Monday, May 24, 2010

A Story Short

For the past week and heading into the next month or so, my updates have not been and will continue not to be as regular as you've come to expect.  There are several illnesses in my family and something's got to give.  But as often happens amid turmoil, creativity has burbled to the surface as I take refuge in my typewriter.

I believe that I've mentioned before how my dad loved Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and how he wanted me to love them too.  But I just couldn’t. There was too much of a gap there, too far of a leap required of a kid born in the 70's.  A kid who had already sold his allegiance to the Ray Bradbury and Tolkien crowd.  I was conquering Martian frontiers with John Carter and exploring Middle Earth with Frodo.  I didn't have time for stories set in rural Michigan circa 1910, I was living in THE WORLD OF TOMORROW!

Though in fairness, dad gave me my first battered copy of John Carter of Mars and it was at his behest that I
spent some time exploring Victorian Africa with Allan Quartermaine.

I often wondered what it would have been like if I had liked Nick Adams and what it would have taken to make that happen for a kid of the Star Wars era.  What if those stories had been written by someone who spoke in a voice I recognized, a voice less burdened by Hemingway’s affection for the primal male rituals and closer to the swords and sorcery of Tolkien or the jetpacks and laser guns more familiar in my late twentieth century childhood?

Short stories are not my usual forte.  I tend to take large bites of the stories I concoct and I want a large canvas to make them as detailed and beautiful as their architecture can bear without the constraints of the short story getting in my way.  I love short stories, but I don't write them very often.

But the coming-of-age in the space age idea kept prodding and poking me.  Mine was a childhood spent wondering why the promised WORLD OF TOMORROW kept being put off until tomorrow and then the next day and the next.  And a character began to coelesce.

The other day I sat down at the computer and was surprised to find a story of a young man of my generation looking for the future he had been promised by those same Science Fiction visionaries and moth-eaten books from the 1950's and 60's that haunted the basement of the local library.  A kid who thrilled to the same ideas as I had and wanted to know what happened to that jetpack he was supposed to get when the world's odometer clicked over to the year 2000.  A kid who was far more clever and self confident than I insomuch as he was willing and able to do something about it.

It never ceases to surprise me when I find stories hiding in my head that aren't 100,000 words long.  And the self-discovery that like Hemingway I could tell fantastically exagerrated tales spun from my own childhood imaginings.  No more or less surprised than I was to find those half-imagined adventures were still lurking in there, buried under the more literate and adult adventures that overlay them.

What I ended up with was not even close to an attempt to rewrite the Nick Adams stories, far from it. For one thing, I'm definitely not Earnest Hemingway and have no desire to be.  Nonetheless, the stories I've been telling myself for the past couple of weeks are informed by Nick Adams even if it was just that I was reacting against that archetype.  Nick was in the back of my mind as I filtered my thirty year old self back into the ten year old body of a boy that was (in the words of Douglas Adams) similar to but not entirely unlike me.   Certainly I made him smarter, more self-assured and at once more naive than I have ever been.  Because in the end, even if a character contains a sizeable portion of Scott, it's never Scott.  His sister is never my sister and his parents never my parents, though in this case I would say his soul is my soul.

These new stories owe as full a debt to the things I was reading the summer of my tenth year on the planet.  John Carter of Mars, The Mad Scientist’s Club, The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown and God knows the pages of those musty picture books from the 1950’s that teased and tempted my young mind with the impossible future of gleaming domed cities, jetpacks and monorails.

Eventually, of course, that ten-year-old became a thirty-year-old and we made the leap together and I treasure those stories less for what they are than for what they meant to him.  But before the end, my dislike of Hemingway became a bonding thing for us. Which is why I return to it time and again.

Regardless of Hemingway’s influence on these stories, his influence on my dad meant that Dad and I talked about books from the very beginning and the Nick Adams stories in particular. I learned to love them because he did, just as I learned to love books because he made it look like the right way to live.

John  Carter cover public domain - care of Wikimedia Commons

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).