In my recent interview with author, Liz Adair, I talked about the origin of stories, and I found myself thinking about its magical qualities. Why, when I sat down to write a story for the first time, a childhood experience that later won a essay prize emerged full blown in an afternoon. Where did it come from? What gave it form? Why did a door closed to me for thirty years burst open to let it forth? Why that experience?
Most writers today don’t talk about their Muse, though the word does express the mystery of the experience I describe above. The question demands a rational answer to a process that isn’t rational, so it must always fail. It apparently emerged from my unconscious, but we don’t, as a rule, gain access to our unconscious by any willful act. And why that story? By hindsight, looking at it, I’d say the experience gives form to my ambivalence about the academic world I grew up in. The essay tells about how how I witnessed, at ten, the birth of the atomic age, the event that would change the world, shape my adulthood—the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century, but I learned the meaning of that day from the mushroom cloud on the front page of the newspaper. Hiroshima. The adults around me struggled through shock for a response and in the end proclaimed: “Science searches for Truth. We’re not responsible for the uses men put it to.” But my father was not celebrating. His face was gray.
I can also see that that deep- seated conflict shaped my life—and my writing. I lived on the fringes of universities most of my life—as child, student, wife, parent, temporary faculty—without embracing it. I have a deep respect for the education it gave me, but I abhor its arrogance; I love ideas, but I’m no scholar. Indeed, the very experience I describe here gave voice to the person academia suppressed. So the story tells me a lot about myself.
The story I wrote that afternoon, “Stagg Field, 1943,” is non-fiction, but for me the process of fiction is not that much different. The magic is always its appearance, the ability of the unconscious to give form to such emotional truths in a form they can be shared.
Next week I’ll share it with you.