“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence and then go on from there.”
So wrote Ernest Hemingway in his memoir, A Moveable Feast. Novelist David Ebershoff could offer a similar version of finding one’s way into a story. Author of The Danish Girl, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie and named by The New York Times as one of 25 books over 20 years that shaped LBGTQ history, Ebershoff based his novel on the real-life experiences of an unsung transgender pioneer. True stories also inspired his novel The 19th Wife, a fictional account of Utah’s polygamist communities of the late 19th century, and Pasadena, a historical novel set in his place of birth, which became a New York Times best-seller.
Ebershoff was UNC Asheville’s Goodman Endowed Visiting Writer for 2018, appearing at a campus screening of The Danish Girl, and visiting creative writing classes (see photo above). For this issue of The Great Smokies Review, Marie Hefley, our Managing Editor and ace interviewer, captured a slot in Ebershoff’s Asheville schedule to discuss the complex layers of his writing (and editing) life. See her Profile “When Art Reveals the Artist.”
Marie details Ebershoff’s advice for emerging writers, which includes the need “to read and write a lot; to find a good story and tell it well.” He elaborates: “You may find the story inside yourself, or in the outside world, or a combination of both. But you have to tell it well. It’s a lot easier to tell a really good story well than to tell a not-so-great story well. A good story will serve you really well, and will carry you very, very far. It will also tell you how to tell it.” The path to the good story isn’t always smooth, not even for Ebershoff, and he points out possible roadblocks: “…The story may not be fresh or strong enough, or it’s too far from me. The voice may be off. Often it’s something about my approach, so rethinking it can help me open something up.”
Rethinking the story is exactly what Jamieson Ridenhour advises writers to try in his Craft Session essay, “Genre-hopping as a Tool for Growth.” “The demands of the genre itself,” he says, “can offer writers a fresh understanding of a story or character. It’s a good exercise, if you want to gain new insight into what you’re writing. Take something you’re working on and recast it in a different genre …Write a sonnet in the voice of a character from your novel. Take a central scene in your memoir and write it out as a piece of dialogue for the stage. Take an internal monologue and re-imagine it as an imagist poem. What do you have to know about your work to make it survive the transition? What new thing will you learn about your story?”
Stick a pin anywhere into this issue’s Table of Contents (at left), and you will find examples of writers who have succeeded in finding gateways to good stories. Here are a few:
Olga Ronay’s nonfiction piece “A Slow Arc Toward Sweetness” is a twist of two stories. The present-day scenes feature a cat whose theft of potatoes off human dinner plates conjures homelands for her and a friend. (“Dan is Irish, I am Russian. We are potato-loving people from potato-eating stock.”) The story thus winds back to her Russian beginnings and subsequent family crises.
Ellen Carr’s short story, “Not in the Cards,” uses a Tarot card game as metaphor for a questioning about single motherhood and in vitro fertilization. Lee Davis’s “The Miracle of Gloves” draws its story from the focus on place of Tommy Hays’s “Locating Our Stories” course (part of the UNC A Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program). “Place can be seen as embodied emotional terrain,” Hays says, “an essential, inextricable part of story making. Looked at in the right light, place can lead us to our stories and deepen our revisions.”
Two of the poems in this issue, as with Ebershoff’s novels, embed the good story within real-world events. Mike Ross’s “Lunch with Eichmann” was inspired by his lunch in Potsdam in 2015, next door to the site of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which Nazi officials hammered out a “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” Emily Wilmer’s “Upstairs Lounge on Iberville St.” grew out of a news item about the 40th anniversary of a tragic fire in New Orleans.
Whether adhering to real life, or inspired by it, the writers appearing in this issue possessed the same conviction that drove Ebershoff to give his fact-based heroine her due. All they had to do was write one true sentence, and go on from there.