I had a great conversation about Wallace Stegner the other day with a student. Stegner wrote in an essay that the short story is like a journey–a journey not for the reader but for the character. I mentioned this to the student who like all of us at one time or the other finds himself stuck with a story. This happens to me so much I want to create a name for it. I call it ‘Stegneritis’. (This seems to also come from the notion in Tim Obrien’s thought that the more we understand and know about writing the harder it is to do.) But this is also the condition where you just know you must send your character on a journey to find a meaning he or she desperately wants or needs but you can’t seem to get exactly how this is to happen. A failure to set Stegner’s principle into action.
Now, Stegner’s opening story of the collected short stories is called “the Traveler” and I surmise Stegner puts this aesthetic of the journey into action. He opens the story with a barren landscape and a broken down car–some of his best stories begin this way with the broken down and so all of my stories try to open with this–and he also intriduces us to a traveling salesman lost and in need of a telephone. Our maincharacter is stuck in a heavy snow and also buried in regret over work and the amount of time on the road. And that is where the journey begins. The salesman walks and finds a horse and then finds a farmhouse and then finds a young boy crying and nursing a grandfather back to health. Now because Stegner is so good at giving us a close 3rd person objective lens we are immersed in the traveling through the snow. And also the salesman who at one point is wishing for adventure and is complaining about the monotony of his work, by the end of the story has found himself responsible for a life, a boy and a horse. The comfort of a car replaced with a horse and wagon–the modern or the comfortable exchanged for the natural and the life or death of survival in nature in the harsh weather.
In this story like a lot of his stories a character has journeyed through to find something that the character needs and wants but had no idea how to get there in the opening. I like to think the character and the author journeyed together to find the resolution. Like Hugo states in Triggering Town, get off the subject and find the heart of the story–hell, just find the story. Find the interaction between characters and find the true place of the story apart from the setting and the landscape. In a way the author and the character find this place together.
This is the advice I told my student. To get over the Stegneritis and find that journey that the character needs. He wasn’t impressed. Easier said than done, right. But that seems essential to finding the heart of the character. To finding the feeling of a character. To find the heart and the reality of a character. To experience the character and their movement.
And I do understand because in my own writing this is very dificult to do. Theme always seems to compete with characterization.
In my own writing, I know Cornbread wants to be with his daughter and I know he wants money and some sort of status to build his reputation–he wants to be in the service of the Catholic Church represented by St Francis and Father Dwyer. He wants to make-up with his ex and also he wants to be left alone to have a good time. All at the same time. My problem is how to get him there in a compelling and dynamic way.