Alethea Black: “You, On a Good Day” from One Story #163, 4/23/12

You do not set the story aside simply because the second-person viewpoint usually seems to you self-conscious and contrived. You do not get impatient with the story’s unconventional structure, its refusal to unfold in scenes. You do not, at the story’s turning point, pretend you knew what was coming all along. You do not turn up your nose at the ending because it dares to be hopeful instead of stoic or dark, like the ending of a literary story is supposed to be.

You do not, you do not, you do not.

Not on this day. On this day, by the end of page one, you forget the story is written in the second person because the viewpoint is handled so deftly. On this day, you’re happy to be reading a story that breaks the usual rules, invents its own, and then plays by them fair and square. On this day, the story’s turning point—its insistent shift away from despair—strikes you as inspired, exactly the sort of thing you’d been wanting without even realizing it. And on this day, the story’s hopeful ending makes you wish more stories had hopeful endings. It gives you a nice little shiver, the thrill of emotional connection that, as a reader, you long for.

That’s the story, right there; I don’t need to describe it any further, because One Story editor Will Allison has put is so much better than I ever could.

A lot of people are going to hate this story. It’s second person. It’s repetitious. It’s very short on plot. It’s “inspirational.” It’s everything a short story shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s not even really a “story.”

I love it. It’s the story I wish I’d written.

I’ll grant you, it’s repetitious. Black has gone to some trouble to break up the parade of “You do not…” and “On this day…” sentences by occasionally switching syntax around, varying sentence length, and such, but once she committed to this structure, she had limited options. It’s just on the edge of being too long for the technique. I’m sure there are many people who think the above three paragraphs in this style are too long, let alone a 12-page (albeit teeny-tiny pages) story. For me, it just barely comes in under the wire, to stop before I want to start breaking things.

And, true, it’s short on plot. It’s basically a “person goes through routine day and thinks profound thoughts” story. My favorite kind of story. There is some action of you look hard enough – she’s driving, in church, at the hairdresser, goes home and tries to work, has lunch, goes for a walk, goes to bed, tosses and turns, drives to city, goes to a movie. This isn’t really one day, is it? I mean, how do you go to church and the hairdresser on the same day? But any plot is secondary. The point is, whatever she’s doing, there are all these horrible thoughts that could overtake her. And, on a good day, she doesn’t let them.

Black deals with these complaints in her One Story interview.

On using second person:

Point of view is one of those things that I always feel chooses me more than I choose it. Although since this story started when I was trying to talk myself off a ledge, that may have helped suggest the second-person voice.

I’m a big fan of changing it up from first- or third-person exposition, backstory, development, climax, denoument mold. And I’m very fond of symmetry. I’ve even used it. Hasn’t everyone?
On plot:

The danger with a story like this, where mood and tone are so central, is that without sufficient plot, it could become more rant than story. I tried hard to give “You, on a Good Day” enough of an emotional turn to satisfy my appetite for action and change.

I suspect a lot of readers are still hungry. Me, I’m stuffed. But that’s me: I once wrote a story to an “end of the world” prompt that consisted of a guy sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette and pondering. No, you can’t read it; even I was embarrassed to send that one out into the world, though I was stupid enough to send out a story about inner thoughts while grocery shopping.

On happy endings (the literary kind – get your mind out of the gutter):

I think what sets alarm bells off for readers and writers alike is an ending that’s facile or in any way false. A happy ending that’s unearned betrays the trust of the reader, and violates Writing Rule Number One: Do not waste a stranger’s time. That said, I’m not afraid of a little closure or a little hope. For a while, those qualities have seemed unfashionable in contemporary fiction—a friend of mine described a recent award-winning collection as “slices of bummer”—but maybe that’s changing.

As a chronic depressive, I have trouble with happiness in general, but I don’t think that’s the story’s fault. And yes, I’ve written happy-ending stories.

(See why I’m no longer writing?)

I wish I’d learned to do these things better, rather than listening to those telling me they shouldn’t be done, because here is a story that shouldn’t work, but does. Oh, come on, even as you’re sneering, you’re smiling and nodding your head along with passages like:

When you get home, you do not let the fact that your Internet connection has gone out make you want to eat your own hands.

And you sighed and shook your head – maybe even an “ohh…” escaped -over:

As your hairdresser continues to talk about her doctors, you do not think about the doctor who told your friend, the one you did not call, that the lump in her breast was nothing. You do not imagine your friend’s face beaneath the green and yellow scarf where her hair should be.

Come on – that’s damn good.

Steven Millhauser won a Pushcart for a report on a town’s ghosts. Jennifer Egan was practically canonized for including a Powerpoint presentation in her Pulitzer-winning book. Jill McCorkle’s “PS” in BASS 2010 was just as plotless. Seth Fried explained fictitious microorganisms and called it a story (addendum: and, I just learned, won his second Pushcart prize for it, much to my delight; it’s the only piece listed in this paragraph that I thoroughly enjoyed).

There is room for this.

8 responses to “Alethea Black: “You, On a Good Day” from One Story #163, 4/23/12

  1. Pingback: Erin McGraw: “The Imaging Center” from One Story #170, 10/15/12 | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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