Travel Woes/Whoas

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yesterday I had perhaps the worst travel day of my life, although that isn't saying much, considering I typically have amazing luck when I'm traveling.  Until yesterday, I'd never missed a flight or had a flight cancelled, and I'd only ever had one significant delay--about four hours when I was flying to Rochester two years ago.  So of course yesterday my luck ran out.  To summarize, my travels yesterday involved four airports, two trips through airport security, an hour and a half taxi ride from PNS to VPS, a 45 minute delay at VPS and another 45 minutes on the tarmac at ATL (meaning I got off one plane just five minutes before the next was supposed to take-off), sprinting through ATL (okay, more like power-walking) and barely making my flight to BWI (last person on the plane, the door closing just as I got there), and a four hour long car trip.  It was chaotic, and it was frustrating, and twice I almost broke down in tears.  I got a headache, I got dehydrated, and I didn't eat anything for nine hours (not a good idea for someone with hypoglycemia).  But in the end, I survived and I realized it could have been so much worse.

After all, something positive came out of my horrible day--when I wasn't frantically running around airports and sweet-talking ticket agents, I was just sitting.  And reading.  And thinking.  

What I was reading was Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which somehow, in the midst of PhD studies, I just hadn't made the time to read.  I read Interpreter of Maladies right after she won the Pulitzer and bought The Namesake as soon as it came out, but for some reason I didn't rush right out to get Unaccustomed Earth, probably because I'd read several of the stories before in The New Yorker and figured that I'd already read the best works in the book.  I was totally wrong.  

Yesterday gave me the opportunity to read the first half of the book, and with each story I grew more and more in awe of Lahiri's ability to convey the subtle details and difficulties of family life and individual desire.  I realized why I had fallen in love with the short story form when I was in college (partly thanks to Lahiri's first collection, partly because I was consuming volumes of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Ann Beattie), and I realized why I've struggled with writing in that form ever since.

I've never really written short stories "for fun."  Even when I was a child I wrote novels or novellas.  The first story I ever wrote--when I was seven--was eight pages long, and that was by far the shortest thing I ever wrote until I went to college.  Short stories have always been associated with schoolwork to me; they are what I had to write during years of creative writing classes as an undergraduate and graduate creative writing major, but I always saw them as keeping me from the work I really wanted to do--writing a novel.  

The only time in my life that this wasn't true was during my Advanced Fiction Writing class as a senior in college, when I was studying with the amazing Jennifer Fremlin, the best creative writing teacher I've ever had, who guided but never stifled my creativity.  I was also reading lots of Lahiri, Carver, Munro, Beattie, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Ethan Canin, and Sandra Cisneros--among many, many other short story writers--so I guess you could say I was learning from the masters of the form.  With the exception of Atwood (who is brilliant in every genre), these are the names of a rare breed of fiction writer--those that are better (at least in my opinion) at the short story form than they are at the novel.  They deliver the short story form to a place most of us can only dream of achieving, a place of honesty and truth, a place I rarely find in short fiction today.

And here is the real problem:  when I'm reading literary journals today, I'm rarely taken to that place.  Instead, I see far too much emphasis on quirkiness and shock value, and not enough on mining relationships to uncover those little truths we all subconsciously know and relate to.  And quirkiness and shock value do not inspire me.  So I haven't been writing short fiction.

But yesterday, sitting in one airport or airplane after another, I rediscovered the kind of short stories that I once loved, and I re-realized the power and potential of the form, and I started thinking.  And jotting down notes.  And...writing.  I thought back to stories and characters in my graduate thesis that I had loved and never published because they never seemed "right" to me, never complete.  And I suddenly understood things about those characters that I hadn't understood before, that the stories felt unfinished because the characters hadn't fully revealed themselves to me yet.

And so I'm writing short fiction again, or at least heavily revising old stories, and in some ways I'm counting my blessings that I had such a horrendous travel day yesterday, for it means I get to have an amazing writing day today. :-)


Monita B. July 28, 2010 at 1:38 PM  

The thing about inspiration is that you never know when it will strike. I, for instance, just finished reading the first 6 chapters of a novel by my good friend Lacy Marschalk, and it reminded me of why I used to write.

I haven't written in so long and never felt I was much good at it, but that novel excerpt made pull out some of my old stuff and I realized this: I'm a creative person and it's in me to express myself through words and music. I'm not quite myself when I'm not creating. i imagine you feel the same. :-) We should talk about the novel soon!!! (Sorry for your horrible travel day and happy for your new-found inspiration!)

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