Exploring the art of prose


Author: Robin Black

Author’s Note

“Nothing ever happens in what I write!”

It’s the plaint of every writer who was drawn to this pursuit by an interest in emotions rather than in events.

“I’m awful at plot!”

That’s the other one.

I know these worries well. I am one of those writers who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the necessity of event. Why wasn’t it enough just to expose readers to the deep musings of a troubled being? Why did people, teachers, workshops, keep insisting that something happen?

Part of my resistance, I now believe, is that I thought that having “something happen” meant something like a house burning down, or a physical fight, or a meteor dropping to earth. I heard “plot” and thought big, thought of Dickens, thought of Stephen King. But it turns out that having something happen is a bit of a misnomer for what is missing in so many of our motionless “interior” fictional works. What they lack is something more like narrative momentum.

“The Rabbi’s Wife”, when you get right down to it, is a story about the deep musings of a troubled being. Pretty much all of the dramatic events have already happened—the death of a spouse, the death of a beloved friend, the kindling of a new romance, the discovery of a terminal illness in the new boyfriend. None of this actually occurs in the timeframe of the story, all of it comes in as memory. And that’s not an accident. From the first spark of this story to the last draft, I was more interested in exploring the resulting dilemma of these events than in recounting the events themselves, in real time.

Which meant that I was confronted for the gazillionth time with the old, familiar question: How do you get away with a story about someone trying to think something through? How do you get away with a story about someone’s emotional state?

In this case, the answer lay in superimposing Hannah’s musings on a structured event, a funeral, complete with shiva afterwards. That very simple scaffolding, the sequence of it, the reader’s unconscious understanding that there is a natural beginning and a natural end, created just enough plot on which I could hang Hannah’s inner monologue and still produce some sense of the forward momentum, and of the shape that a story (almost always) needs.

“An indignant wail rises from downstairs. The unmistakable, inconsolable howl of a child who has been told it’s time to leave.”

The end is signaled, not by Hannah’s thoughts which could go one endlessly, but by this sound emanating from the shiva with its traditions, its structure, its timing. The occasion provides the scaffold.

That isn’t the only craft function of the funeral, of course. Elements in short stories rarely perform only one function. The particular nature of the event, religious, ceremonial, recalls the many settings in which Hannah uncomfortably functioned in her semi-official role. The way Hannah is greeted defines her changed status in the community, which in turn illuminates her path since her husband’s death. Her encounter with Myra’s disgraced daughter-in-law sounds a kind of echo of Hannah’s own dilemma: What does a decent person need to do for others against self-interest? How does one face the world after choosing oneself over another?

But the main craft function of this ceremony is to set a clock in motion, ticking forward, creating an illusion of plot, while also implying a natural structure—beginning, middle, end— to a stream of memories, sorrows, and self-examinations.

“Nothing ever happens in what I write!”

I so understand this plaint, as well as the despair at wondering how on earth any of us, so concerned with feelings and with thoughts, will ever come up with plots. (Dickens! King!) But if that worry worries you, start small. A trip to the grocery store, might provide enough structure, enough event, to support pages and pages of introspection. The cooking of a meal, can do it. The first day at a job. The last day at a job. A doctor’s appointment. An airplane ride. A school trip to the zoo. A funeral.

ROBIN BLACK​’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications, including the Irish Times. Her novel, Life Drawing, was longlisted for ​the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize. ​Her fiction has been translated into Italian, French, German, and Dutch.​ Her most recent book is, ​Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collide. Robin​’s work can be found in such publications as One Story, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Review, The Rumpus, O. MagazineConde Nast Traveler UK, and numerous anthologies, including The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. I (Norton) and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. Robin lives with her husband in Philadelphia and teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA Program.