“Our actual Mission is to use stories to build community. It’s not just about creating good stories; it’s about employing those stories to connect people to one another.” ~ Amanda Delheimer Dimond, in Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck
Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck is a collection of stories originally told to a live audience on the 2nd story stage. While there is something quite powerful about listening to a story read out loud – about the effect of the words as they circle the air and settle into our ears, our mind, our hearts – the stories on the pages of this anthology carry as much weight as I imagine they did on stage.
As Dimond says in the quote above, stories serve to connect us. Pick up this book and find yourself in these pages: in a moment between father and daughters that doesn’t go according to plan but unfolds in perfect succession; or at a funeral when everyone knows the truth but no one speaks a word. One of my favorite stories, written by Patricia Ann McNair, speaks to the power of place, how, whether we leave a place whole or broken, memories settle deep within us and urge us to return.
I’m honored to host Patricia here, where she writes about confined spaces and moments of reveal and the journey it takes to reach the crux of our story.
Driving the Story
by Patricia Ann McNair
On a long car trip to Montana from Chicago with a friend I barely knew, I told her about how, when I was seven or so, my mother made me return a shoplifted lipstick and a tiny plastic doll to Woolworths. The embarrassment was meant to steer me away from a life of crime, I think. I told my friend the details: my mouth so dry I squeaked I forgot to pay for these; the doll’s dress marked by my moist palms; my mother in front of the store in the car with her window down, the smoke from her cigarette lifting into the blue suburban sky.
On the same trip, my friend told me about what it was like living with her schizophrenic brother. About each of the once-loved family cats buried in the backyard by her father after their deaths of old age mostly, but sometimes of something else, some feline disease.
When I met my half-brother for the first time he was in his fifties, I was in my thirties. And we drove over the backroads of inland Maine, up and down the mountains, past freezing streams. It was autumn, 14 years after the autumn our father died. He told stories about growing up without his father; I told stories about growing up with mine. With ours.
On a car trip in Vermont in the late summer of 2000, a man from England told me about his life in London, his art, the coal miner grandfather who helped his mother raise him after his father died in a military accident when he was five. I told him about the trip I took to Cuba just months before, about my quiet life in the city with my cat, about my impending divorce. The man’s name is Philip Hartigan. We have since married.
So what is it about car trips that compel passengers to tell one another stories? Is it the closeness, perhaps? How being trapped in a small space for some time makes it near impossible not to want to fill the empty air between you? Radio stations come and go as you follow the curves of the highway; talk is better than static. There is only so much music you can agree on. With that audience so close by, how can we not want to share something, to reveal something? They have to listen. It is their only option.
It is this car-journey-story-impulse that led me to the telling of “Return Trip,” my essay in the anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck. Philip and I were on the road for hours, returning to a place that had become important to us. We’d made the trip other times, and each time we learned a bit more about one another.
I don’t want to tell too much about what is in this essay; I am hoping you will pick up the book and read it. In brief: September 11. Woods. A cabin. Students. A cat. My mother. Writing. Dunes. Fall leaves. Love. Death. Place. And the piece, finally finished to be read/told on stage before an audience, came to me like stories do when we are telling them: in bits and pieces, with tangents and sidebars and strange connections. As Philip and I drove to a cabin in the woods some years after the first time we made that drive, I couldn’t help but remember what happened here along the way. And here. And here. And when we reached our destination, I had to write it all down.
It might sound like this was an easy process, a quick one—just capture the moments on the page. Ha! Writing is rarely that easy for me, and I sometimes wonder if a piece is ever really finished. This one, “ReturnTrip,” took a few years. I wrote the first draft(s) in two weeks. That is, two weeks of daily writing, four hours at a time. I shopped it around. It got rejected. I put it away. I came back to it. Tweaked and tinkered. Put it away again. Then, when it came time for me to prepare a piece for 2nd Story, the wonderful Chicago-based live reading and storytelling series, this was the one I came back to. Why hadn’t it been successful before? What did it need? One of the really interesting things about 2nd Story stories is that nearly all of the stories told have a very visible point of discovery, some might even say an epiphany. A place in the story when the teller finally understands the purpose of what she is telling, and the audience can, too. I think, up until I was working on the essay for this particular reading, I did not really know what the story was about. I knew what I was telling, the events of the piece, the happenings. But I had yet to discover its “aboutness.”
I have a friend who tells stories that he thinks sometimes go on too long. (Hi, Ted!) I don’t agree with him; I enjoy his anecdotes greatly. But often at some time during his telling, he says: My point—and I do have one—is… Here’s the thing—“Return Trip” needed a point. My point is… After some years, I finally figured it out. My point.
I’m not gonna tell you what is here; you gotta read it. But below is a little taste of what fueled the piece.
Back in the car, with my mother. We are driving through woods turning colors, and she is asleep. It is the last driving trip we will take together and I want to tell her something. Stories. Something. I want her to tell me what I don’t yet know. My point, Mom, I would say if she were listening, and I do have one.
Patricia Ann McNair is the author of The Temple of Air, her own collection of short stories that has received much recognition, including the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Awardee in Prose, Finalist Awardee for Midland Society of Authors, and Finalist for Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. She’s received four Illinois Arts Council Awards and was nominated for the Carnegie Foundation US Professor of the Year. McNair teaches in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department. For more about McNair and her writing, visit her blog.