Beginnings and Endings and Everything In-between

It is a difficult task, parsing a story down to its pieces. Yet this is the basis of both reading and writing. So maybe it is a little easier (keeping in mind that writing is rarely easy) to start with the pieces and then figure out how to put them together. So let’s take it sentence by sentence, one step at a time and see if we can’t make something.

Let’s look at the very short Lydia Davis story, How Difficult. It begins,

“For years my mother said I was selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc. She was often annoyed. If I argued, she held her hands over her ears.”

Here is a beginning that contains a whole story. She introduces her narrator and the mother, and tells us a lot about both of them. She also establishes time. For years is a common phrase, part of our everyday vernacular, and yet here, in this story, Davis uses it to show her reader that the words spoken by the mother were spoken over and over, and that the narrator is recalling them from some time in the past, before the moment she begins speaking. She always shows uses this phrase to grant the story a sense of dread. All of this, with just two words. We take two words for granted, but in a story that is only a paragraph two words are everything. This is the beginning of the story. For years is the point from with we depart.

Dan-ah Kim
Dan-ah Kim

She continues (into the middle, the butter, the meat, pieces the reader chews on again and again)

“She did what she could to change me but for years I did not change, or if I changed, I could not be sure I had, because a moment never came when my mother said, “You are no longer selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc.” Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother.”

While we begin with she was often annoyed, we now have, I am annoyed. With three words and a little bit of repetition (a handy tool for any length of story) she lets us see her narrator change, or be forced to change, even while the narrator herself cannot see it, saying, for years I did not change, or if I changed, I could not be sure I had. We see the change, see how just by her wondering, being self reflective, she has changed. And so Davis employs a little dramatic irony for us to enjoy. She also repeats the phrase for years, further hammering home the tedium of this conversation, that this mother and daughter have been having all their lives.

And her ending,

“How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself.”

The ending brings us back around, to the present moment, where they are talking on the phone (though she phrases it more beautifully, I am also here on the phone coming between us.) In just a paragraph (a short one at that) she crafts a story about a complex mother daughter relationship in a sardonic, amusing, but ultimately melancholic style. And she does it by keeping it simple. Sticking to the facts, so to speak. Giving the reader the information we need, showing us instead telling us, she crafts a story as deep and complex as any standard length piece.

Lizzy Stewart
Lizzy Stewart

For this week I’d like you to write a 500 word piece using a first person narrator and keeping the focus on the body. This is open to interpretation and can be any aspect of the body, voice, skin, hair teeth, and doesn’t have to be limited to the narrator’s body. Think of other stories you’ve read, from the Aimee Bender piece to Frankenstein and how those works used the body and the changes bodies undergo to propel the story forward.

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