The Adequate Writer: Short Story Writing

by janeeatonhamilton

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Today I’ve worked on a short story backgrounded in a doll hospital.  I’ve hankered after it a while.  For years, I’ve sought out a book my mother read to me when I was very, very small–perhaps 3 years old–about the adventures of dolls who came alive, but even with the web, even with searches every couple of years and interrogating my mother, I was never able to the find the book.  It didn’t help that I only remembered that the dolls had to go to the hospital to get patched up, which I then found completely romantic.  Finally last week I discovered the book online at the NY Public Library.  It’s The Story of Live Dolls, Being an account of how, on a certain June morning, all the dolls in the village of Clovedale came alive, by Mabel Rogers, printed in 1901.  Unsurprisingly, while the story has undeniable charms (one which I had forgotten but which once beguiled me–the dolls’ clothing grows on trees) the book is dunning for its racism and sexism.  But the protagonist’s name is Janie, and I’m guessing that’s why my mother brought the book forward 50 plus years to read it to me in my cradle, although I would grow to have an ambivalent relationship with the dolls in my own life, which I thought looked better chop-haired and doodled on.  I didn’t quite understand Barbie’s ridiculous high heels which slid off her feet.  I did sort of like making a doll pee, and I loved pulling Chatty Cathy’s string (though lord knows she could have said something subversive like, Girls can play hockey, or, Let him do the dishes tonight).  I never realized until today that Chatty Cathy’s voice box was an actual record player where her heart should have been.

In any case, I didn’t either think of bringing this book into the story–until writing the paragraph above.  Now it seems so obvious, I could kick myself.

Even when I’m writing a short story, I can’t quite communicate its process.  I think about it as I go–what did you just write?  Why?  How did you get there?  But it all happens on such an instinctive level, shored up of course by years and years of practice and editing, that I can’t parse it as I would like.  Today I wrote the back story–I can tell you that simple fact, and that it took 10 or so hours.  Having lacked any particular connection to dolls in my own youth, I had no clue what kind of childhood my protagonist ought to have had before I began this morning.  But I knew she was at her mom’s visitation following the woman’s death, and that her mom had owned a doll hospital, and that the protagonist had brought her lover along, and there had to be sparks to be found in all that rough material that would speak to the complicated, madcap, touching relationships between people.

On the reading front, I’ve had a Bashevis Singer story, “Elke and Meir,” in my head all day, having finished it before I began to write.  I recently finished “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews, too.  I admired the heck out of the former, and can only hope to write something someday where the characters are so breathtakingly delineated and the setting so riveting.  Of the Toews?  The woman has a talent for the quotidian.  This sad and moving tale of her sister’s suicide succeeds mostly on its small perfect details–how people talk to each other, what it means, what’s going on under the stated.  My favourite book of hers will probably always be “The Flying Troutmans,” where this talent comes to the fore in a story during a road trip with kids.  It takes some amazing talent to get the details right on an entire book of communication between one adult and two kids stuck in a car, and to also make it absorbing?  Big fan here.