Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Object Lesson

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line...To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes and in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its colour, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its colour, reveal the substance of its truth -- disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”
― Joseph Conrad

So I'm working on a short story about a young couple with a new baby.  The guy is autistic; the girl isn't.  It's been fits and starts for a while, but yesterday I had a little bit of a breakthrough, while going for a walk.  I needed to come up with an object that the two of them find together on a walk in the woods, and after going through the litter in my head, and looking out across the real landscape on a bike path in West Chester, Ohio, I came up with a yoyo.  There wasn't a real yoyo on the path I was on, but I suddenly thought about cheap little toys that people either lose or toss out (dropped from a baby-stroller or out of a bookbag maybe), and how they just become part of the landscape, nestled in weeds or floating in a lake, like secrets or odd thoughts that don't really matter unless you rediscover them.  And this yoyo appeared in my head, scabby, having lost its glow-in-the-dark youth, simple and plastic and half-buried beside some tree-roots.  It felt like an object that would carry meaning like the flu. 

I thought about Joseph Conrad too.   That yoyo is a "rescued fragment" everyone will be able to see, and it will "disclose its inspiring secret" as I write the rest of the story.  Right now I have a truly explicit version of it in my head. The photo above, but older -- a Batman yoyo with the decal half-rubbed off, dirty string, that dull, sad color of glowlessness.  The scene I'm crafting involves the boy and girl walking around right after the first time they make love in the girl's aunt's car, after they play hookie together.  They both see the yoyo at the same time, and she makes a joke out of him picking it up and keeping it, and then years later in the story, in the "now" of it, she finds that he has kept the yoyo as a sort of secret emblem of that day.  Discovering that yoyo all over again is the story's epiphany.  It happens just as she is about to leave him.

That's how writing stories works sometimes.  I haven't been doing that much of it lately because I've trapped myself out of it through procrastination and just good old fashioned pessimism.  Throughout this dry period, however, this story has haunted me.   It was inspired by a scene I stumbled upon in a grocery store last fall, a tableau that merged Norman Rockwell with Flannery O'Connor:  a thin, scraggly, tall kid in a toboggan, with a dumpy girl in too-tight jeans and a concert t-shirt, standing in line with a cartful of food, a sad-faced skinny little boy wiggling around in the cart-seat.  The guy had his eyes closed, and the girl was looking at the magazine covers as if she were trying to find a mode of escape.