in a Costco, but it’s only kind of a joke. It started out as Price Club, where every Sunday after church my family would go buy paper towels or Bagel Bites and make a lunch from grazing the sample carts (to be supplemented sometimes with a Hebrew National hot dog from the food court).

The logic behind those sample carts relies on the serendipitous accident: you don’t go to Costco looking for lobster ravioli but the microwave dings as you’re passing by, you take one and poof! suddenly you’re taking a two-pack home. I think non-app dating events are designed around the same principle: you may not know exactly who you’re looking for, but you try a little of this, a little of that, and with enough density and effort, lo—to misquote “Friends”—there’s your lobster. So putting the two in play seemed felicitous, that way (and lucrative? Costco: call me).

When my fiction students and I talk about point of view, we brainstorm the risks and rewards of each strategy. In third-person limited, a story with access to only one heart and mind but in which that access is full and unfettered, the word intimacy always comes up among rewards. Conversely, one of the rewards available with multiple points of view or omniscience might be called hyper-verisimilitude: in these modes, fiction approaches the upper limits of its promise to take on the shape of real life, in which all these different minds, by accident of belonging to a social species, have been plopped in the same place, set a-spin.

It seemed, then, that in a story about real-life intimacy—attempted, lost, forged, interrupted—a narrative strategy that drew a little from column A and a little of column B might help get closer to that double-paned truth: that the feeling of apartness comes not just from being denied full access to someone else’s mind in the moment you most long for it, but desiring that access while being stuck in your own head. It’s one of those old rate problems, right? That even during sex, two thought-trains are travelling separate tracks, tracks close enough, we hope, that the lights of the other may still be seen. And isn’t that why going to a singles mixer, or on a date, or home with someone is such an odd-beautiful act? Separateness is a given of our cognitive condition, and yet we keep looking for that one person, that exception who might prove the rule.

KATE PETERSEN lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, she currently teaches at Stanford University as a Jones Lecturer in creative writing.