What happens when our relationships drive our art

Seagull Tornado Fractal

I’d never met him before, and he’d made me cry. What was it like to be Kazuo Ishiguro, I wondered, and to know that, at any moment, you could encounter a stranger whom you’d made cry?

I guess, as with anything: strange at first, and then gradually less strange.

He was reading at a synagogue in D.C., and I sat in one of the pews with my fingers on the embossed cover of his new book. I’d already read two others, his most famous: Never Let Me Go, and then The Remains of the Day. That had been years ago, and his words still hung with me, surfacing at random—unconscious philosophies by which I lived.

From The Remains of the Day, this line (in paraphrase): all our interactions are motivated by the fear of rejection, and by the desire for acceptance.

How devastating…how true.

Kazuo Ishiguro only read three pages from his book. Mostly he was asked questions about his writing, his process, his characters. How do you create characters, Mr. Ishiguro?

“I don’t create characters,” he said, “What I do is much simpler: I create bridges—I create relationships.” When the relationships are interesting, he explained, the characters evolve organically around them.

He used the word bridges, but I could only see a distortion of the air in my mind, like a tiny wind vortex connecting two people, shifting and palpating with their connection.

That little vortex is the centerpiece of his creativity.

In the many years I’d taken writing courses, studied craft books, talked to writers, this was something I’d never heard. But it seemed as true as anything, and so obvious. It resonated with an assertion from another book I’d read, David Castro’s Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul:

“At the heart of every human aspiration to create is a relationship.”

Relationships with others, with ourselves, with some imagined audience: they motivate the impulse to create as well as the process. And it holds true. On reflection, the work I’ve done that I value most was pushed along by people who made me very happy, and frustrated me, and dashed my hopes, and made me laugh—cry—and laugh-cry. Sometimes all those things belonged to one person, to one relationship.

And then Ishiguro was asked a question at once too simple and too big: “What motivates you as a writer?” A sympathetic titter rose from the audience. None of us would like to be asked that, or know how to answer it.

But he took it bravely. “To share those relationships with others,” he said. That was it.

And then I realized that, for all the ways he’s a conscious genius, Ishiguro also perhaps accomplishes what we all seek to do, but on a much larger scale: distorting the air between he and us (in our pews, in our homes, on our buses). Building a world of unconscious philosophies.

So what happens when relationships drive our art?

We are more authentic. We are more complex. Sometimes, we make people we’ve never met cry because our relationships and their relationships are fundamentally the same: whorls of air, rejection and acceptance.

photo credit: Seagull Tornado Fractual by Devin Moore (license)

Five unforgettable contemporary (short story) characters

I’ll be teaching a creative writing course in the fall, so I’ve been shuffling, brushing, idling my way through all my favorite short stories, mining them for the best possible instances of pen to paper or fingers to keys. In doing so, I realized that plot–while important–doesn’t wedge itself into the crevices of my mind like some characters have a way of doing so easily.

Here are the few inimitable characters that my students will definitely be meeting.

  1. Jackson Jackson from Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” He’s a sharp, homeless Spokane Indian on a quest to rescue his grandmother’s pawned powwow-dance regalia. Except that, like every other Indian in the story, he can’t raise more than a couple dollars before he’s traded them for a drink. The interesting thing about Jackson Jackson is that shades of his voice–more largely, Alexie’s–appear not only in this story, but in all of his work that I’ve read. So I guess I should say, Alexie’s protagonist represents much of his work, which would be a bad thing if his voice wasn’t so magnetic.
  2. Arnold Friend from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The best way of describing Arnold Friend: he’s everything that he appears to be and nothing that he claims. So much of his development is accomplished through his boots. He might be the creepiest short story character ever sprung from a writer’s mind. Pretty amazing for a guy who spends the bulk of the story simply standing by a car.
  3. The nameless protagonist of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s “Farangs.” He’s a Thai teenage boy helping his mother run a beach-side hotel, though most of his time is naturally spent looking for amour amongst the female tourists. He has a pet pig named Clint Eastwood. This character has a jagged voice, yet his innocence is palpable throughout. Lapcharoensap’s protagonist is also unforgettable for that rare obverse look into cosmopolitanism and its effects on Thai culture.
  4. Mel from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s one fourth of a pair of couples sitting around a table–talking about love. Though really, it’s largely Mel talking…and talking, his wherewithal well-tempered by alcohol. He’s (arguably) not the protagonist, nor is he very sympathetic, but he’s unforgettable for the way his thoughts translate to his tongue and spill right out onto that table.
  5. Natalia of Michael Faber’s “Bye-bye Natalia.” Without slipping you the ending, she’s a young Ukrainian woman having an online romance with Bob in Montana. She has a bleakness about her that upends “mail order bride” almost from the first page. Her choice has a universality about it, though the circumstances she’s in are very much of this place and this time; she is particularly Natalia.