Ian Frazier tells an amusing story in The New Yorker (May 26, 2008) about a man at a soup kitchen who dismissed Frazier’s credentials as a writing coach. The guy blew off Frazier, sitting at a card table soliciting for a writers’ group, saying he’d already had a famous teacher, novelist John Cheever. Frazier asked him what he’d learned, and quotes the guy:
“Cheever, you understan’, he was a brilliant writer. When he wrote something he always had two things going on at a time. He told us, when you writin’, you got this surface thing, you understan’, goin’ on up here”—he moved his left hand in a circle with his fingers spread apart, as if rubbing a flat surface—an’ then once you get that goin’ on, now you got to come up under it”—he brought his right hand under his left, as if throwing an uppercut—“come under this thing here that’s goin’ on up here, you understan’. That was how John Cheever said you write.”
I tell my students we’re made of stories; they’re in our DNA. So it’s puzzling why it can be so hard to tell a story well—until you consider what’s beneath the many interlocked skills of basic craft: that subsurface thing goin’ on. Our caveman ancestors listening around the fire surely grasped implicit meaning. So do you, probably, when Dad launches another tale about Uncle Billy. But to touch strangers with a written story’s message amid narrative’s irresistible “and then” takes insight by the writer herself into her story’s depths. She has to know what she’s really writing about. Readers go to work on her text with that in mind, whether consciously or not. We’re made for such decoding.
We impulsively search for meaning, and life responds with images that epitomize this or that. I remember an incident the fall of my son’s freshman year of college, trying to get him to take a bag of his favorite corn chips into his dormitory, and his puzzling refusal. I was annoyed driving away that night, going back to our hotel room—my wife had bought the chips in our town and we’d carried them 500 miles. He settled into his new life that night without us, as we knew he must—but doing so without his favorite snack was an entirely optional decision. He would have plowed through the treat in fifteen minutes, sure, but we were sad. And the meaning of that poor sack of Red Hot Blues was clear, though it meant something different on each side: our love, his independence.
There it was again, right there, as we drove out of Chicago the next morning. I clutched the steering wheel and we drove into a blinding sunrise: the dawn of the first day without our son, our Tom. It’s kind of funny the way life lays it on thick sometimes.
Emotions, in any case, do attach to things; and the charge carried by things and scenes is at the heart of writing’s meaning—which beats in its subtext, observes Alice LaPlante in The Making of a Story. “Our very important goal as writers is to transfer by whatever means possible important and complex emotions onto the sensory objects and events we’ve chosen to render in our story or nonfiction piece.”