This short piece reprises part of Daryl Farmer’s talk earlier this month in Anchorage, part of 49 Writers’ Reading & Craft Talk Series at Indigo Tea Lounge. The event was occasioned by his new book of stories, Where We Land.
Tension, I tell my students. Dramatize, give your characters conflicts for them to resolve. This is how narrative works, I tell them. I nudge them toward the edgy. I say it and I believe it: no conflict, no story.
“The stories we read in here are all so dark,” a student complains. I defend my choices. “Stories need conflict. That’s how they work,” I tell them. “Characters need problems to solve, obstacles that lead to change.”
Still, I worry about the point they make.
I am sitting in an airport, trying to read. A TV is on, the sound up, three faces on the screen. Two of them are talking at the same time. Then all three. The voices are rising. The host tries without success to regain control of his show. The narratives compete, no resolution in sight. Only commercial breaks. Matthew McConaughey in a Lincoln, and suddenly the world on the screen is absurdly serene. At least until we return, and the shouting resumes.
Short stories and cable news have little in common; I’m not suggesting otherwise. But I do wonder—and worry—about the reliance on conflict in our lives, the relentless competing narratives, the shouting and mean-spiritedness of reality TV. I worry over my students and their (all of our) conflict fatigue, and wonder whether my method of teaching narrative seeks resolution or perpetuates this fatigue. I hope it does the former, but am not entirely convinced.
And so I want to consider an alternative narrative arc. A rising action not toward a climax in conflict or tension, but a re-telling of experience that builds instead toward a moment of beauty that haunts: an indelible moment. I take Rick Bass as my guide, specifically a story I return to often, “The Hermit’s Story.”
On the surface, the story feels like a traditional survival story. The story begins in framing device: a dinner party. One of the guests, Ann, is a dog trainer, and she recounts for the other guests a time she trained dogs for a man named Gray Owl. One night out running the dogs, she and Gray Owl are caught in a storm, and they must survive. On the surface the story feels like a traditional “human vs. wilderness” story. But Ann and Gray Owl are both clearly so competent in this regard that their survival is never really in question. And so while the story plays on a traditional “human vs. wilderness” structure, Bass subverts the “versus” part of that tradition, relying on the beauty of the natural world rather than conflict to drive the story, specifically a haunting, surreal experience that finds Ann, Gray Owl, and their dogs beneath the ice of a lake bed where “there was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.” It is this journey beneath the ice that stays with a reader after the telling, a journey that reaches its haunting peak in this passage, 13 pages into an 18 page story:
The air was damp down there, and whenever they’d get chilled, they’d stop and make a little fire out of a bundle of dry cattails. There were little pockets and puddles of swamp gas pooled in place, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those, and those little pockets of gas would light up like when you toss gas on a fire—explosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch—until a large enough flash-pocket was reached—sometimes thirty or forty yards away—that the puff of flame would blow a chimney-hole through the ice, venting the other pockets, and the fires would crackle out, the scent of grass smoke sweet in their lungs, and they could feel gusts of warmth from the little flickering fires, and currents of the colder, heavier air sliding down through the new vent-holes and pooling around their ankles. The moonlight would strafe down through those rents in the ice, and shards of moon-ice would be glittering and spinning like diamond-motes in those newly vented columns of moonlight; and they pushed on, still lost, but so alive.
It is this experience that haunts us as readers at the end, as it haunts Ann—it is not until the end, when we return to the dinner party, that we learn this experience was twenty years ago:
She says that even now she still sometimes has dreams about being beneath the ice—about living beneath the ice—and that it seems to her as if she was down there for much longer than a day and a night; that instead she might have been gone for years.
“Indelible” is a word that means “not able to be forgotten.” I first read “The Hermit’s Story” fifteen years ago. That moment beneath the ice stays with me, haunts me even. What more can we wish for in our own writing?
Will I stop pushing conflict and tension as elements of story? Probably not. My job is to teach them how narrative works, after all. But, I will remind them it does not have to be the only way; dark is fine, but sometimes light can work, too. A story can build to conflict and climax. But don’t forget beauty. As readers, we need that. Maybe now more than ever.
Daryl Farmer is the author of Where We Land, a collection of short stories and Bicycling Beyond the Divide, winner of a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and also named as a Colorado Book Award finalist. He received a B.A. in physical education from Adams State College (Alamosa, Colorado) and an M.A. and Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has taught writing at Georgia Tech. University, Stephen F. Austin State University in east Texas and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he is currently an assistant professor and director of the MFA in Creative Writing program. For more blog posts and information about Daryl and his work, go to www.darylfarmer.com