Thursday, December 15, 2011


You go about looking for surprise the way some individuals probe sofa cushions for loose change and others comb the beaches with metal detectors.

Loose change thus becomes the equivalent of what you look for in your stories, hell, even in your paragraphs.  Things you may have had and lost without even being aware of the loss.  Or discovering things that got away from others, persons you might never know.

If you are looking for something, then find it, how can the discovery be a surprise?  The answer is simple enough:  You look for discovery but have no idea what the discovery is, much less what to do with it until you pause for some time to take in the implications of what has been found.

One of your favorite types of surprise is the result of a discovery that is described by the concept “In the beginning is the end,” otherwise represented as “The end is in the beginning.”  This is serious stuff, several levels beyond which way the roll of toilet paper drapes (under or above); it is the sense of the kind of circularity of history and event posited by the Italian philosopher and pre-physicist, Giambatista Vico.  If you write enough beginnings, then work on developing them, you will ultimately discover the end of the story, which came to you as a surprise, wasn’t all that much of a surprise to the aspects of your craft that produce beginnings for you.

A splendid example is a short story you once wrote called “The Ability,” which you just chanced upon while preparing a batch of stories for your publisher, who thinks to prepare a collection of your short fiction.  The story begins with your protagonist applying for a job at a university.  Part of the pre-job activity includes having an identity photo taken.  Three or four times, you had the photo being taken by a student who was first seen reading a copy of The Heart of Darkness.  Each time you revised the story, you omitted this detail on the grounds that it was not relevant to the way the story developed, except that in subsequent drafts, you replaced the book, then, at greater length, paused to think the matter through.  The Heart of Darkness detail belonged in the story, you reasoned, only if the payoff of the story was the payoff moment of the novel, with Kurtz’s fiancĂ©e saying those chilling words, “O, the horror.”  At this point, you knew you had the ending in mind, worked toward it, achieved it, and were thrilled with the results as well as the details, like loose change, you discovered while reaching toward it.

Part of the excitement of story is the gradual discovery of the surprises that link beginnings to endings, of actions to agendas and metaphors.  Story is about something organic as opposed to something merely episodic.  If you are not careful, your stories can become events that produce no sense of discovery, whether the discovery is a half dollar, a wristwatch, or a bracelet.

It has come about that you were asked which of your stories is your favorite, causing one in particular to leap to the front of the line, and it is an emblematic display of your short fiction.  For a few moments, you were even comfortable with the proclamation that “Coming to Terms” was your favorite story, but as you began to wonder why this was so, you were dealt another surprise.

You are fond of a great number of your stories because they rise to some moment beyond their intended theme that amused you profoundly when these moments came forth.  There is one particular moment in “Death Watches” where a man whose current agenda is to arrange his affairs so that he will not die alone.  In the process, he attempts to rescue a cat from the animal shelter, intending the cat as a companion, but his application is denied because he is not considered a safe bet as a cat person.

Another such theme comes when a man is tempted to steal his best friend’s dog, and yet another surprise comes when a man in a group therapy environment is set upon and mugged by one of his group mates, who had not realized their connection because of the darkness of the landscape in which the attack took place.

These surprises are quite typical of your vision of the cosmos.  You reason that there would be more of them apparent to you if you looked harder, were not so impatient to move on to the next surprise.

You sometimes remind yourself of these otherworldly individuals who patrol the beaches, particularly early mornings after holiday weekends, their metal detectors sweeping swaths of sand, their faces grim with intent.

The quest you have in mind is the buried surprise that will produce an explosion of the kind of laughter that is undershot with some sad universal truth about why you laugh, why you do things that are in the long run funny, even to you.

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