Flexing my reading muscle. / by Christina Rosalie

In college I had a writing teacher who made me type out stories I thought were good. Every sentence. Every slender comma, ellipses, period, paragraph, dialogue, description. She said it would help me to get inside the craft of the story. That I would begin to hear in my head the author's internal dialogue; that I'd understand the choices better: the words, the edits, the way one sentence followed the next. I did it. At first skeptically, then diligently. She was right, of course.

Now it's not so much matter of writing the story out. I write enough, and regularly enough, to feel like I understand how to construct sentences. But there is still something that can be learned from reading a story daily, richly, and then putting it on the operating table, putting your finger on it's pulse, examining what makes it beat.

So maybe for a little while I'll try to read a short story every day. Read it, and try to write about it. Try to put words around what makes it work (or not), until I get to the meat of it. Sort of flexing my reading muscle a bit.

*** This morning's read: “An Old Virgin” From DON’T CRY by Mary Gaitskill.

It is a story that asks again and again: what does it mean to be alive inside a body? Reading it, you become the voyeur. There, touching the frail skin of a father, dying; fingering the charts of a 43 year old virgin at the doctor’s office for a physical, who whispers, “just let me catch my breath” during the exam; at a stoplight next to a Hispanic boy pumping with bravado and “so much light that it burned him up inside and made him dark.”

Gaitskill’s gaze sinks into people. She captures them on the page as both entirely physical and also almost painfully ethereal, their spirits bright and sharp at the edges of the story, tangling with it, becoming for brief moments almost mythical.

“As soon as Laura looked at her father, she knew he was going to die. His body was shrunken and dried, already half-abandoned; his spirit stared from his eyes as if stunned and straining to see more of what had stunned it.”

Inside the narrators head, we go into the secret, morbid, sexual places of her mind and come up against our own humanity: which we learn is something exquisitely fragile and riddled with holes leaking spirit and curiosity and abject sorrow.

“When he answered her, his voice was like a thin sack holding something live. He was about to lose that live thing, but right now he held it, amazed by it, as if he had never known it before.”

“An Old Virgin” is a story about regret and forgiveness, maybe; and about the way these two things are always smashed together inside us, never quite reconciled in the bright, messy, and perverse rooms in our hearts.

*** What if you flexed your reading muscles too? I'd love to know what you think of the short stories you read. What did you read today? How did it move you, make you think?