A Meaningful Story

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The young writer said, “A short story has to be based on the acute particulars of character, place, and time. A short story has to be an experience in reading more vivid for the particulars of character, place, and time than a lived experience.”

“Oh,” the old writer said, “I don’t know if that isn’t just a given that should be questioned. All my education in literature, or so I was dictated to believing by the tradition in which I’ve written for some fifty years, was never, ever to be universal. So I made as vivid as possible the image, the image that defied the universal and held its concrete particularity against the vague universal. And I succeeded, at least to the praise of some critics, with:

The women, sitting about a table, plucked chickens. Feathers floated about them in the hot air. A man standing in a doorway held up a bloody knife.

The boy entered the empty room, empty but for a red robe that lay rumpled on the floor. He picked up the robe and pressed the torn bodice to his forehead.

Raising the net from the sea, the fishermen in the boat saw, among the thrashing fish, the severed arm of a man.

“And these gruesome images I hoped would be both particular as scenes and universal because there is no way of knowing where the scenes occurred.

“But as I’ve aged, I’ve felt more and more limited by the image, which, as I made the image more and more the image for the image’s sake, eliminated, in the image’s particularity, what I really wanted to write about, which was universal, which was what to me gave most meaning to writing: God, Love, Death, Joy, Suffering, Beauty.

“I thought: If I could write about someone who believed that God at God’s most universal gives meaning to love, especially to love, if only I could do that. Yes, love. But love is impossible to communicate in the particulars of character, time, place—not the love I wanted to convey, not love at love’s grandest, love as philosophically, morally and spiritually grand.”

The old writer stared past the young writer and through the trees to the distant lake.

“Impossible?” the young writer asked.

Now the old writer stared at the young writer, stared into his eyes.

“Why don’t you make it possible? Why don’t you take the risk in your fiction and write about love at love’s grandest?”

Now the younger writer looked towards the lake, where the sun was setting.

He said, “I think I’ll go for a swim.”

The old writer smiled. “I’ll come too, not to swim, but to watch out in case you need to be saved from drowning.”

In his bathing suit, a towel over his bare shoulders, the young writer’s body sometimes made contact with the body of the older writer as they walked together down the narrow path through pine trees to the lake.

The old writer thought about the younger: I don’t love him so much as I wish him love, young as he is. And if he inspires me to think I betrayed my need to write for grandness by not risking to do so, he also inspires me to go back to where he is now and risk writing as I was impelled to write, to express love as I’ve known love, as I’ve known love so great it would take an entirely new way of writing to express it. Can he imagine the love I have had in my life, which I have never been able to express in my words? Now is too late for me. If there is a God of writing—and there is—I pray to that God to give him the words to express the love I wish him to be blessed with. If that is love for him, then, yes, I love him.

At the edge of the old wooden pier, he watched the young writer swim, his strokes breaking the calm grey water, far out on the lake, and there he sank under, sank for so long the old writer stood with alarm; but the young writer rose up high in a bright burst of water and the old writer thought: Oh, let him know great love and write about great love.

In the after-glow of the sunset, a faint mist was rising from the lake.

Read David Plante’s introduction and other Essential Stories.

© 2009 by David Plante

David Plante is the author of the novels The Ghost of Henry James, The Family (nominated for The National Book Award), The Woods, The Country, The Foreigner, The Native, The Accident, Annunciation, and The Age of Terror. He has had stories and profiles in The New Yorker, and features in The New York Times, Esquire and Vogue.