Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

How to Search for Story Settings

A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.

There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.

The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants.  And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.

I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.

A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.

The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.

There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s  been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.

A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.

Comments (1):

  1. Cindi

    May 17, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    You’ve got my interest already. I’m fascinated the way you paint with words, put words together to create a moving and evolving picture of a world many overlook. Just reading about the setting is intriguing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tips on Surviving the Never-ending Winter

It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.

I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.

  1. The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
  2. I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
  3. Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
    And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and  diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
    My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
  4. Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.

A Writer and a City, Part 1

There are many things to say about 2018. It was weird and piecemeal and full of ragtag moments like most years are; nothing makes much sense while we’re living it.  But as I’ve spent some time looking back, shining lights begin to emerge. 2018 had its fair share of dark moments but it’s the illuminating ones that shed a soft, pleasant glow and give me some hope for next year. Two stars that stand out boldly in my 2018 are a writer and a place– Eileen Chang and New Orleans. Both were entirely new to me until I read and visited them this year and both gave back to me pieces of myself, pieces that wandered lonely and at odds until I met one in text and the other one in person.

I’ll start with 張愛玲 — Eileen Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang rose to prominence in in China during the 1940’s. She wrote primarily about life in Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in her essays, short stories, novels, and screenplays. She was an extremely popular writer and it’s not hard to see why– her prose carries the reader away. It is beautiful within itself; it creates romance and sensuality and somehow this sharpens the cruelty of her characters.

I began reading her writing this summer, starting with Love in a Fallen City (trans. Karen Kingsbury), a book of her collected short stories. The first story is entitled “Aloeswood Incense” and in it, we meet Ge Weilong, a girl who wishes to stay in Hong Kong and keep up on her studies. Her family is moving to Shanghai and so she appeals to her estranged aunt Madame Liang for help. Liang considers.

One of Madame Liang’s delicate hands held the banana-leaf fan by the stem.  As she twirled it around, thin rays of light shone through the slits in the leaf, spinning across her face.

“Miss,’ she said, ‘it seems you’ve thought of everything except my own position in this matter.  Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. If your father finds out, he’ll say I’ve seduced a girl from a good family and stolen her away.  What am I to your family? A willful degenerate who ruined the family honor—refused the man chosen by my brothers, went to Liang as his concubine instead, lost face for a family that already on the way down. Bah! These declining old families, they’re like out-house bricks, pure petrified stink.  You were born too late—you missed all the fuss, and didn’t get to hear what your father said to me then!’‘

“Father’s got that stuffy old bookish way of thinking, and he won’t change for anyone.  He doesn’t know how to moderate his speech—no wonder Aunt is angry.  But it’s been so many years, and you’re a generous, fair-minded person—would you bear this grudge against the younger generation?”

“Yes, I would! I like to chew on this rotten little memory! I won’t forget what he said to me then!’ She waved the fan, and the yellow rays of sunlight filtered through it onto her face, like tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.

Her fiction is full of rich, revealing dialogue and wonderful touches of details like the above “tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.”  Such writing translates well to screen: she wrote ten scripts and eight were made into movies.

With her splendid, icy prose that cuts like a hot, tempered blade (and since this is a translation, I wonder what reading her in the original Chinese must be like), Chang is an author that I’ve been searching for a very long time. There are times in her writing that her magnificent intelligence vaults above and beyond itself and enters into that other strange, wonderful world that is genius. The excerpt below is from her short story “Jasmine Tea” which centers on a lonely and abused young man, Nie Chuanqing.

He left his hands where they were, pinched by the lid of the trunk.  His head drooped, as if he’d broken his neck.  His gown of lined blue silk had a stiff standing collar, and the strong, hot sun shone down inside it, warming the back of his neck. He had a strange feeling, though, that the sky would soon be dark…that already it was dark.  As he waited all alone by the window, his heart darkened along with the sky.  An unspeakable, dusky anguish… Just as in a dream, that person waiting by the window was at first himself, and then in an instant he could see, very clearly, that it was his mother.  Her long bangs swept down in front of her bowed head, and the pointed lower half of her face was a vague white shadow.  Her eyes and eyebrows, so clouded and dim, were like black shadows in moonlight.  But he knew for a certainty that it was his dead mother, Feng Biluo.

He hadn’t had a mother since he was four years old, but he recognized her from her photograph.  There was only one photo that showed her before her marriage,  and in it she wore an old-style satin jacket embroidered with the faint shapes of tiny bats.  The figure in the window was growing clearer now, and he could see the bats on the autumn-colored silk of her jacket.  She was waiting for someone, waiting for news.  She knew that the news wouldn’t come.  In her heart the sky was slowly darkening—Chuanqing flinched in pain. He couldn’t tell whether it was really his mother, or himself.

But the nameless anguish pressing down on him? He knew now that was love, a hopeless love some twenty years in the past.  A knife will rust after twenty years, but it’s still a knife.  The knife in his mother’s heart now twisted in his.

With an enormous effort, Chuanqing lifted his head.  The entire illusion rapidly melted away.  He had felt, for a moment, like an old-time portrait photographer, his head thrust into a tunnel of black cloth: there in the lens he’d caught a glimpse of his mother.  He pulled his hands out from under the lid of the trunk; pressing them to his lips, he sucked fearfully at the red marks.

Chuanqing knew very little about his mother, but he did know that she had never loved his father. And so his father hated her.  After she had died, he turned his fury against her child; otherwise, even with the stepmother egging him on, Chuanqing’s father wouldn’t have become so vicious towards him.

After finishing Love in a Fallen City, I went to Written on Water, her book of essays. There’s a warmth in her essays, a friendly voice compared to those in her short stories and I was delighted to read her takes on apartment living in the city, her views on fashion, culture, film, and art. She takes essay writing to a new level and I’m still working to understand how she used the essay form to her own ends and gave it such satisfying endings. Below is an excerpt from “Note on Apartment Life.”

I like to listen to city sounds.  People more poetic than I listen from their pillows to the sound of rustling pines or the roar of ocean waves, while I can’t fall asleep until I hear the sound of streetcars.  On the hills in Hong Kong, it was only in the winter when the north wind blew all night long through the evergreens that I was reminded of the charming cadence of a streetcar.  People who have lived their entire lives amid the bustle of the city do not realize what exactly they cannot do without until they have left.  The thoughts of city people unfold across a striped curtain.  The pale white stripes are streetcars in motion, moving neatly in parallel, their streams of sound flowing continuously into subconscious strata.

There is something exceedingly special about Eileen Chang. To read her stories is to be drawn into a special place that is both beautiful, terrifying, and completely intoxicating. I cannot recommend her highly enough.

 

Cover Image: a Polaroid taken of a screenshot with downloaded image of Eileen Chang’s photograph– a sort of copy of a copy that mirrors the reading of a translated work.