I wrote a new story on Thursday. It’s short and fairly simple, just a little more than two thousand words and completed in one sitting. Next week, I’ll present a lecture on the anatomy of a story—that is, the process of creating one, and so I thought I’d offer a sneak peak into that presentation by offering a glance at the process here. Every story gets born differently, and by not means is this a standard process, but I think it offers a fair view of the way a small observation or a couple of seemingly unrelated moments get blended inside my head, combined into a pool of existing knowledge, and then turned into a story.
The scenario that begat the story starts unhappily: I’ve just walked into a newly opened restaurant and I step up to the counter, glancing over the menu board and preparing to make my order. I’m not particularly in a hurry, but I’m not dallying, either, because the faster I’m done with lunch, the faster I can get back to the nonfiction project that’s been exciting me for the last few days: a collection of essays comparing Siberian cities to Rust Belt cities. Just a week into that project, I’ve got almost 17,000 words completed. For the non-writers in the audience, that’s closing in on a third of a book in one week’s time. In other words, I’m on fire and I want to keep up the momentum.
That gets thwarted, though: a short, somewhat stout man with a shaved head bursts through the front door, stomps down the stairs, and shoves past me. Literally shoves: there is a forearm involved. I’m a bit bewildered, but I move to the far right of the counter. In other words, I get the heck out of this guy’s way. He must have called in his order in advance, because they pull a pre-prepared plate from behind the counter. He literally throws a thousand ruble note at the casher and tells her she should bring him the change—all of it. I’m assuming this implies he’s not up for leaving a tip, nor standing at the counter long enough for her to count his coins. She doesn’t flinch and tells him okay. The man takes a seat. By this point, I’ve got my mind made up and I’m ready to order. The waitress looks at me and I open my mouth to make my selection when another employee calls to Mr. Impatient and says something about juice. He’s apparently not happy that he’s got to come to the counter to pick up his juice instead of being waited on at a counter service restaurant. This time, he shoves me in the other direction, with the other forearm.
I look at him. The glare is a hard one. He looks at me like he doesn’t understand why I’m glaring, as if he’s exempt from criticism.
I shake my head at him, mumble a remark or two under my breath and leave immediately, not because I’m upset with anyone associated with the restaurant, but because I’m powering through some serious work and I haven’t seen St. Petersburg yet. In other words, I really don’t want to get deported for decking this guy the next time he feels like he needs to be in my space. I also don’t want to go to the hospital for saying something that will get me decked. And I really, really don’t want to be in the room with this arrogant, impatient jerk.
The door is heavy, and it slams behind me, harder than I mean it to, but it’s just as well.
One the sidewalk, I think about what’s just happened, ready to import it into the nonfiction. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a distinctive social order in Russia right now that privileges strength, power and wealth. Those who don’t possess said traits often lilt to the back of a line naturally in order to avoid a scene. This isn’t singularly a Russian thing. I’ve encountered it throughout eastern and southern Europe, including Italy.
And now I see the same thing happening in America: over the past few months, everything from the federal budget proposal to the despicable toppling of gravestones in sections of cemeteries predominantly occupied by ethnic or social minorities. If there’s a single thing I’ve grown truly aggravated about in Russia, it’s this power-based social order. I honestly think people have grown so accustomed to it that many people don’t even notice. Well, I can’t help but notice, and I really can’t help but notice as I see the same order taking shape at home. It bothers me deeply to see agencies that project physical power being placed in line for massive budget increases, while those that concern themselves with building minds or aiding the frail are set to be defunded or even abolished. Every day, I see the end result of where that road leads, and it’s not pleasant.
Meanwhile, as all this stirs around in my mind, I still need lunch. I head to a favorite standby: МясоRoob, a lumberjack- themed restaurant near the city’s central square. The people there are super-awesome and helpful, always patient with me—and no one’s ever shoved me in that shop, so I feel welcome. When you get a jarring shock to the system, I think it’s pretty reasonable to seek out someplace where you feel welcome. So I ordered a ginormous plate of chili-teriyaki chicken wings, and a Cherry Coke then sat, waiting for my food. Outside, I see a fairly familiar sight: a particular homeless or otherwise impoverished woman who walks around town with a torn grey coat and a cane that doesn’t reach the ground unless she hunches forward. She begs for money with a plastic measuring cup. I don’t mean to cheapen her hardship here, but this is the sort of observation I’ve learned to do as a practicing writer: that is an amazing metaphor. There are literal markings on her cup showing how much people have chose to value her today.
While they fry my wings, I watch her, and I see some of the same principles working that I’ve just felt in restaurant: the well-dressed, the strong, and the powerful whisk by her. One man makes the sign of the cross and keeps going, as if that can help her in any way. Who stops? Other poor people, mostly. And women. College students. Someone gives her the half-eaten leftovers of a sandwich, and someone else brings her a coffee she might or might not want.
It’s easy to note, too, that she sees the same patterns: she puts more effort into stretching her cup forward when the person approaching is closer to her station in life. The further removed—in other words, the wealthier—the less she bothers.
Here’s the thing: this is not just a Russia phenomenon, and even though it’s looking more common in American, it’s not new there, either. In fact, it’s a circumstance downright biblical in age and application.
So, when the wings come, I pull up the original telling of both stories I’ve just encountered: the Parable of the Widow’s Mite from the New Testament book of Luke.
In Luke’s text, rich and powerful people lay their big impressive gifts before God, while Jesus sits in the back pew of the church with his pupils. The pupils are impressed with all the cash flow, but Jesus is not amused, particularly with the folks who appear proud of their gifts.
Finally a widow, who I can easily imagine as wearing a torn grey coat and a Russian headscarf, shuffles up to the front and drops in a couple of nearlyuseless coins. The pupils, of course, roll their eyes the same way a café barista would if someone dropped a penny in the tip box. “That’s really gonna buy some hymnals,” I imagine the disciples mumbling. Then, Jesus delivers a first century mic-drop and tells them that’s all the woman’s got to her name, and that she’s the only one in the room whose actions resemble goodness.
I eat my wings and toss all this over in my mind. When I’m finished, I walk next door to Siberia’s greatest coffee shop and write a couple paragraphs onto the end of an existing story to get warmed up. When my coffee is ready, I take one sip, open a blank document, and start by describing the woman and her measuring cup, her coat, her inadequate hat, which she’s worn all winter regardless of the temperature. Then, I describe the people who pass her by. Her measuring cup becomes the first century church’s offering plate. The man who sees her begging and slows down to check his golden watch (showing that he’s got money to give but not the time to bother pulling it out of his pocket) becomes the impatient jerk in the restaurant and the shifting attitude of the American federal government and every other system that donates extra power to the already wealthy. An imagined café employee whose boss tells her to shoo the beggar from the front door but who takes the woman a free coffee in the process shows a person who recognizes a busted system and does whatever she can to subvert it. Outside in real life, a student reaches deep in her purse and pulls out what she has to give the woman. In my text, the student gets a group of friends who walk into the café; the girl hugs her friends and walks home, having no money left to buy coffee with because she’s given it all away. The woman sees this and debates whether to give the money back, but the student is gone before she can reply.
And so, the cranky guy and the desperate woman tumble with an ancient religious text to become a new updated version, a continuation of the millennia- old question of how to handle wealth and power in the face of need, a question complicated by the variety of characters that show up, the intricacies of culture and habit, and the ever-changing manifestations of greed and mercy.
After I let the story settled for a few days, I’ll read the text over a couple more times and perhaps send it to a friend or colleague for some advice. I’ll title it, file it in my potential submission folder and then again in a folder of documents that might make it into my collection of Siberian stories. I’ll wait for feedback, then read again with the help of some new perspective, then finally begin sending it out to prospective publishers.
That’s the process: the way tiny pinpoints of human interaction turn into printed stories to be left behind as a record of how one particular artists saw the world in 2017.
Fulbright Disclaimer: This views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program.