Daydreams in Dresses

Smell the roses and enjoy the view.


in Beyond Words


This is where you get to play. Fool around. Insert a private joke. This is the no-sweat zone. All you have to do is show your reader around the world the two of you have entered.

Though I suppose I should mention here, before I go on, that not all stories have middles, or the middle is so undefined it’s hard to separate it from the beginning and the end. In Irwin Shaw’s compressed “Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” a man and woman — a married couple — discuss fidelity. She is in favor of it. He is uncertain he can be faithful for life.

They are walking together, down Fifth Avenue, on a sunny November day, but as the conversation develops, a gap opens between them. A crevasse. A tectonic plate. Side by side as they are, there is nevertheless between them a gulf like an earthquake.

From the story:

‘Look out,’ Frances said, as they crossed Eighth Street. ‘You’ll break your neck.’
Michael laughed and Frances laughed with him.

Michael has turned his head to look at a girl (a girl in a summer dress). If you are a young reader, you may find these lines funny and charming. After all, Michael and Frances are laughing together. Frances says the girl is not pretty enough for Michael. But Michael says, “She wasn’t a bad-looking girl. She had a nice complexion. Country-girl complexion. How did you know I was looking at her?”

Things can only get worse from here. Maybe they won’t divorce, but suspicion and anger have entered the narrative — maybe they always do? — and before long they are snapping at each other and drinking a fair amount of brandy served by a Japanese man who is at first delighted that they have entered the bar but by the end wants to get as far away from them as he can get.

I imagine we could call one set of sentences a middle and another set an ending, but the story moves so swiftly that it hardly seems worthwhile to chop it up into three parts. We begin to read and in approximately 3000 words the story is over. There are other narratives that resemble this one — as if the story were a slide one climbs up to and then slides down in an uninterrupted rush.

There are other stories that work like “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” Perhaps the best known is Hemingway’s“Hills Like White Elephants,” in which a man tries to talk a woman into having an abortion.

Of course, most stories do have middles. Some are like brief bursts of flame but many follow the advice I offered in the title of the essay. The middle of a story can be like a river slowing down and spreading out, the water carrying us somewhere but not in a hurry. We may not even have the slightest sense of where we are going. What you want to do here is relax. Let the waves move you along. You are still close enough in that you won’t find yourself in deep water. You may float on your back. Just don’t get sunburnt.

Beach or sandbox, this is where you get to play.

We have a term for what you are doing. You are divagating. To divagate is to wander, digress, deviate, drift. To ramble or swerve or veer off.

Now, since you are writing a story — or did you decide on a poem? Poems often have middles — you don’t want to lose track of everything. You will divagate in a somewhat sensible way. You will go from Point one to Point two to Point three. Each step is similar in that each is a point. As you move from point to point, you will be leaving a trail, or, we might prefer to say, creating a theme. The theme will make sense because each point has a connection with other points. The theme will echo or resound, like music, through the story or poem.

Cherry on Style

Does this feel dangerous or difficult? Do you fear you will drown or be lost in woods? Stop worrying! You are having fun!

The story or poem you are writing will probably survive no matter what points it leads us to, because most of us think at least halfway logically. And if you refuse to think logically, if you take us to all sorts of mixed-up destinations, you may discover you are writing á la Donald Barthelme, which would be just fine. However, writing even somewhat illogically is hard to do. Even as we write one sentence or line another sentence or line is linking up with it. There is a kind of gravity that grounds our words in worlds. (Small worlds, usually, but not always. Think of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which started out as 12 poems and ended up as 400.)

Some writers outline their narratives or even narrative poems. Some may start and then, along about now, decide an outline is essential. It seems to be a reasonable way to write. I don’t do it. I simply follow the sentences, and there are also other writers who that. I do it because I like to be surprised. You may be near a lake, or in a lake, and next thing you know you are in the heart of Shanghai. Possibly you have been to Shanghai before, but if not, you can look it up on Wikipedia. You can go to an actual library to look at maps and photographs. You can read the posh travel magazines. You might even go to Shanghai for the first time.

How did you get to Shanghai? You were swimming and, recognizing that each word begins with “s,” you linked them. Or you had a short daydream. Or you were thinking of Chinese food. Maybe when you got out of the lake and toweled yourself off, you found yourself next to another swimmer, one who was smoking, and it made you think of all the smoke — cigarette smoke — in Shanghai, and how people there have to wear masks or kerchiefs and still suffer from respiratory problems, and now you have a character walking into your head, a character about whom you know very little but then you do some reading, look at some pictures or photographs, maybe watch a film or two about China, and the character acquires characteristics. Not all at once, but as you think about him (or her), he (or she) will reveal secrets, become more complicated, exhibit ambivalence, perform some silliness, be terrified by nightmares, be gladdened by good company, live, lose, laugh, hurt, and die but perhaps with dignity and a degree of readiness.

Be sure to read up on Shanghai’s topography and its streets. Find out what the weather is like and if there are foods or dishes you might want to mention when your character is dining. Does your character have a family? friends? a job? a special interest?

Most of this work, except for some research, can be imagined, though there will be times when you want to do reams of research, if only because research is fun.

There! We are having fun again! And all we are do is wandering around in our minds.

Still, you’ll probably want to do more than describe a place or a character or two. You’ll want some characters to interact with one another. They may propel the story, or deepen it. Either of those is good for your story or narrative poem. Of course, you may find yourself backtracking, deleting some of what you’ve written to give a sharper edge to what remains. Or, having imagined fully and considered seriously, you may find that what you have written carries certain implications. Is there some political issue here? An injustice? Is there some philosophical issue? Pain, death, loss? One of your characters may have something significant to say about aesthetics or statistics or theology. Thomas Mann’s marvelous novel The Magic Mountain has pages of such digression and all of it is entertaining. You can’t just plug the stuff in; it must bear some relation to what is going on in the story, but when you do have an opportunity to digress into such matters, it is as if you are opening a window, and the reader gets a fuller, clearer view. Or is a simple story about Shanghai sufficient? Many simple stories are sufficient unto themselves. But you are the only one who can decide what you are after, what images will cohere, how the characters will behave. Yes, you can get your spouse to read it and comment, or give it to a colleague or teacher. But only you know the secret music of the story. The secret music that results from your beginning and your wandering. The secret music of the sentences as they appear and then sink into paragraphs and pages. The secret music of creation.

I am sure you have already learned that Edgar Allen Poe described a story as a piece of prose that can be read in one sitting. It’s true. It’s also not true. Many stories are longer. Many stories are shorter. Each writer will arrive at a decision, and may or may not arrive at the same decision in the next story. The one thing you can count on is that the longer your story is, the more time you’ll have in the middle. Beginnings are hard to stretch: they have to begin. Endings may suggest some clarification or make a shorter or longer landing, but they have to end. A middle should not be stretched to a breaking point, but you may stretch it some.

How to stretch it? The answer to that is easy. You stretch it bit by bit. Not all at once, but bit by bit. This is how a bridge is built, and the middle is always a bridge. It reaches from the beginning to the end, but only bit by bit. A bridge built in one long sweep will be unstable, like a suspension bridge. Bit by bit ensures the bridge will hold. •

Images courtesy of via Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr (Creative Commons).