The Story Is The Thing

Photo credit: Lucia Berlin

I’ve been thinking a lot about nonfiction vs. fiction. My stories always begin from an experience, a thread of conversation, a feeling I can’t quite pin down. The unresolved. The uncomfortable. The stuff of life. My life. I am not a magician who pulls coins from thin air, nor rabbits from hats. I find the fiction as I go. I bump up against a boundary and cut a hole in the wall and then shove a bookcase in front of it so none will be the wiser. This is where I find my writing going. A hybrid form.

The thing is, it’s nothing new.

At the start of this blog project, the universe answered back in mysterious, synchronistic waves. Out of nowhere, an old friend from art school (now a literary agent) sent me a book. An old hardcover book of short stories, A Manuel for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. I’ve carried it around like a bible ever since. I refer to it when my own writing feels stalled, when I’m looking for a way back in. Berlin is a masterful storyteller, a vivid painter, a prose poet with an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue. Lydia Davis says it better: “Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading–using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.”

The book is a work of fiction, but many of the stories are lifted straight from Berlin’s life. Others are entirely made up.

From the forward by Lydia Davis:

Lucia Berlin based many of her stories on events in her own life. One of her sons said, after her death, “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.”

Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction (“self-fiction”), the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this, or a version of this, as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s. Her son went on to say, “Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished, and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.”

Perhaps this is the answer to my navigational fatigue, to always remember the story is the thing. 

(Post 289 of 365)


Magical Thinking: 2/365

Sometimes you call out to the universe, and the universe answers back. It echoes from the canyon, reverberates over hills, hinting you might be onto something. I’ve always been a magical thinker.

Yesterday, after months of planning this project and finally beginning, a gift arrived in the mail from an old and distant friend. Lucia Berlin’s story collection A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN, sent by my friend Jenni. We met in art school and then maintained an epic correspondence. This was almost twenty years ago, the days of actual letter writing. More than a hundred letters. Back then I was a painter, and I pictured them culminating as an art installation, papering the walls of a gallery. Now she’s a literary agent and we glimpse each other on Facebook. In her note, she said the book made her think of me, so she put it in the mail. It was funny to see her tiny handwriting again, indelible and alive.

I’m only two stories in and I already feel like, I needed this book, I was meant to be reading this book. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want to write. From the first story in the collection, ANGEL’S LAUNDROMAT:

I looked into my own eyes and back down at my hands. Horrid age spots, two scars. Nervous, lonely hands. I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.

My magical thinking goes far past echoes from the universe and unexpected books in the mail, but I have a toddler painting at the kitchen table (read: painting the kitchen table) and I’m counting the hours until my husband is home from a business trip to Florida, so that I can perhaps flee the house, if only for a short while.