I know a writer should never have favorites, but……
I do. My favorite short story out of all those that I have written is a somewhat quirky and multi-leveled piece called “In the Chambers of the Sea.” It has just been published by Prime Number Magazine for their 31st (that’s prime for 11th) issue, and I’m so thankful it has found a home with somewhat-quirky-multi-leveled people who will nurture it and appreciate it!
Why is this story my favorite? I think it’s because it dives down into the depths of ideas about creativity and simply lingers there, quietly observing them as they all float past. The metaphors I find most meaningful make appearances and converse with one another. Perhaps no one reader will connect with them all, but I hope the overall energy of the ideas strikes a chord with anyone who takes the time to read the story. At the risk of explaining too much, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the story below.
“In the Chambers of the Sea” began with a surprisingly vivid image of two professors talking about the nature of fiction vs. nonfiction. I soon came to realize that the two professors were phantom members of the Inklings , the literary group associated with Lewis, Tolkien and other Oxford figures in the early 20th century. Perhaps this explains the cameo appearance of the founder of my own writing group, Ted, as the bartender in the story.
From here, the story spent a time searching for ideas about the writing process until two lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, rose up from the deep:
“It is impossible to say just what I mean
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.”
That’s when it hit me that the whole story is really my personal reading of this poem. For me Prufrock is not so much social commentary as it is an exploration into the painful striving involved in any creative process, a process in which the work that is achieved always falls short of the idea that led to it.
This falling-short may explain why the second half of the story fragments and dissolves in the bright light of reality . . . but not before frantically grasping at a series of sputtering, flickering examples such as the image of the sister from the fairy tale, The Wild Swans, who must sew shirts out of nettle to undo a curse put on her brothers. During this time she must be silent even as the nettle painfully cuts her fingers. She is misinterpreted, believed to be a murderous witch, and sentenced to burn on the pyre. Her creations and her brothers save her, but I always found it significant that she did not fully complete the task—the youngest brother’s shirt is missing a sleeve and he must go through life with the wing of a swan. Even in fairy tale, the ideal is not realized, and often there is a price demanded for the act of creativity.
Perhaps that is why my story ends with imagery of people jumping from a tower. People who create —music, technology, or anything else– are in essence leaping from the safety of the known into the unknown . . . or diving down from the safety of the surface to the “chambers of the sea.”
But they cannot stay. The flight will turn into freefall. The sound of “human” voices will call them back.
They can only keep trying– again and again and again.
A few more links for the Curious . . . The debate about where to draw the line between fiction and non-fiction has been at the forefront of my mind for a while due to a recent uptick in discussion about creative nonfiction, specifically memoir. A few years ago, I found it fascinating to follow a discussion about the three starkly different memoirs based on the same events in the lives of Augusten Burroughs’ family—Running With Scissors, Look Me in the Eye, and The Long Journey Home. To me, the most interesting idea in this debate is that “there is a difference between facts and the truth.”
The metaphor of jumping from a cliff or tower periodically haunts me. I was, for a time, mesmerized by the now taboo image from 9/11, Richard Drew’s Photo of the Falling Man, or, more exactly, I was fascinated by the NPR description of the photo by Esquire magazine editor Tom Junod. The photograph is both “too horrible to look at,” as Junod explains, and yet it also somehow captures a “moment of perfection” even as the whole sequence of related photos depicts an ugly and horrific chaos. I fervently hope and pray no one else will ever know the desperation that would spur a person to jump from a burning tower, but at the same time I admire the people who chose to jump, who may have been able to realize a truth that the people watching on the ground could not grasp, who make the rest of us contemplate an uncomfortable, brief glimpse at what lies beyond.