Friday, May 8, 2009

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, "The Nursery," 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum says in the “Writers on Their Work” section of the 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories that “The Nursery” began with a news report she heard about a teenage baseball player killing a teammate during a game. How it happened—accident or a fight—did not concern her; her interest was in how the parents must have felt. That interest made the first draft go rather quickly, she said, and gave her her central character Beth, whose desire to protect and nurture her son made her sympathize with her.

When writers read one of their stories at a public reading, they often make a few preliminary remarks about where the story came from. If they do not, when the reading is over, someone from the audience will ask: “How did that story get its start? What gave you the idea for that story?” They often want to know if the story is based on something that happened in the author’s life, as if the real life event were more important than the story.

I suspect that writers don’t feel that way—that the event, real or read about—somehow evaporates and that the most real thing for them is the story. I suspect that the story comes from many calculated decisions, as well as many impulsive decisions as the writing progressed—either in the writer’s mind as he or she mulls it over, or at the keyboard as some things the writer never had in mind get forced into the story because of what they have experienced or remembered or read or heard. And these things just seem somehow to fit. Sometimes the writer knows why they fit; sometimes the writer does not.

Let’s guess how Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s story came into being. As she says, it started with the “I wonder” ploy. “I wonder what that boy’s parents felt like. I wonder if the parents of the boy who killed the other one did not suffer as much or more than the parents of the one that died.”

Let’s say Lunstrum started with exploring this “I wonder” and then, as she created the parents of the boy who killed the other one, discovered that it might make a good story if the mother were a controlling woman, if she were divorced, if the boy, in spite of all her efforts to influence his development, saw in him elements of his father that she could not control. So Beth took over the story, and it was all about her.

Let’s say the notion of “nurturing” gave Lunstrum of the woman owning a nursery. That would work, wouldn’t it? And as Lunstrum developed the background of the nursery—the woman nurturing plants and trying to nurture her son—she discovered that—as she says in the “Writers on Their Work” notes—“I was particularly happy in this story with the way the overgrowth and lushness of that setting worked in contrast to Beth’s withholding and reserve.” Yeah, that is a nice bonus, holds things together well.

But there has to be some tangible conflict in the story, some displacement from Beth’s conflict with her son that embodies her fear that he will be more like her husband than like herself. Thus Lunstrum invents Uri, a sort of old-line hippie with a ponytail, about ten years younger than herself. He smokes pot and challenges her. He embodies her lazy husband and her fears for her son David. She can’t control him.

Then there has to be some crisis, some choice she has to make about how far she will go to control her son. And that choice has to be the one that comes from her most pressing need, and it has to be the wrong one, and the “good father figure,” the coach, will lose out to the “bad father figure,” Uri. Beth must pay for being who she is. As Lunstrum says, she is not very likeable. But we understand her need.

Of course, there is much more to how this story may have come into being. And, after all, I am merely a reader guessing how Lunstrum created it. But since half the readers of this blog are writers and half are not, I wonder if the way writers read stories is radically different than the way nonwriters read stories. And I wonder if those who write or want to write have an interest in the “backstory” radically different than that of nonwriters. Nonwriters want to know what the backstory is, echoing something my children used to ask me when I told them stories, “Did that really happen, Daddy?” Writers, on the other hand, want to know how the story came into being. For them it is not a matter of “what really happened?” but rather a matter of “how did you make it?”

If you read Lunstrum’s “The Nursery,” please let me know what you think about it and about my faltering efforts to understand the mysteries of what make short stories work.


Charlene said...

As a writer, I have no interest in why someone wrote a particular story. I read, hoping to become a better writer. At this point, coming up with ideas isn’t the problem—its in the telling of the story.

It’s interesting that you comment most on how Lunstrum’s story came into being. My reaction to “The Nursery” was neutral. Nothing seemed off, but nothing really amazing happened with the writing. The writer was in control. Even the use of the term “the boy” for the first few paragraphs seemed calculated.

On the other hand, An Ordinary Solider was a wonderful read, and I highlighted many sections to keep in mind. I have no idea what actually happened in that dugout, but it seemed to me the author let the story loose, and because of that, all the wonderful, unexpected stuff happened, leading up to the wink. It’s a story I’ll reread.

sandy said...

I have just finished The Nursery and the most striking thing for me about the story is the stark contrast between the rich description of the woman's involvement with the plants in her nursery and the dry barrenness of her people connections. She is almost always alone; she seems repelled by the life of the arena where her son wrestles. She is not drawn to any character in the story even her own son. When it becomes clear that she is considering not telling her son that the coach has said he is free to return to school, I am internally yelling "don't do it, you must tell him," in the same way I might be yelling internally at a character in a film who is approaching an abyss that I can see but the character can't. The story is sad because the woman does not recognize her violation of life. I am not a writer of stories, so I am not very interested in how this story came into being. What I am interested in is my stake in this story. My stake is I am the woman. I have a son. I may try to control him--I certainly do want him to tell me things about how he is feeling and what he is thinking. But I do not want to end up as this woman does. So my response to the story is to examine my inner life and see how I may be missing what I am really doing. I know this sounds a bit like a therapy exercise, but my entry into the story is really based on some affinity or identification I feel with the character or situation at the center of the story. I did not like the story very much because it seemed that the matter to be transformed was not transformed (that is, the woman was offered opportunities for grace to be a real person to Uri or a real mother to her son, but she maintained her distance), but I think it is probably a good story because it created a feeling or a tone of tragic futility that made me part of it.