Thirty Days of Stories: Day Twelve

Title: We and They

Author: Antonya Nelson

Appears in: Nothing Right [2009]

Premise: A progressive family in the early 90’s struggles to understand their adopted mix-race daughter.

Thoughts:  While my paperback copy of this collection is missing them, I’m fairly certain the hardcover enticed me with a murderer’s row of cover blurbs by everyone from Raymond Carver to Michael Chabon to David Foster Wallace.  Quite the endorsements.  The depressing thing is, Nelson deserves every one of them.

There’s a lot more going on in this story than that one line synopsis I provided would suggest, primarily the relationship between the adoptive family [The Landerses] and their relationship with the Catholic family across the street [The Pierces], the clash of values between them, and the reasoning for the Landerses adoption of the mixed-race toddlers Otis and Angel.

What I found the most striking about this story [and most stories in this collection, I’ve picked it apart pretty thoroughly as the margin scribbles throughout will attest; We and They was one of two stories I had yet to read in it] is how natural Nelson’s prose is.  Compare it to something like the Grace Paley story we looked at last time, where the writing is fantastic but moves at a slower pace, demands more concentration, Nelson’s writing just zips along, reading it is like cruising in a vintage roadster with the top down.  That isn’t to say the writing isn’t good, far from it. It just means, even at its most descriptive,  at its funniest, the prose is so relaxed and natural it never feels like any work went into it at all, which is of course the first sign that something is genius-level good.

I suspect, purely conjecture, that Nelson reads her work aloud a lot. In my experience it’s the only way to get prose that sounds that natural.  One of the few things I can admit that I do well is write dialogue, and a lot of that comes from reading out what I’ve written after a day of writing.  If it don’t sound right in your ear, it won’t sound right in a reader’s head.  Of course, you do run the danger there of tying your characters too tightly to the vision you have of them in your head, robbing them of the chance to live and breathe on their own [I admit, this is something I still have never had happened to me, they’ve never surprised me because they’re never alive to me, they’re just end up me in costume].  But if you’re going to find your ‘voice’, something I’m still not sure I have, then that’s the way to do it.

Lesson: Read out loud. Relinquish control of your characters. Really think of them as people, and not players you’re directing.

Favourite Line: “Our large family was not the result of Catholic faith and we didn’t attend Blessed Sacrament church or school, despite the fact that it was a stone’s throw away from our house. We threw stones, so we knew.”

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