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A story is a story and a bar is a bar
Short story

November 23, 2004

It doesn't have to be a comment on the state of the world. It doesn't have to be something that can look the newspaper headlines I saw this morning in the eye and say, 'Oh yeah? Well here's what I think about you.' One man's opinion can feel as big as the world he is expressing opinions about. And that's a good way for opinions to feel, but it's good to remember how big and how little they are too, as far as writing a story goes.

At the bar around the corner, where I go to watch basketball -- I don't have a television --, there is an understanding as to the importance of opinions. They are something to have at a place like that, when another day is about to come to an end. Opinions can feel like an awfully good match on the world stage, mixed with alcohol under the bar lights. But the opinionated patrons are going to go back outside to a world not really all that different from how it's ever been. It's the state of night turning dark.

A story has to always remember that. The people in the story don't have to remember it. They can sit in a bar and they can tell somebody exactly what's wrong with the world today, but the story has to remember it. It has to remember that the state of the world starts with the state of itself. It doesn't have to ignore what's wrong with the world today, but it has to remember what's right as well, before jumping to any conclusions such as the written word. What the story is responding to is not the world's wrongness or rightness, but its worldness.

I've been in the bar when things have felt right and when they have felt wrong, and through it all there have been the men on TV playing basketball or doing some other activity. I've tried to keep them in mind too. While they play, I try to remember that I am doing something just as much, and that is living.

A man has to live in the story he is writing, so the story and the world have to get along. They may not get along for a time, because a story can make its own world, one in which wrongs are righted, but he's going to look up and find himself in the same world as when he started. If his interest is in making a new world, he's going to have to pay a lot of attention to the old one. He's going to have to remember because that's where the world he's after exists. It's a kind of remembering when one doesn't really know what he is remembering. He knows it's something good though.

In the bar it can feel like they've found it; they can remember things into existence, for a while at least. It's good to spend time in a place like that. I've usually been working on a story when I go in there. I've walked in and felt like I've slipped right in with what's been happening, whether I've said a word to anybody or not.

When I've sat in there, it's been the best place to see the state of the world, even if the people there don't see it. The newspaper headlines can go all over the world, but they only tell half the story. The state of the world in the bar is the same as it's always been: a lot of love and a lot of suffering. One of them might jump out more than the other for a certain individual on a certain day, in which case my response is to say, go ahead and jump.

But I can't think of it outside of what a story is, because that's what the one that I've been working on has been trying to tell me. It's been trying to tell me that I'm in it, and I have to listen to it. I have to listen to it even when I don't hear it, when I'm looking at a blank page wondering what to write, just by not listening to anything else. So the way to start is by thinking of the story. You don't have to know what it is. You don't have to know what it is except that you are alive in it and that there is both love and suffering, in equal measure.

I've gone into the bar some nights and watched a little basketball and left, and it's felt like a great night because everything I would want from life has been there. It hasn't been directly at hand, but it's been there in the bar. It's been there enough for me to come outside and say, yes sir, there's the dark night, which is the thing that makes the light in there so nice. It has a niceness of its own when I can remember that I am going to wake up in the morning and work on a story. I can't think of anything better between now and then.

But I have to operate with respect. A story cannot judge night or day, worst or best. It cannot say, I'm only a part of this thing when all is well. Things are too connected, even the newspaper headlines I saw this morning, and I don't even have to understand how they are connected, just that they are.

The people in the bar know it too. They know it by being there, by being active participants in the world they know. They know what the hell is the matter with it. A story has to know what it knows. Otherwise it's going to be surprised by its ending, and then it's going to want to start all over knowing what it knows, and you might as well get it right the first time.

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Fiction & prose

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