STORY AND MEMORY
By Kate Blackwell
Fiction writers, pay attention to memories. The stones you still stumble over. Pick them up. Weigh them in your hand. Turn them over, see what’s underneath. A Christmas party. An outing to a lighthouse. Whole stories, whole novels are stitched from a memory.
Most of my stories begin with a memory of something I can’t forget and I don’t understand.
At a family gathering my cousin stands with his young wife who is dying of brain cancer. He is helping her drink through a straw. They are both twenty-five. How can they do this? How do they feel? My story “The Obi Tree” was written to answer these questions.
But memory doesn’t hand you a story on a platter; it must be transformed. Sometimes you must add another memory.
When writing about my cousin and his dying wife, I invoked a memory of my first real love and how it ended. I became the young husband who refuses to let his wife go quietly, refuses to accept. There is anger in loss, there is sexual longing, as well as the pain.
Chekhov: “I never write directly from life. The subject must pass through the sieve of my memory, so that only what is important or typical remains, as in a filter.”
Memory in fiction is not memoir. Nor is it journalism. You add something that didn’t happen, you invent.
In the title story of my collection, a woman goes through her last days of pregnancy, then gives birth to her first child. I used a lot of details from memory to describe her physical discomfort, her emotional dislocation, but what did it all add up to? Even “she” (the character) isn’t sure. After she gives birth, she remembers the cliché that people tell you: you won’t remember this. Suddenly, the words mean something different than she’d thought before.
Memory isn’t your master. Change what you want to, or what you must. The farther you get from the facts of “what happened,” the closer you are to the truth of “how it felt.” Never include something “because it happened that way.” Know when to invent, when to cut.
The story is a template placed over a memory, giving us another way to see.
You Won’t Remember This
Author: Kate Blackwell
Publisher: Bacon Press Books
Genre: Short Stories/Southern Fiction
About the book:
The twelve stories in Kate Blackwell’s debut collection illuminate the lives of men and women who appear as unremarkable as your next-door-neighbor until their lives explode quietly on the page. Her wry, often darkly funny voice describes the repressed underside of a range of middle-class characters living in the South. Blackwell’s focus is elemental—on marriage, birth, death, and the entanglements of love at all ages—but her gift is to shine a light on these universal situations with such lucidity, it is as if one has never seen them before.
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The "shadow line," Kurt calls it. Carroll believes he is referring to age, to some transitional moment into old age. But what moment exactly? When we are too old to make love? Too tired to feel desire? Kurt shrugs. When our hopes are extinguished? When I'll never see you again? What line are you talking about, Kurt?
Kurt is almost fifty but looks younger. His hair is a dark silky brown. His skin is smooth. There is a youthful leprechaun quality about him, though he is beginning to have a paunch about the belly. He does not get enough exercise. If he could ski regularly, he says, he would lose that flab. Kurt is an expert skier. He learned to ski when he was five, in Germany. When he was eleven, he had a terrible accident that broke both legs below the knee. The fractured fibulas erupted through flesh and skin. Carroll, drawing her finger along the deep scars on Kurt's calves, tries to envision the accident, the broken skis, the bloodied snow, the boy lying there in the snow, waiting for someone to come.
But she has a hard time picturing Kurt as a boy. Sometimes she has a hard time remembering what he looks like now. Though they have been together for nearly two years, loosely speaking—she has her own place, he has his—they really do not see that much of each other. Kurt is a free-lance photographer and is often traveling. Benin. Djibouti. Sucre. Carroll, too, is busy. She owns and runs a nursery school called Sunshine Day for three- and four-year-olds. Sometimes months go by when Carroll and Kurt do not see each other, though sometimes, out of the blue, he will call from some distant place. She will hear his voice, high-pitched and tentative, a as if he did not expect her to answer (or perhaps it’s the connection that makes it sound that way?)—Hello? Remember me?—and she feels such happiness it terrifies her. Does he actually believe she has forgotten him?
And yet, in certain ways, she does forget. Today, standing in her school yard among all the small revved-up bodies and high yelling voices, sniffing the odors of sand and lilac, she tries to conjure his face. She knows his eyes are green, his nose small and sharp, his skin lightly freckled. But she cannot visualize his mouth or the curve of his cheek or his expression when he looks at her. She cannot remember his voice. She expects to hear that voice, though, perhaps in a few hours. Kurt is due back today from Mali. Or is it Niger? The prospect of seeing him makes her giddy. He has been away nearly two months. Even so, even in the midst of her excitement, she can't help asking herself where this relationship is going. The question occurs to her all the time, but whenever she alludes to the future—an off-hand reference to season tickets for the opera or a time-share deal on a beach house—Kurt shakes his head.
"Carpe diem," he says, in his lightly accented speech.
And Carroll, though she is not seeking permanence, though she does not believe that relationships require official bonds, though she is happy living on her own and seeing Kurt for compressed periods of passion and good talk, is enraged.
Carpe diem indeed.
About the Author
KATE BLACKWELL worked as a journalist and editor before turning full-time to fiction. Her first collection, YOU WON’T REMEMBER THIS, was published in hardback in 2007 by Southern Methodist University Press. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Agni, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Carve, The Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Sojourner, and So To Speak. She lives in Washington, DC.
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