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Exploring the art of prose

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The Caregiver by Bernard Grant

  “Can you get to Heaven with broken teeth?” Louis asks Margaret. “Sure can,” Margaret says, as she yanks his dresser drawer, derailing the shelf and spilling clothes onto the floor. Two hours into her shift, already exhausted and dreading…

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Author’s Note

“The Caregiver” is the penultimate story in a linked collection that depicts the disintegration of a mixed-raced family. One challenge of writing this story was showing Margaret’s current condition, both within and outside the family, while also echoing elements from critical events preceding this story, which provide, among other things, updates on each of the four family members. Like most of the stories in this collection, “The Caregiver” is about work. Margaret’s professional life requires her to provide both physical and emotional labor to her adult, developmentally disabled clients; at home, she has provided unpaid emotional labor to her two children, as well as to her now ex-husband. When this story opens, ten years after we meet the family, Margaret must attend to the needs of her adult daughter who has temporarily come to live with her after a financial setback. Margaret’s situation worsens when she is saddled with the additional labor of training a difficult, young coworker while also dealing with fatigue and body aches, consequences of the compulsory labor that is aging. 

To construct this story as a container for these themes, I developed strategies of weaving together the past and present. I utilized present tense to help differentiate between eras and employed a third-person narrator who enters Margaret’s consciousness to access relevant associations. But writing “The Caregiver” was, among many other difficulties, an exercise in managing time. I had to teach myself to move beyond the confines of dramatic scene, which is my default writing condition, and force myself to utilize narrative summary, which I think of as the opposite of scene. 

I teach creative writing, both fiction and screenwriting, to undergraduates. My students, often trying too hard to describe actions and trivialities such as articles of clothing, tend to slow the narrative unnecessarily, losing focus. When thinking of “The Caregiver,” I’m reminded of Stoner by John Williams, a novel that shares similar themes of work, and encompasses several decades, and therefore seems helpful as a guide for using narrative summary in relation to my story. Because Stoner, which is less than 300 pages long, follows farmer-turned-academic William Stoner from his birth, on a small farm in central Missouri in 1918, to his death in 1956, forty miles away, in Columbia, Williams must employ narrative summary to show Stoner at work, both in his personal and professional life; otherwise the narrative would lose momentum, slowed by desultory scenes that tire the reader who is looking for a connection to earlier events. Here comes a passage in which Williams moves time in a way no scene could do, demonstrating the necessity of narrative summary, particularly habitual narrative summary, in a novel that depends on the use of long time:  

Thus for more than a year William kept the house and cared for two helpless people. He was up before dawn, grading papers and preparing lectures; before going to the University he fed Grace, prepared breakfast for himself and Edith, and fixed a lunch for himself, which he took to school in his briefcase. After his classes he came back to the apartment, which he swept, dusted, and cleaned. 

Williams, using just under seventy words of concise, textured prose, portrays an entire year of Stoner’s life, juxtaposing his labors in the academy, where he nurtures the professional and intellectual aspirations of his students, with his domestic duties, caring for his newborn daughter and his wife, who is unwell after giving birth. The opening words—“for more than a year”—contain this passage within a specific unit of time, giving the paragraph a condensed cyclical pattern and accelerating the pace, like a film montage, to show Stoner attempting to find a work-home balance, a theme that permeates the novel.  

 

Exercise: 

Imagine one specific character from a piece you’re working on, ideally a story and character you know well; select a theme or specific task; write a year of their life in one paragraph of habitual summary. Use specific details to show the patterns of this person’s daily routine, like the above excerpt from Stoner.

 


BERNARD GRANT’s stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, The South Carolina Review, among others, and they have received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw Cultural Center, Mineral School, and The University of Cincinnati where they are PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. Bernard is at work on a novel-in-stories.