The Anxiety of Influence, Part II
A Daughter’s Improvisations
By The Editors on 9.09.09
As the daughter of a poet, I started writing little verses almost as soon as I learned my letters, loving rhyme, rhythm, and the magic way language brings physical and emotional worlds to life. By the time I got to high school, though, I’d switched to fiction. My poems seemed to be pale shadows of my mother’s poems—her voice was the voice of poetry for me—so I thought I’d try something different.
Over the past twenty years I’ve published lots of short stories as well as two novels: realistic narratives. Of course, I’m still a disciple of language. I think about sentences all the time, how to write beautiful, sturdy emotionally taut prose. I’m not a big fan of lyricism in fiction (except when Virginia Woolf does it); I’m more a devotee of Alice Munro’s heart-stopping sentences with their pretense of plainness, their earthen solidity paving the way for occasional flights of linguistic transcendence. What a dangerous, high wire act that is!
Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with a different form: the short short, sudden fiction, the micro-story. Literary culture has yet to settle on the perfect name for these compact, often elliptical, barely narrative explosive bursts of prose. What a delicious pleasure it is to write them, word play taking center stage, character and narrative not relinquished but stitched through like embroidery thread rather than the main seam. What joy to convey the intense, multi-hued experience of a single moment in words; to describe a journey the reader can apprehend in a single mouthful! This is my novelist’s dalliance.
In the long run, though, I know I’ll go back to longer narratives. I won’t relinquish the enduring companionship and deep intimacy of the novel for a few bright moments of lyric passion. She may be a poet, but that’s one lesson my mother, happily married for 56 years now, has taught me.
Rachel Pastan, a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the novels Lady of the Snakes (Harcourt, 2008) and This Side of Married (Viking, 2004). Her non-fiction has appeared in many newspapers. She currently teaches at Swarthmore College. Learn more at RachelPastan.com.