On a fine summer morning in Vancouver, British Columbia, our graduate student Lara Aknin approached passersby with a box of envelopes and an unusual request: “Are you willing to be in an experiment?” If people said yes, she asked them how happy they were, got their phone number, and handed them one of her mysterious envelopes.
When people opened the envelope, they found a five dollar bill, accompanied by a simple note. For some of them, the note instructed:
Please spend this $5.00 today before 5pm on a gift for yourself or any of your expenses (e.g., rent, bills, or debt).
Others found a note that read:
Please spend this $5.00 today before 5pm on a gift for someone else or a donation to charity.
In addition, some people got similar envelopes, but with a 20 dollar bill rather than a five. Armed with this extra bit of cash and their instructions about how to spend it, people went on their way. That evening, they received a call asking them how happy they were feeling, as well as how they had spent the money.
How did their purchases affect them? By the end of the day, individuals who spent money on others—who engaged in what we call “prosocial spending”—were measurably happier than those who spent money on themselves—even though there were no differences between the two groups at the beginning of the day. The amount of money people found in their envelopes—five dollars or 20—had no effect on their happiness. How people spent the money mattered much more than how much of it they got.
This experiment suggests that spending as little as five dollars to help someone else can increase your own happiness. Similarly, in a representative sample of more than 600 Americans, the amount of money individuals devoted to themselves was unrelated to their overall happiness; what did predict happiness was the amount of money they gave away: The more they invested in others, the happier they were. This relationship between prosocial spending and happiness held up even after taking into account individuals’ income.
And it extends well beyond North America: A survey conducted by the Gallup World Poll between 2006 and 2008 found that in 120 out of 136 countries, people who donated to charity in the past month reported greater satisfaction with life. This relationship emerged in poor and rich countries alike—again, it held up even after controlling for individuals’ income. Across the 136 countries studied, donating to charity had a similar relationship to happiness as doubling household income. The link between prosocial spending and happiness seems to be remarkably universal.
But these findings don’t mean that people always experience pure, unmitigated happiness from helping others: Research shows that the nature of the giving situation matters. Investing in others can take a seemingly limitless variety of forms, from donating to a charity that helps strangers in a faraway country to buying lunch for a friend.
When does giving promote the most happiness? Understanding the answer to this complex question can help us get the biggest happiness bang for our own prosocial buck—and can help us create positive giving experiences for our children, clients, customers, employees, and donors. Below, we describe three strategies designed to boost the impact of investing in others.
1. Make It a Choice
Most of us have experienced a situation in which we felt cornered into providing help, whether by an overeager street canvasser, a colleague’s child selling overpriced chocolate bars for her basketball team, or a friend’s awkward request for a loan (an event so ubiquitous that Googling “awkward loan requests” gets about 90 million hits). Not surprisingly, feeling cornered can suck the joy out of giving.
Research by Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan backs this up. In one study, 138 college students kept a daily diary over a two-week period, reporting how they felt each day and whether they had helped someone else or done something for a worthy cause. Students reported feeling better on days when they did something prosocial, but only when their actions felt self-chosen. If students helped because they felt like they had to or because people would be mad otherwise, they felt worse on days when they did good things.
The value of choice can also be seen in brain scans. In a study at the University of Oregon, researchers gave $100 to people, who then donated some of this money to a food bank—all from the inside of a scanner that assessed brain activity as they donated. Sometimes people could choose whether to give money, but sometimes the donations were mandatory, more like taxation. Even when donations were mandatory, giving to this worthwhile charity provoked activation in reward areas of the brain. But activation in these reward areas (along with self-reported satisfaction) was considerably greater when people chose to donate than when their prosocial spending was obligatory.
So what does this mean if you’re a professional fundraiser? Maybe you should just set up a pretty website and then let people decide whether to donate of their own accord. There’s just one problem with this strategy: You’re not likely to collect much money. One of the most common reasons people report donating to charity is that someone asks them to give. The trick, then, is to craft charitable appeals that encourage people to give—without making them feel forced to comply.
Even subtle changes in the nature of a request can make all the difference. In one study, a graduate student requested a bit of help and ended her plea by saying either, “It’s entirely your choice whether to help or not” or “I really think you should help out.” In both cases, the personal plea was highly effective. More than 97 percent of people agreed to help. Importantly, though, helpers felt happier if they had been reminded that helping was their choice rather than being told they should help. What’s more, people reminded of choice provided higher-quality assistance and felt a closer sense of connection with the person they helped.
2. Make a Connection
It may seem obvious that gifts can help strengthen relationships. Indeed, after learning that their girlfriends have selected a desirable gift for them, men in long-term relationships are significantly more likely to say that the relationship will continue—and culminate in marriage.
But not only do gifts make us feel close to others; feeling closer to others makes us feel better about gifts. Research shows that people derive more happiness from spending money on “strong ties” (such as significant others, but also close friends and immediate family members) than on “weak ties” (think a friend of a friend, or a step-uncle).
How you give and experience this connection is important, too. To explore this idea, Lara Aknin, who is now a professor at Simon Fraser University, decided to hand out $10 Starbucks gift cards. She told some people to use the gift card to take another person out for coffee. She told others to give the gift card away to someone else, but she insisted that they refrain from accompanying that person to Starbucks. So, people in both groups got the chance to invest in others, specifically through the gift of caffeination, but only one group was allowed to spend time with the beneficiary of their gift.
Meanwhile, Lara handed out additional gift cards to a different group of lucky people, telling them to spend the gift card on themselves; half of these people went to Starbucks alone, while the others visited Starbucks with a friend but spent the card only on themselves.
Who was happiest by the end of the day? The people who used the gift card to benefit someone else and spent time with that person at Starbucks. Investing and connecting provided the most happiness.
Think of your own pro-social spending budget in terms of levels of connection. You’re likely to get the biggest happiness bang for your prosocial buck if you invest in others in ways that help you connect with people, especially people you care about.
But it’s possible to create a sense of connection even with total strangers. A particularly strong example of that is the website DonorsChoose.org, which allows donors to purchase supplies or fund projects for a specific group of students. Creating links between a specific donor and a specific classroom enables an emotional connection to emerge from what would otherwise be a cold financial transaction. Teachers send thank-you notes to donors, and students often do so as well. “When we deliver the initial thank-you note to the donor, our first ask is not for money,” says DonorsChoose founder Charles Best. “Instead, we ask the donor to write back to the classroom, and we measure success in the volume of two-way correspondence that we see between donors and classrooms.”
3. Make an Impact
A donation to UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) helps children around the world. There is no denying the importance of this cause, but it can be hard to see how a small donation to such a large, nebulous organization will make a concrete difference in a child’s life. Contrast that with Spread the Net, which allows donors to contribute $10 to send one malaria net to sub-Saharan Africa. Their slogan? “A child dies needlessly from malaria every minute. One bed net can protect up to five children for five years. 1 net. 10 bucks. Save lives.”
Both UNICEF and Spread the Net are worthy organizations devoted to children’s well-being, and the two are partners. But it’s a lot easier to see how your donation to Spread the Net will make an impact. And, sure enough, research we’ve conducted has found that when donors give money to Spread the Net, they get a bigger happiness boost than when they give money to UNICEF.
As that finding suggests, people feel better about giving money when they can sense the real-world impact of their generosity. Knowing that we’re having an impact on someone else is another critical factor in transforming good deeds into good feelings.
What’s more, enabling donors to see the specific impact of charitable initiatives carries a huge potential payoff: By maximizing the emotional benefits of giving, the strategy can make people more willing to behave generously in the future.
Evidence for that claim comes from a recent study we co-authored with Lara Aknin. After reflecting on a time when they had spent money on themselves or others, students received an envelope filled with cash. This time, though, they were allowed to choose how to spend their windfall. Not only did people feel happier after reflecting on a time when they spent money on others, but the happier they felt after thinking about their past spending experience, the more inclined they were to spend the new cash-filled envelope on others rather than themselves. Giving and happiness reinforce each other, creating a positive feedback loop.
Is it possible to let people taste the joy of making a positive impact for as little as a dollar? It’s tough to imagine how such a small donation could make a difference—unless you join forces with others. In 2012, Daniel Hawkins formed the Dollar Collective. Members each contribute one dollar, and the group decides what random act of generosity to perform with the pool of money. As their first act, they surprised a young couple out for Valentine’s Day and paid for their entire meal. And the couple who received the unexpected free meal? They decided to give the money they saved on dinner to a local charity (as well as buy some treats for their cat).
Just one example, but it points to a larger scientific truth: When prosocial spending is done right—when it feels like a choice, when it connects us with others, and when it makes a clear impact—even small gifts can have a big effect on happiness, potentially spurring a domino effect of generosity.
Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?
Originally published in Ploughshares in Fall 2002, this story was reprinted with an accompanying essay in The Story Behind the Story, listed as one of 100 Notable Stories of 2002 by the editors of Best American Short Stories and one of 15 Recommended Stories by the jury for the O. Henry Prize Stories,, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In 2011 the text was reproduced in a beautiful artist‘s book designed and produced by Janine Wong, with two images by Charles Ritchie.
Night, Truck, Two Lights Burning
By Peter Turchi
Late night in early winter. The last hour of the long drive home. I tend to the thermostat, keeping the car warm enough for my sleeping family, but not so warm that my focus turns dull. Beyond the chilled glass to my left, green lights of the dashboard angle up toward the stars.
Distance defines our relations. My wife’s parents live five hundred miles away, what we have come to think of as a day’s drive.
When we arrive, she will hoist our son high against her chest and take him, murmuring his dreams, into the house. I will carry our long-legged daughter from our car to her room, where I will lay her gently on the bed we have made for her.
I remember being proud that I hadn’t fallen asleep.
“You go ahead and rest,” my father told me. “I’ll let you know when we get there.”
I had promised my mother I would help him stay awake, so hugged my pillow, to keep warm. The truck’s heater wasn’t working, but according to my father, it would have only made us drowsy. This was November, sometime between my birthday-which we had celebrated in an empty house, amid packed boxes—and Thanksgiving. Under my father’s influence, the past Christmas Eve, I had seen a reindeer’s red nose from my bedroom window; with the same power of persuasion, he had convinced me, at least, that our move from Maryland to North Carolina—a place so far off it might as well have been wholly imaginary—was a great adventure.
When we finally left the highway, he said, “Home at last.” There at our exit were three big hotels and a restaurant called the Kountry Kitchen and another called Noah’s and a go-kart track. My attention lingered on the go-kart track, which was closed. It was after midnight, the latest I had ever been out in my life.
My father stopped the rental truck at a traffic light, looking down at a piece of paper he had drawn from his shirt pocket. We turned left, and then right, and then there were no more hotels, no more restaurants—nothing but a curving road. The farther we went down that road, the more I worried about what my mother would think. She had made no secret of her opposition to the move; rather, she had expressed this so strongly that I harbored the unspoken fear that she might not follow us. She was very much in my mind as we passed a small house with a chain link fence strung with Christmas lights that somehow looked as if they hadn’t been taken down the winter before, and a collapsing larger house, with covered porches on three sides, and beside it a field populated by broken school buses and eyeless shells of trucks. (To be honest: I’m not sure how many of those things I took in that first night; but they were there the next morning, when the overall impression of neglect and decay hardened the fear in my stomach.) I had just started to think that if we went far enough we’d get away from this kind of place, we’d reach another road with bright lights and hotels and restaurants, when my father slowed down, then stopped, then backed up.
“Here we are,” he said. “Camelot.” He had told me his version of the legend of King Arthur on the ride. We had sung songs, and told riddles, and played games using the letters on billboards. My father could always be depended on to think of something interesting to do. On the edge of a field across from the entrance to the Natural Bridge, in Virginia (which we did not see, as there was an admission charge), we ate sandwiches my mother had packed, and played a game he invented using two sticks and a crabapple. Later, while we drove, my father wedged a paper cup between the dash and the windshield and had me take shots with a crumpled cigarette package, narrating like a commentator on TV. We were football fans, my father and I, but we would play any game that presented itself.
Rule number one, he liked to say: Keep your options open.
My mother arrived two days later, in my father’s pickup truck. We had made a sign for the door—Welcome Home—but that didn’t appear to register. Even before she went inside, I understood that the pizza we had watched the pizza man spin almost to the ceiling, the cupcakes for dessert, and the grocery store flowers my father had arranged in a beer bottle on the tiny counter top would not be sufficient to create, for my mother, a mood of celebration.
The trailer park was not a park, as I had imagined, but a series of crude terraces cut into the side of a steep clay hill, with a gravel road up the middle and a security light at the top of a telephone pole. There were twelve trailers, six on each side, and the way they were placed on the hill, one above the other, meant nearly everyone could look down into someone else’s kitchen, living room, and bedroom. The most desirable spots were the two at the top, which were relatively private—though none of the trailers could have been more than twenty feet from its neighbor—and had the best view of the woods across the road. Our trailer was at the very bottom, which meant, my mother said as she stood in the doorway, not unbuttoning her coat, Everyone could see in. A modest woman, she sewed our curtains closed.
I woke to a strange sound. Not a dog, not a cat….There had been talk of bears, and I hoped to see one in exactly those circumstances: from under the covers, safe inside our trailer.
When I heard the sound again, and understood what I heard, it became a glowing ember, a warm promise.
My parents, laughing. Not my father alone, which I was used to, or my mother’s polite acknowledgment of a joke, but the two of them, together.
The laughter was followed by other sounds, and an exchange I either heard through the thin wall or imagined. The result of my father’s insistence, my mother’s reluctance, was my father rolling from the bed, then shuffling out to where I sensed I should pretend still to sleep.
Did she know what he meant to do? I doubt it. My father believed in asking for forgiveness, not permission.
He slid one strong arm under my knees, another behind my shoulders, and lifted. I fought to suppress a smile of anticipation, expecting to be carried in to share with them the wonderful discovery they had made, the cause of their laughter. I felt my rear end sag, my father’s knee rise to prop me up. My feet, then my head, bumped against the wall of the trailer, and then the door was open, cool air reached under my blanket. In two long strides we were at the door of his truck, I heard the click of the latch, and he fed me in. When my feet reached the far door, I understood this wasn’t the start of a late-night drive. I heard my father’s heavy step into the trailer, heard him return, and the passenger door opened once more. My head rose, then was lowered onto my pillow. Reaching under the blanket, he set in my hand the stuffed creature I slept with.
“Sweet dreams,” my father said, and shut the door.
The first time I told this story, without a moment’s forethought, was ten years later. She had confided something about her own parents, and we were, after all, in the dark, in the back of her mother’s car. Her reaction surprised me, to the extent that I stored the memory in a room at the end of one of the long, turning hallways of the mind.
The moment we confine memories to words, images are obscured by the language, the understanding, we have now. To be as true as possible to what I can still see, I would write:
One-eyed kitten—white, stuffed, red stitches where a right eye would have been—on the open glove compartment door. (My stage, where the kitten performed with a tire gauge and magnetic St. Christopher.)
Dark shadows cast by the bright security light.
Some nights, loud adult voices from a trailer up the hill. Others, the long, low rumble of a freight train.
I tried to explain to that young woman, in her mother’s car, how it was that I didn’t feel abandoned, or cast aside, but elated. My parents were happy; I was playing my role, never opening my eyes when my father carried me out to the truck, or back to my room. But then I woke one dawn with the windows frosted over. The blanket had slipped, exposing my back to a chilled seatbelt buckle.
Huddled on the vinyl seat, wrapped as tight as I could get, I waited for my father to push open the trailer door. My clouded breath reminded me of the numbness of my ears and nose. Unable to deny my need, I made a plan: open the door silently, take long, barefoot strides across the gravel, use the bathroom, and return. But the instant I entered the trailer my mother awoke, began shrieking accusations at my father. Bundling me close to her chest, she carried me to their warm bed.
She intended comfort, but I felt crushing disappointment. If only I had sneaked back in. If only I had held out a little longer, my father would have been spared my mother’s anger, my mother spared her shame.
I can only guess how much time passed. My parents returned to their familiar relationship: my father exuberant, loud (“Let’s all go dancing,” “Let’s go down to the field and set off some fireworks”); my mother quieter, more steady. She mended our clothes, and fed us, and took me for long walks along the river, and made friends with a nearby farmer so I could pet the horses and stare back at the newborn calves and take warm eggs from under his hens. She taught me songs like “Red Sails on the Sunset,” and “King of the Road.” Each time we went to the grocery store, she gave me a coin to use either on the noisy rides out front or on the clear-globed machines filled with worthless trinkets just inside the doors. My desire for those trinkets was as urgent as it was irrational; I dreamed about the rides, the horse and ambulance and spaceship. Yet some days I dropped the coin into my pocket, remembering rule number one.
What I mean to say is, my mother was kind and generous and attentive. But my father shone with the brilliance of a sun.
He stocked vending machines with candy and crackers. It seemed to me the most marvelous job a father could have. Once we drove his route together, me on the (filthy, my mother said) floor of the panel truck, him telling stories about people he had met. My father knew everyone in the world, and introduced me to them, one by one. “I’ve got the boss with me today,” he’d tell his customers.
His plan was to own and manage a fleet of sandwich wagons. It may not sound like much of an ambition, but my father had the charm of a scene-stealing actor, and convinced people he was going places. My mother must have thought so, because she married him young, against her parents’ advice. She was independent, and serious, and had, I imagine, plans of her own.
One day, an envelope arrived which gave her so much pleasure she said we could do whatever I wanted—which was to make cheese sandwiches and have a picnic on the large flat rock in the middle of the river we sometimes walked to, which we did. The envelope, she confided, contained a check for a large sum of money, designated by the sender to be used by my mother to buy a car. This gift was a great mystery to me. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that, while she had known the envelope was coming, my father did not. That night, the news of the check and its intended use was the cause of prolonged debate. My mother did not cry, or curse—I never heard her curse. Rather, she grew quietly, darkly resolved.
I was a beneficiary of her insistence. We drove to the local branch library, and to the enormous central library, where my mother looked up one thing or another while I sat in a corner, happily lost in picture books and early readers. I never thought to ask what she was looking for. We also went to the grocery store, where the women at the bakery gave me a free tea cookie whether we bought anything from them or not, and took long rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we hunted blackberries and wild blueberries, and my mother sat on a boulder and read while I tested the seaworthiness of leaves and sticks in a narrow stream.
She bought a magnet with my name on it, which she fixed to the dashboard directly ahead of the passenger seat. The letters were raised, in script, and as we drove I traced my name again and again.
Bedtime came, and I said I wanted to sleep in the truck.
I remember planning my announcement, and thinking the gesture heroic; I remember its silent reception.
Finally, my mother asked me why.
Because it was fun to sleep in the truck. (This was not entirely a lie; I had come to think of the vinyl bench seat, with its warm smell of my father, as more truly mine than any part of the trailer.)
My mother suggested that sleeping in the truck was not a good idea.
I must have responded badly. My memory is of getting my way, and an extra blanket, and realizing, somehow, that my offer had not had its intended effect.
My mother was not an extravagant woman, but in the spring we washed her car every week. She would vacuum and clean the trailer, then together we would haul the vacuum cleaner and sponges and a bucket of hot, soapy water outside. I wore shorts. I had never owned a bathing suit, and my mother did not approve of children of any age “running around without a stitch.” Some days she wore her old housecleaning clothes, but other times she wore a one-piece bathing suit, an outfit that made her fair game for both of us. For me, it meant that she wouldn’t be angry if I accidentally turned the hose in her direction. She would shriek, and grab the nozzle from my hand and aim it at me, and we would take turns exclaiming at the cold water and hosing the other down. For my father, the bathing suit seemed to guarantee that he would pick her up, and call her Daisy Mae in a preposterously exaggerated version of the accent of our neighbors. It made her laugh, but my father’s arrival almost always meant an end to our fun.
I never wondered what the neighbors thought when they heard my father going out to his truck in the middle of the night. I don’t know that any of them ever saw me inside.
In my memory, during the months we lived there, it was nearly always night. Some nights he hardly waited for me to scoop up my blanket and pillow. Other nights he stood in the space between the open truck door and the cab, or better yet, held me aloft, and talked a beery cloud. One night he turned his back to the security light and the rental trailers on concrete blocks stacked on the clay and we stared up at a reddish dot in the night. “Mars,” he said. “You might live there one day.” For a moment we both imagined such a thing. At least, I did. And while on that grocery store ride a journey through space had always seemed like an observed heroic adventure, all rockets and thrusters and urgently shouted commands, that night I imagined life on Mars to be a quiet, solitary enterprise.
“Near the moon,” I said, silently equating moon with mother.
“That’s right,” he said.
Long after an introductory astronomy text set the record straight, the sense of the night that held sway over me was the one I gathered in my father’s arms.
The argument over my mother’s car may have seemed worse than it was, as I imagined myself in the middle of it. I don’t recall the expression on either of their faces, which suggests I was either standing outside, listening, or staring at the floor. She wanted to take the car to a service station; my father wanted to do the work himself. It was a waste of money, he insisted. She claimed he would get distracted, or have to find a part at the junkyard, and the car would sit, neglected, for weeks. My father’s tendency to stop short of finishing his projects was indisputable.
Nevertheless, he disputed it, said he’d be damned if he’d pay some high school dropout to do a half-assed job (a remark meant to cut deep, as my mother had not graduated from high school). She said she’d pay for it herself, and if he didn’t want to follow her she’d hitchhike home, she wouldn’t have any trouble finding a man who would give her a ride, and something about that must have convinced my father that there was no stopping her, because he relented.
I rode with him, absorbed in a book from the library. I opened the crisp cover wide and put my nose close to the pages, inhaling the scents of ink and paper and the hands of boys before me. I turned the pages carefully, admiring the bold lettering of the title. I couldn’t have been more than a page into the story when my father cursed, quickly shifted, and jumped out of the truck.
The scene in front of me remains perfectly clear. On the left side of the intersection, headed right, a blue pickup. On the right, a man in a straw hat getting out of a white sedan. And in the middle of the intersection, my mother’s car, with a horrible impression the width of the pickup truck’s bumper running from just ahead of the driver’s door to just behind it. Even before my father roared I saw, at the top of the door panel, a bright streak of red on the yellow paint.
Any number of people said it was a good thing I had gone in the truck. But the thought that pulsed through me for days, years, was that I should have been with my mother. It would have been such a small favor, to have ridden beside her.
In my dreams, she held out her hand. Night after night, I told her, “I’m right here.”
My father and I were not together much longer. You can imagine the conversations with relatives, my father’s grief. We insisted on going it alone, and lasted perhaps a month. There was an excruciating drive back to Maryland, where we said what we both claimed, maybe even believed, were temporary goodbyes. Over the next few years there were regular visits, a much-anticipated trip to the beach.
I should admit here that I came to resent some of my father’s decisions, and let him know it. Every so often he would burst onto the scene, trying in a weekend to make up for months without a phone call. There was another wife, and a child. Then a third wife, and two children. Those choices soured some people’s impression of him.
I don’t believe my father is a bad or shallow man. He was young, and heartbroken, and committed to the belief that life should be lived as if every day were a great adventure. That attitude can be terribly appealing.
Some people believed, and on one or two occasions even expressed, that my “new family” was the preferable one: a settled, loving couple, with energetic and companionable children. My mother’s brother, an amateur historian, encouraged intellectual curiosity in whatever form it took, bookish or less orthodox. My aunt is an industrious woman who believes boys should be able to replace a button and cook a decent meal, and girls had better be prepared to change a tire. The home they made was demanding, in the best sense, and supportive, and I mean for nothing I write here to imply a word of criticism of them, or anything but the deepest gratitude for all they have done for me.
And yet, inevitably, I have wondered what would have become of me if that other life, the one three of us began, had been allowed to continue. There might very well have been a different painful separation, other difficult times. I might have found my way into that same second household, under different circumstances. I realize I am indulging a deep streak of romanticism when I imagine that my mother and father might have clung together, discovering solutions to their apparently contradictory desires and sacrifices, and that I might have completed my childhood in the family that made me, gone on to live the life I was meant to live.
For a long time I believed that if my mother’s accident had been avoided, if my foundation had been more solid, everything that followed would have felt more certain. But every foundation is, eventually, shaken. My grandparents are gone now. As is my uncle. More and more, I find my nights, and my days, illuminated by the light of dying stars.
Soon our daughter will be too big for me to carry.
Imagination, abhorring a vacuum, insists on filling gaps; assumptions made years later insinuate themselves as fact. If these memories I have tried so carefully to record are not, strictly, true, what is this that I’ve made?
O, my mother.
We put our children to bed, and then we tell ourselves the stories that will carry us to sleep.
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Originally published in Ploughshares in Winter 1998-99, this story was reprinted in the anthology This is Where We Live, edited by Michael McFee, listed as one of 100 Notable Stories of 1999 by the editors of Best American Short Stories, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
The Night Sky
By Peter Turchi
Rodney shifted the heavy wooden console a few inches each night, hoping the hotel manager wouldn’t notice the newly revealed depression in the commercial-grade carpet. By the end of the week he could comfortably stand at the far left hand side of the desk—actually a long laminated counter—and see the entire picture without distortion. He stood there now, watching the final minutes of a National Basketball Association playoff game.
Having decided to drop out of college at least until the fall, he had taken the night clerk job with the expectation that he would witness clandestine, even exotic behavior. At first he imagined every lone late-night arrival to be a criminal one step ahead of the law, every couple to be engaging in strenuous, costumed intercourse. Occasionally a couple checked in whom he was sure were having an affair—local address, no bags, more excited than weary—but the unresolved mysteries of the hotel’s guests soon gave way to the tedium of long, quiet hours. On a typical night he watched television until 12:30, then read a paperback until the sun beamed over the forested mountains beyond the opthamologist’s office across the street.
Rodney had briefly considered the circumstances of a woman who had been staying on the second floor for nearly two weeks. She gave a local address, and one of the maids said her room was empty except for toiletries, a few clothes, and some papers, but there was no sign of a man—or, for that matter, another woman. Rodney saw her blue sedan enter the parking lot every night between midnight and one, always from the west, not from the highway exit. She appeared to be in her sixties, and her body was heavily rounded in a way that made it difficult for Rodney to stay interested in her secret, whatever it was. From the way she walked it seemed she meant to climb the stairs, unlock the door, and collapse onto the bed.
Elizabeth did not collapse but sat on the edge of her bed, ignoring two upholstered chairs flanking the small circular table centered under a hanging lamp. In two weeks the bed had become hers, the way this room had become hers; while she hadn’t moved the furniture, or taken down the undistinguished landscape print of the surrounding mountains, she felt as intensely identified by this room as by any room she had ever lived in. Her feet ached, but she did not remove her shoes. Instead she took off her glasses, setting them on the bed beside her, and cupped her face in her hands. Even this room, lit by a single fixture just outside the bathroom door, was too bright, and too large; only by pressing her hands over her forehead and eyes could she contain the world long enough to concentrate.
Though the effect was lessening, every night the opening of the hotel room door filled her with as much guilt as any illicit lover ever felt; she thought of Terry’s affair, his childish, stereotypical mid-life boyhood—though she wasn’t convinced he had felt any guilt before she confronted him. They hadn’t talked about when he had felt guilty. She knew enough, and Terry said enough. Only recently had she wondered if it would have been better to have talked it all through. In the years since, there had been a terrible vulnerability in their marriage, as if someone had let a poisonous snake loose in the house. For months you might forget about it, but one day, in the laundry room, you would catch a glimpse of mottled coils, or you would remember how, when you first moved here, there had been mice.
Given any opportunity, Terry would have discussed it. He believed in talking through every problem, every disagreement. Silence frustrated him. She knew how badly he wanted to explain it all, to tell her why he had gotten involved with his other woman, why he would never do it again—and, since telling her everything would relieve him, she would not let him talk. Take it with you to your grave, she remembered thinking. The memory made her shoulders knot, her forehead tighten. She had been embarrassed and ashamed, having fallen for his lies and excuses, refusing to believe that all the situational cliches of movies and television were coming true.
What she was doing now was no cliche. She had never heard of anyone doing it before. She imagined she knew how it felt to be a bad soldier: one who believed in the cause, but who nevertheless ran from battle. To add to her shame, her guilt and cowardice, Terry was quick to tell everyone that he had asked her to stay here. To lie was his idea.
They had known he was sick; two years ago the doctors hadn’t been able to remove all of the cancer. Last month, when the dogwoods and tulips were blooming, they learned the inevitable had grown closer. “The situation,” Dr. Foote told her, was worse. They could try the chemotherapy again, but at best it would slow the disease’s progress. Rachel, who missed two classes to be there, had put one strong arm around her. Anticipating the worst, Elizabeth thought she might slump heavily, but when the news came she felt strangely buoyant; it was as if someone had just told her the earth was inside out. As if she had stepped into a marsh and found herself peacefully suspended. Then discovered she was not quite able to walk, not able to swim.
Terry refused the chemotherapy. “I want to go out hairy,” he said, trying to cheer them up. “I want apple pie and cheesecake—I want a goddamned prime rib.” They talked of travel: Hawaii, Southern France, Australia, or back to Scotland, where they had spent the summer over a decade ago. “The South Pole,” he proposed. “Just to see a circle of those male emperor penguins holding eggs on their feet.” In a serious moment, he admitted he didn’t want to be far from home.
“I could take incompletes,” Rachel told him. She was in her junior year at the state university in the city, majoring in education and theatre, playing varsity volleyball.
“No need,” Terry said. “But if you’d like to come around for dinner more often, I think we could find an extra plate.”
So that’s how he’s going to be, Elizabeth thought. Stoic. He had succumbed to weakness the first time; the radiation and chemo had made him miserable. He was embarrassed about having been such a bad—scared, needy—patient. Bob Martin, one of her colleagues in the math department, had given her a quotation about “the kingdom of the sick.” It ended, “sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
Those first nights after Dr. Foote quietly estimated two months, six at the outside, they stayed awake together to consider and reject travelling plans, meals he would enjoy while he was still hungry, movies he wanted to see, friends and family who should visit. Then Terry began to return to routine. He watched the day’s sports summary at eleven, attended to his teeth—first flossing, then brushing, then massaging his gums with a special, small-bristled brush the dentist had prescribed—then read around in a magazine or a book until it fell on his chest. She would prod him awake; he would set the book on the floor, turn off his bedside light, and roll onto his side. He offered a single kiss, scented with the faint remains of aftershave or, more often now that the weather was warmer, sour perspiration.
Elizabeth could not sleep. After dinner she busied herself with the dishes and cleaning, then they would take a walk. She taught trigonometry and geometry at one of the county high schools, and there was grading to do. Her department was one of four state-wide participating in a three-year study of the effective teaching of national standards, so two or three times a week she was obliged to log onto a computer bulletin board and correspond with other participants in the study. When she couldn’t concentrate on that, she went back down to the living room. Some nights they played backgammon; others they watched television, or a movie. When the sports came on she got ready for bed, and when Terry came to the bedroom she pretended to read, or to sleep.
A woman at the hospital had given her information on counselling for family members of patients with terminal illnesses. This is what they would talk about, she thought: gathering important papers, evaluating your financial situation, learning how to take on new responsibilities. Elizabeth paid their bills and balanced the checkbook, and they made decisions about investments together. When Rachel was born, Terry insisted on buying what Elizabeth argued was far too much life insurance; when the policy arrived, he pretended to read from the envelope: “You May Have Won a Million Dollars.” She wasn’t scared about money. She worried about being alone, and her worry surfaced in absurd details. He did things to the cars and lawnmower, things she had never bothered to ask about, and now it was unthinkable. In the yard, he pruned what needed to be pruned, thinned what needed to be thinned, watered and fertilized with results such that friends were always asking him for advice. He knew how the Christmas decorations were most efficiently packed in the storage space under the stairwell, he knew what colors of stain they had used on the house and trim three years ago, he knew how to program the VCR. All things she could learn. Things she dreaded having to learn.
What haunted her most was his physical presence: his thin, graying hair, his crooked teeth, the mole on his neck. Even the faded paisley pajama bottoms seemed a part of his body. He breathed through his mouth, but when his allergies were bad or he slept on his back he snored loudly. He had an office-worker’s paunch, a flabby belly with an appendectomy scar. At one time or another she had had nearly every inch of his skin in her hands, on her tongue. The memory of those moments of intimacy most terrified her now as he lay beside her, large as life. There was something the boys at school were saying this spring, one of those momentarily popular all-occasion expressions: Dead meat. It could be used as a threat (You touch me again and you’re dead meat) or an expression of resignation (As soon as I saw the first problem, I was dead meat). Like a bee at a picnic, the phrase buzzed behind and beside and around every thought. She hated the way Terry looked when he slept.
In the middle of honors geometry one morning she paused, exhaustion passed over her, and she suddenly had no idea what she had been saying. Angela, one of the eager front-row girls, offered politely, “You were reminding us about the theorems.”
What theorems? Elizabeth thought. What class is this? The moment, horrifying, stretched on. She thought she would have to leave the room.
“I’m very sorry,” she said. “I seem to have lost my train of thought.” Aaron, an exemplary student, suggested with great diplomacy that she had been referring to their work with triangles and cones in the fall to demonstrate the relationship of analytic geometry to demonstrative geometry. “Thank you,” she said, genuinely grateful, and went on.
The next day she sat in her room during her free period meaning to write comments for the awards ceremony, only to be awakened by her fourth-period class.
That weekend she told Terry, “I have something horrible to confess.” He had been describing his plan to kill all the grass on the slope down to the driveway and create a new flower bed.
He looked up from his drawing.
“I don’t think,” she began, then realized what she had been about to say. I don’t think I can sleep beside you again. “I haven’t been sleeping well,” she said.
“I know this is ungentlemanly,” he told her, “but you’ve looked absolutely exhausted. I thought it was end-of-the-year overload.”
He must have known, but he wouldn’t say it. She didn’t want to cry. She was so tired. “Maybe it is,” she allowed.
Terry suggested, “Why don’t I sleep in Rachel’s room tonight?”
“No.” She spoke more loudly than she intended. She wanted to tell him, Stop being so generous.
She said, “You should have the big bed. I thought I’d try Rachel’s, just until I catch up on my rest. I don’t think I told you, but Friday I actually dozed off at my desk.” She hadn’t meant to tell him now.
“Have I been snoring?”
“No more than usual. I really think it’s me.”
Terry smiled at her across the dining room table. “I’ll miss you. But whatever, sure. Get a good night’s rest.” He picked up a catalogue. “I’m thinking about making this border heaths and heathers, and they’re not going to have a chance in the clay we’ve got here. With the retaining wall, we’ll essentially create a huge planter. The summer heat might be too much for them, but they shouldn’t get any afternoon sun if this works out…”
Rachel’s room offered no comfort. The past accumulated on Elizabeth’s chest the way she imagined it would if she were the one dying. Meeting Terry at school, that first awful date, the wonderful Indian dinner, seeing Casablanca in that horrible smelling theatre, his clumsy proposal, her mistake with the wedding invitations, first jobs, trying not to get pregnant, then trying to, losing the first two, finally getting all the way through with Rachel…why was she the one feeling this way, as if the door to the past was about to be shut tight, locked, sealed off? Why was she the one who felt she was suffocating, being drawn toward an unavoidable horror? Laying in her daughter’s bed tortured her; she was the child, the one who couldn’t understand, couldn’t accept the simple fact. Was Rachel thinking these things? Rachel had forgiven Terry the affair; did that somehow make it easier for her to accept this? Elizabeth pictured the three of them as an isosceles triangle, then realized the sides should be uneven. Were Rachel and Terry closer to each other than she was to either of them, or was Terry the distant point? She pictured triangles turning like images on her computer monitor, turning in space but also distorted by time. She imagined three triangles, one to represent the way each of them saw their family—or was it that she saw it three different ways? She saw the triangles overlaid, imagined her parents, Terry’s, the other woman, Rachel’s roommate and boyfriend, the two children she had lost—all points on a star, then distinct stars, some bright, some faint. She tried to count them all.
She awoke without having slept. Her head ached, her body was sore. Sunlight pierced the curtains, glaring over Rachel’s high school memorabilia. She smelled coffee, which Terry no longer drank, so must have brewed for her. Lying in her daughter’s bed, she thought, I want someone to take care of me. Repulsed by her selfishness, she rose to shower.
“I’ve been feeling guilty,” Terry announced. Sitting on the edge of the jetted tub, he handed her a warm cup when she finished drying off. With the word guilty, the snake dropped into view. He continued, “I’m guessing these new beds, hardscaping, plants, mulch, the whole nine yards, will run two thousand dollars.”
In this room, the trees in front of the house filtered the sunlight. Despite the coffee, Elizabeth felt a chill. “Beds plural?”
“Still that one area, but I’m thinking it needs some steps.” Squinting, she saw he was cleaning her glasses for her. He held them out. “I could be talked out of that. Anyway, my argument is it’s still a lot cheaper than the chemo. Or a trip to the Loire valley. However you want to think of it.”
Vision corrected, she glanced into the mirror expecting to see bags under her eyes. Craving sleep, she drank coffee.
“You know,” she told Terry, “it’s fine with me. Whatever you want to do.” She headed toward the closet, leaving him on the side of the tub.
“If you’re serious,” he called after her, “I’m going to call some people, get some estimates on the labor.”
The walk-in closet allowed just one person to stand between the lines of clothes, shoes regimented below, sweaters stacked on the head-high shelf. She put her hand out, comforted by the cloth all around. She should put a pillow down in here.
When she came out he was sitting on the end of the bed. Their room, like Rachel’s, got the morning sun. The light angled across Terry so that his outline, particularly his head, seemed to glow. He was already gone.
“Sleep any better?”
“It helped.” She pulled on a sweatshirt, fighting off the chill.
“You,” he said, “are a rotten liar.”
But you’ve always been such a good one, she thought.
When that night was no different—she last checked Rachel’s clock, a wall-mounted Elvis Presley whose hips shifted with each tick and tock, at 3:45, but doubted she drifted off before 4:30—she nearly wept from exhaustion. Now the phrase that repeated itself was a throbbing, I’m so tired, so tired. It reminded her of a Beatles’ song, but she couldn’t recall the rest of the lyric. The thought of going to school the next morning was nearly unbearable.
“Maybe I should try a hotel,” she suggested at lunch, trying to sound facetious. She made chicken salad sandwiches. She was starving; she had no appetite. Her body didn’t know what it wanted. Sleep.
“You don’t feel sick?” Terry asked. “You aren’t being a martyr?”
“I feel all right,” she said, carrying the sandwiches through the sliding glass door to the patio. “I’m just—”
She couldn’t stop; tears pooled in her eyes. “I’m so tired!” She sat heavily on one of the comfortless wrought iron chairs, one of Terry’s choices. They looked like something in one of the fine homes magazines, but she had never liked them. Now she thought, I shouldn’t have to sit in this hard chair.
That night, after the awkwardness of checking in, certain even the desk clerk knew what she was avoiding, she turned on the television for distraction, laid down, and woke with the alarm she almost hadn’t bothered to set.
Rachel moved back home. There was only a week left in the semester, followed by final exams. She was glad for the excuse to have more time near her father, but worried about her mother. Even when she was rested, Elizabeth carried a hint of desperation around the edges, a woman on the verge. She devoted herself to her work at school, staying late as extra-curricular projects met their end, had the members of the math team over for their annual dinner. They finished third in the state this year.
Rachel had a lifeguarding job for the summer, her ongoing gig at the country club pool. The pay was good—lifeguards were in high demand these days, she had turned down a dozen jobs—but she wondered if she shouldn’t be doing something more career-oriented by now. She thought about applying for a position as summer school tutor, but the idea of staying indoors all day was too dreary. Maybe next year.
She immediately understood her father’s plans for the hillside.
“We can put the heathers in this fall,” he said, handing her the plant list, “but most of the perennials should wait until spring. Not the daylilies, or the peonies. But the butterfly weed and echinicea and liatrus. I’d rather let the beds settle over the winter.” He had bought a planning kit which included a large green cardboard grid, the surface treated so it could be written on with a wax pencil. The kit also included dozens of stickers, green branches on smaller and larger circles meant to represent plants. Terry, who had been a design engineer for a tool company, had carefully measured off the length and curve of the hillside and transcribed it here, to scale.
“What are these big ones?” she asked, pointing to the largest circles, each pencilled with a number 7.
“Dogwoods. I was thinking two white, one pink.” He had gone back and forth over the steps. In the current plan, they didn’t appear.
“I’ll have to label all these,” he admitted. “I’ve got names and numbers there on the list, but it’s a mess. I’ll mark which come from which catalogs. Most of them you should be able to get around here.”
He wasn’t deceiving himself; he knew he wouldn’t see the work finished. That’s why Rachel decided she would spend the summer helping. It was impossible for her to think of preparing the ground without picturing his grave being dug, but she liked the idea that, instead of a tombstone, he would have this: not just the yard, with the footbridge he had built over the creek that rarely ran, and the hemlocks and sugar maples he had planted when he and her mother built the house, but this last creation, his attempt not at immortality—plants had their cycles, in a dozen or fifteen years the heathers would be spent—but at life transferred.
As Terry had feared, the best landscapers were booked at least until August. Rachel suggested he hire strong arms and backs; as long as he supervised, they didn’t need experienced help. Reynolds, a biology major she had been seeing, and his friend Christian had intended to spend the summer travelling, but those plans were stalled by lack of funds. Soon she found herself impatient sitting high in the lifeguard chair, oiling herself hourly to ward off skin cancer, watching the swimmers all around her: children hoping she wouldn’t see them running on wet cement, some pretending to drown, some straining to dunk each other, one or two people floating, and a few calmly treading water, making slow progress against the length of the pool. At six o’clock she could put shorts on over her suit; at home she would find Terry measuring, adjusting the strings tied to pegs across the slope, as Reynolds and Christian dug.
“The bottom course of timbers is the slowest,” he reassured them as the young men sat, shirtless, drinking beer from bottles. “Once they go in level, we’ll get the rest up in two days, three at the most.”
“I need calluses,” Reynolds told Rachel, showing her his hands. Blisters had formed and torn open.
”Doesn’t that hurt?”
He held up the bottle. “I take one of these every hour.”
They were all inspired by Terry’s refusal to complain. Occasionally he would stop in the middle of leveling a spot, walk a few steps away, and slowly sit. Sometimes he looked down; sometimes he rested his forehead on his knees, so that the brim of his baseball cap tilted high, revealing arches of hair. Reynolds and Christian responded by continuing their work; when Rachel was there, if her father looked particularly drawn she would walk over and sit behind him, put one leg on either side, and lean her chest against his back. Not today, she thought. Not yet.
On one of these occasions he must have read her mind. So softly she could barely hear, he said, “I’m not going anywhere.” She couldn’t tell whether he was optimistic or resigned.
A moment later he raised his head. She stared at the back of his neck, the soft creases of flesh, the mole on his left side. He said, “I worry about your mother.”
She nodded. Then said, “She’s scared.”
He didn’t respond. At times like this, she believed her father had secrets. Other times she knew there was nothing as simple as a mystery, no dramatic revelation. She wanted him to tell her about his parents; his life, beginning with his earliest memory; everything he had aspired to; every possibility he had decided against. But that was too much; and there was no single thing she most wanted to know. She wanted what only he could tell her, the way he would tell it. She wanted him.
With his left hand, Terry covered her knee. Squeezed.
Elizabeth came home for dinner. From then until bedtime their schedule was the same as ever, except that she stayed dressed while he read, and when he finally dozed off, instead of prodding him, she sneaked away. That’s how it felt.
“You don’t have to wait,” he told her one night. “Unless, of course, you want to see the baseball highlights.”
Elizabeth said, “I want to be with you.”
Come watch the dying man, Terry thought. His anger rose closer to the surface each day.
He said, “Maybe we should do something.” True, his time felt precious. Even so, he liked baseball, had always liked baseball, the game without a clock, and reading the boxscores didn’t replace seeing the day’s homeruns and final outs.
“Let’s sit outside,” Elizabeth suggested. “It’s beautiful out tonight.”
He watched the Orioles’ centerfielder disappoint Boston fans with a ninth-inning homer, then tapped the remote control. “Sure.”
On the patio, Rachel had been about to turn on the floodlights when Elizabeth said, “Let’s just look for a minute.”
He looked at the worksite, where the first layers of timbers were finally straight and level. The boys were strong, but they didn’t appreciate what dirt could do to a wall. If the rebar didn’t extend deep into the ground, if the timbers weren’t stepped slightly back, in a few years the pressure of the earth would push them forward. The boys had been impatient, but now the hardest work was finished.
Eyes adjusting to the dark, he looked at the curve of hemlocks around back, the rhododendron silhouette that concealed a mahogany bench. He had intended to sink a pond there, with lilies and cattails and fish. He looked up at the maples and oaks, the tulip poplar with its tall, crooked trunk. He had meant to cut that down. Poplars were fast-growing, weak, and this one was close to the house. But there had been a poplar in their yard when he was young, and so this one lived, protected by sentiment. Was that foolish? Was he being foolish again, dragging them all through this construction? How should he be spending this time? He intended to make lists for Elizabeth, reminding her what to do, explaining things he had done. Was this an act of ego? The world would go on without him.
A bat flitted by.
Elizabeth said, “There’s the Big Dipper.”
“Where?” Rachel asked.
Elizabeth pointed out the arced handle, the angled bowl. “Isn’t there a way, once you’ve got the dipper, to see the North Star?”
That jogged a memory. “Follow the handle?” he asked.
“Just two of them,” Elizabeth corrected. The longer they looked, the more stars appeared, as if their very looking created dots of light. “But which ones?”
“Look North,” Rachel said logically. But now there were countless stars visible, with no telling which was the benchmark of their sky.
They all slouched in their chairs, faces tilted back as if to receive the light of the sun, or a dentist’s drill. Rachel asked, “How many constellations do you know?”
The sparks above them revealed no design. Terry turned his head, wondered if the reddish one was Mars.
“Well, the Little Dipper,” Elizabeth said. “And Orion.”
How many nights had he done this? How many times had he looked up without ever bothering to locate himself among the stars? He remembered the childhood diversion of sitting on a sofa or bed, tilting his head backwards over the edge, and imagining the world where he would walk on ceilings, step up to pass through doors, duck under tall furniture. He remembered the sound of his mother’s old canister vacuum drawing closer, its yellow light shining as she threatened to suck up his hair. What could he have been? Five?
“Here’s what we’ll do,” he told his wife and daughter. “We’ll get a good book, and maybe a star chart, and we’ll learn the constellations together.”
The next evening, after Reynolds and Christian had finished their beers and the coals had grayed in the grill, Rachel arrived.
“Hey,” she said from the bottom of the hill. “It’s a wall.”
The retaining wall, now two feet high and forty feet long, with angled ends anchoring it in the hill, was nearly finished. After laying the top row they would give all of the timbers a final coat of stain with the sprayer. He had bought locust, which wouldn’t rot, but he wanted the extra protection.
“Do lifeguards eat tuna?” he called as she brought two plastic bags from the car.
“We aren’t picky,” she told him. “Around four o’clock I nearly ate a toddler.”
He watched the boys watch his daughter follow the brick walkway to the patio. In cutoff shorts over her close-fitting swimsuit, strong legs leading to worn sneakers, her long brown hair pulled through the gap in back of a baseball cap, she looked like an advertisement for summer.
“I went hog wild.” Rachel set her bags on the iron garden table and began pulling things out. “I found two computer programs on the solar system, a neat-looking old book by the guy who wrote Curious George—remember, about the monkey?—a glow-in-the-dark star chart, and another little book that tells you the names of everything.”
Terry looked and read the title, A Guide to the Night Sky. “Everything but a telescope.”
Reynolds said, “You know that camera shop in the mall? They sell binoculars and lenses. I bet they’d have them.”
Rachel put her purchases back into their bags. “More beers?” she asked the boys.
Terry felt it coming, and when Rachel came back with three bottles, having already twisted off the caps, and sat casually, knees spread the way girls’ never spread their knees when he was young, the wave fell onto him. She would get married, have a house, children, job, a life so long that this day, if she could remember it, would be a faint moment in the distant past. He would be memories to her; to her children he would be photographs and occasional boring stories. Standing on the patio beside the stone wall he had built, surrounded by greenery he had planted, outside of the house he designed, he felt like a ghost. He would be forgotten the way fire forgets coal.
“I’ll be back,” he told them, both to remind them that he was there and to reassure himself. Sitting on the living room sofa, he gathered his strength, as he had to more and more often. He would not think this way. He would not yield to self-pity. As much as he wanted to talk about it all—the fatigue, the irrational hope, the betrayal of being eaten from the inside, the crush of regret—he would not. He would not ask Elizabeth for forgiveness, because now she had no choice but to forgive him. He would not pray, because his entire adult life he had been a non-believer. He would not ask why no one asked him what he was thinking. He had been genuinely relieved when Elizabeth suggested spending a night in Rachel’s room; it was at night, after he worked to read himself to sleep, that his fate confronted him. Now he could curl on his side without worrying Elizabeth would stop pretending to be asleep. She pretended during the day as well: she never mentioned that he stood less and less, moving from one seat to another, that he no longer reached for or held anything over his head, that his stride was shorter. He wanted to make love with her, but he refused to ask, because she could not refuse. And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not. This was his gift to them.
Terry had been right: Mars.
“Without a telescope,” Rachel reported, “we should eventually be able to see all of the planets except Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto.”
The three of them sat on the patio in the dark. Elizabeth had brought one of the captain’s chairs from the den.
“As for constellations,” Rachel continued, glancing at the dimly glowing star chart in her hand, “there’s the Big Dipper. The pointers, on the outside, go up to Polaris. The handle and top of the dipper are half of the spine of Ursa Major—the end of the handle would be the tail. And Polaris is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.”
“Slow down,” Elizabeth said.
“Little Richard,” Terry told her. “Right next to the Big Bopper.”
“You see Polaris?” Rachel asked.
Elizabeth said, “I think so. That one?”
Rachel pointed. “That one.”
“What’s that other bright star, on the left?”
Terry told her, “That’s the sun.”
“Kochap,” Rachel corrected. “The end of the dipper. Now you should be able to connect them with those one, two…”
“I see it,” Terry said. “Three stars in between, and another brightish on the far corner, for the bottom of the basket.”
“Dipper,” Elizabeth corrected. “Going that way.” She drew a line in the air with her finger. “As if someone is pouring something out of the Little Dipper into the big one.”
After installing the computer programs, Elizabeth had poked around in them. You could visit the planets, click so they slid into cutaway views, click them into orbit, animate Saturn’s rings, learn the years Neptune was more distant from the sun than Pluto and, disturbingly, see how the sun would eventually devour Venus, Mercury, and perhaps even Earth five billion or so years from now. With one click, the screen filled with the theoretical view from their longitude and latitude on this very day at this very moment. In a box in the lower right-hand corner, seconds ticked into minutes, minutes into hours. Time could be sped up, reversed, or stopped altogether. The sky could be viewed from Athens or Sydney, the globe could shift to put, say, Saturn front and center. With one click, stars were labelled; with another, the lines of the constellations were drawn; with yet another, elaborate drawings of mythological figures appeared. Three more clicks left the stars, dots of light on a monitor, alone.
“And that,” she said now, wishing the real sky were as bordered and orderly, “must be Cancer’s southern claw.” It was out before she thought.
“Where?” Terry asked.
Elizabeth pointed it out.
Terry stared at the specks of light. Then said, “Well. No hard feelings.”
The next night was overcast. H.A. Rey claimed, in his book, that coping with an obscured view was part of the challenge of learning the stars, but without the Big Dipper they were lost. Turning on one of the outside lights, Rachel read to them from A Guide to the Night Sky. “Listen to this: ‘Many of the most recently-recognized constellations have no stories attached to them. These include Antila, the air pump; Fornax, the furnace; Horologium, the clock; and Norma, the carpenter’s square.’ Did you guys know about these?” She continued, “‘However, the vast majority of the constellations, particularly those most easily perceived by the unaided eye, carry with them tales which reveal little about the heavens, but much about those fascinated by wondrous objects afar.’”
Listening to her daughter’s voice, Elizabeth found unexpected comfort. She was rested now. Each night the hotel bed welcomed her, its sheets pulled tight, the room vacuumed, a fresh bar of soap recently released from its wrapper resting by the sink. She was almost ready. At first she had only wanted to tell someone how angry she was. One night, searching for relevant discussions on the Internet, she came across a group of people talking about friends and relatives who had died horribly: drunken driving, Russian Roulette, a brain hemorrhage. She had thought that on the computer, anonymous, she would be able to talk openly, but instead she simply lurked. It was the right word for how she felt. She recognized expressions of grief and loss familiar from bad books and television; they struck her as unoriginal, insufficient, and true. As her daughter’s voice continued like a song she wanted to hear again, Elizabeth reached out in the direction of her husband.
Rachel remembered some of these stories. Reading this book’s condensed versions of myths was similar, she thought, to looking at the stars; each chapter seemed unnaturally abrupt, but if you knew the context, there was sense to it all. Tomorrow she would buy a telescope, a strong one, so they could see everything. Early this morning, before the pool opened, she and Reynolds had made love in the clubhouse. “He’s so brave,” she had told him, thinking of her father even then. Every day that summer, the title of her job mocked her. What could she do? The wall was finished, the planting diagram complete. Terry explained that few people grew heathers this far south, but at their elevation, if the drainage was improved, and the bed had plenty of peat moss, they should thrive. The red and orange perennials would draw hummingbirds, and butterflies. She asked questions, wanting to be able to finish what he had planned. What she couldn’t ask him was, if her mother wouldn’t sleep in the house now, what would she do once he was dead? Were they patronizing him, pretending they would keep this house, that they could keep what was his, without him to possess it?
Terry vaguely recognized a few of the stories of the constellations. What eluded him was the physics of the stars. Rachel had read them an article from the paper about an astronomer who claimed to have found another sun, a sun one million times brighter than the Earth’s, but so far away that it had never before been seen. How could that be? A million times brighter than the sun, and impossible to see.
He had always meant to read more of the classics. For half his life he had been aware of all the pursuits that would, in all likelihood, remain unpursued. And now, when he should feel free to take risks—go hang gliding, what’s to lose?—he had dedicated his strength to self-control. He had thought at least he could stop the damned flossing every night, even brushing; but when he did, the next morning his teeth felt dirty. In some way he was grateful for the small irritation, the distraction.
Aaron, Elizabeth’s best honors geometry student, was a textbook overachiever, preparing for tests by creating his own. In three years he would be accepted by both Harvard and Yale; in fifteen he would be a successful cardiovascular surgeon. Tonight he sat up in bed, eating orange slices, re-reading Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, occasionally pausing to make notes. He had amused himself by removing the orange’s peel whole, then flattening it, which made him think map, and then Gerardus Mercator, the cartographer whose collection of maps was the first to be called Atlas.
Above their heads, beyond the trees, constant in a boundless night, the stars stood fixed by shapes they yearned to know. Cetus. Cepheus. Andromeda.
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”An Object is Due“ originally appeared in Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety Issue #22, Fall 2010. http://www.forkliftohio.com
An object is due
By Peter Turchi
An object is due to be brought to our house soon; any minute now. My wife and I have been waiting several weeks for this object to be delivered. We first saw the object first became aware of its existence–about two months ago, though of course we had seen many objects like it previously; you could even say we have been looking at objects like it all our lives. The object we’re waiting for is similar, in many ways, to an object my parents had in their house when I was a child, and which my mother has in her house now. For that matter, this object is very similar to many objects in many people’s houses.
When we first saw this object, we admired it. We touched it. We might have mentioned some desire to own it, but that may have come later. A few days later, we went back to where the object was and looked at it again. We looked at other objects like it. We grew excited about the possibility of buying the object, of having it in our house. We felt it would give us pleasure and, secondarily, give our guests pleasure, though I don’t think either of us mentioned guests.
We delayed making a decision. I got online and read about the maker of the object. I looked to see what other people thought of the object and its maker. I was glad to see that other people liked objects made by the maker, though I suspected that much of the admiration was in fact advertising. I didn’t find any negative criticism of the object or its maker. If I had, that might have influenced us. Finally, my wife and I decided to buy the object. This is a process we’ve been through before, such as when we bought our toaster.
The object was not inexpensive. Expense is relative, of course. What I mean is that the object can serve a function, but we could buy another object to serve the same function for much less money. Our primary interest in this object is aesthetic. The expense was great enough to give us pause; the cost was more than we’ve spent on anything other than houses, cars, education, certain trips, my wife’s viola, and one or two other objects. We didn’t need the object that is, if we had not bought the object, we would not have felt the need to buy another, similar object. By that standard, the object is unnecessary. And while the object serves a function, we don’t intend to use it for that or any other function. In other words, the object is useless.
We are excited about the pending arrival of this unnecessary and useless object. We’ve planned our day around it. We’ve talked about exactly where it will go. In the next few hours possibly in the next few minutes a truck will pull up in front of our house and the object will be delivered. My wife and I will look at it and, if all goes well, we will be pleased. Visitors will see it the object will be in a prominent place in our home and express their admiration or (in the case of a few relatives, almost certainly) their disapproval, or they will say nothing at all. They might think, ”How frivolous these people are! Buying objects like that one makes no sense. They don’t even use it. It is also ugly.“ They might think, ”How very wealthy these people are! And what good taste they have! I admire and envy them.“ They might think other things.
As for my wife and I, we will get pleasure from looking at the object, at least for a while. At some point, no doubt, it will become something like invisible, from familiarity. Only when new visitors come and say something about it, or look at it but don’t say anything, will we notice it again, and think whatever we think of it then. Perhaps we’ll cherish it for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we’ll regret having exchanged our money, which could have been used to buy other objects, such as bananas, for this object. Perhaps we’ll become tired of it and sell it, or give it away. Possibly it will be stolen, destroyed, or damaged in some less dramatic way.
My wife and I expect to get more objects. Our lives are full of them.
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This consideration of revision began as an attempt to clarify a sentence in the “Workshop Guidelines” in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program Handbook; it expanded as part of a discussion of how fiction writers most benefit from analytical writing; it underwent another transformation in a syllabus for a graduate workshop at the University of Houston; sincere and challenging questions posed by those students resulted in a version presented at the AWP conference in Austin; and that audience’s response has informed the current version.
Paving the Road; or, Developing Good Intentions
By Peter Turchi
When I was young, despite the countless hours I spent swimming, sailing, ice skating, snowshoeing, hiking, dusting for fingerprints, and just generally sleuthing with the Hardy Boys, I was not what you would call likely to excel at the President’s Physical Fitness Exam.
My father was the oldest of three brothers, all of whom played every sport they could, and especially football. My father left home as a teenager to join the United States Marines, an organization well-known for its attention to physical fitness. On the other side of the family, my grandfather was eventually inducted into the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame, and my mother’s brother pitched for the Baltimore Orioles*. Some people might have thought that this was quite enough athleticism for one family; others might have reasonably concluded that, by the time it got to me, the gene pool just ran out of gas, physical fitness-wise; but my father somehow thought I was responsible. That is why, one afternoon after school when I was 10 or so, as I planted myself on the couch and picked up whatever book I was in the middle of, my ex-Marine father appeared with a stopwatch and whistle and said: “I want you to start running around the yard.”
I’m sure I looked at him as if he had said, “I want you to start diving off the chimney.” It would be inaccurate to say I had no interest in running around the yard; I had quite a significant amount of hostility toward the suggestion. But of course it wasn’t a suggestion. My father insisted—he was nothing if not insistent, my father—but to his great disappointment, nothing came of it. I ran around the yard once or twice—well, let’s call it “running,” though I was to running what the Hindenburg was to the speed of sound. I circled the yard, morose, every afternoon for a few days, maybe a week; but when my father, a traveling salesman, went back on the road, the plan dissolved.
Leap ahead 20 years. I’ve played a few sports and even enjoyed them, but never have I been mistaken for an athlete. My wife and I are about to have a child. My father is in bad health, and I’m thinking it would be good to stay around for a while—that some regular exercise might be called for. We lived then on the edge of a development of starter homes; our bedroom window looked out on a 5-acre floodplain. Out of sheer orneriness, I decided that I would jog around the floodplain. After carefully calculating when most of our neighbors were least likely to be home, I went out and did it—of my own accord, I jogged.
I went perhaps 200 yards before various things—I suspected they were muscles—began to hurt. Breathing became painful. My heart moved into my ears, and hammered an unsteady rhythm. By the time I got back to the house, what felt like a few hours later, I thought I would throw up. It took most of the rest of the day to recover. I had gone, at most, half a mile.
For the same reason some people poke sticks in their eyes, and others insist on carrying items given by a person or persons unknown to them onboard the aircraft, I did it again, and again a few days after that. Before long it was not particularly challenging to jog around the floodplain, so I went out onto the streets of our neighborhood. After a month I was jogging two miles every other day. I watched my neighbor’s houses, came to know who left their garage doors open, who washed their cars weekly. I waved to people, and called out to the dogs. Soon I started alternating between jogging and sprinting. I read a book about training for distance running. That summer, I ran in a 10k race.
I tell you all of this because my change in attitude toward my physical well-being has been a drastic and ongoing devotion to revision; and some days when I see students react to some suggestion I’ve made for dramatic revision, I think of my father, and of how I responded to his good intentions. My first conclusion is the obvious one: that it’s nearly impossible to help someone improve at something he doesn’t want to do. This is why it’s so difficult to teach students in required composition classes to revise: many of them don’t want to write in the first place, they aren’t invested in the piece of writing they’ve completed, and when we tell them they need to revise they look at us as if we’ve just told them to run around the yard—or to take their seat on the Hindenburg.
My old hate/hate relationship with physical fitness might also illuminate a somewhat less obvious point: that almost any teaching, and certainly the teaching of revision, has to take into account not only the attitude but also the current ability of the student. To have given me that book on distance running when I was 10 years old would have had no positive effect; to buy me expensive running shoes would have been pointless.
That, too, might seem obvious, but it’s possible to make the mistake of asking our students to revise with a degree of thoroughness, or to require them to revise in a certain way, without first understanding their own attitude toward and ability to make revisions. And those are two different things.
A student’s attitude toward revision is largely the product of patience—or the lack of it—and ambition, or the lack of that.
A student’s ability to revise is something else. It involves, first, the student’s ability to stand back from his or her own work and to see it as another reader might—and, second, the student’s understanding of how to revise a given piece effectively. This last is both the hardest and the most important thing to teach, but I suspect we often make the mistake of trying to start there.
If the student writer has no interest in or ambition for the work, teaching revision is, if not pointless, doomed. (I’ll add here that “to get it published” is not a meaningful ambition for a piece of fiction or poetry. Thanks to the web, everything is publishable, from our favorite music mix to our diary entries. The simple fact that a piece of writing has been published probably hasn’t necessarily been evidence of high quality for, oh, 200 years, if it ever has; it certainly doesn’t mean anything now.) While we don’t usually have the same trouble teaching revision in creative writing classes that we do in required composition classes, there are some beginning writers who believe the first word that comes to mind is the best word, or that in encouraging revision we are asking them to turn the pure and natural landscape of the imagination into a prose equivalent of a strip mall. They want a nature preserve, while we argue for zoning. Or so they think.
The first step in discussing revision with any writer, then, is to identify—and, if necessary, adjust—his or her attitude toward revision. Of course, this is most effectively done not in the insistent manner of a drill sergeant, but in the supportive manner of a coach, or physical trainer. If a student has just written a 10—or 20, or 80—page story, and it’s the longest piece he’s ever written, and we give him a laundry list of things to revise, he’s likely to be annoyed, or frustrated—and he may simply be daunted by the scale of the task. Similarly, if a student has never written more than three drafts of any story, and we tell him to expect to write 15 or 20, he may run in the other direction. Because learning to revise is—like running—a process of developing stamina, or perseverance. A reasonable goal for one writing student may seem impossible to another. The first time I ran two miles, simply covering the distance was an accomplishment. Only with practice could I try to go faster. And—more to the point—only as I grew comfortable running that distance could I look around, and take note of what I saw, and think about my stride and breathing. The more students practice revision, the more comfortable they can become with using revision to explore a story, rather than to fix it.
A key to transforming the writer’s attitude toward revision is to help her to recognize her intention—not only why she is writing, but how or why she finds value in the particular piece at hand, and what she wants that piece of writing to communicate. (This same notion of intention could—should—be applied to a story’s parts—every scene, every page, every paragraph.)
Identifying the intention of a grocery list, or a job application, is simple. Identifying the intention of a particular story (or novel, or poem) can be more difficult, especially when, as is the case with most literary fiction, the work doesn’t mean to support a thesis, or tell the reader what to think. If the purpose of a story isn’t to deliver a message, and if it isn’t simply to execute a plot, what is its intention?
The intention of a story or poem can be considered in two ways: one is the intention of the work for the writer; the other is the intention of the work for the reader. These two things will always overlap, but they will rarely be identical.
For instance: the intention of a novel might be to argue against American intervention in Vietnam and, simultaneously, to demonstrate the impossibility of remaining neutral, even though to act is likely to cause harm. This is at least part of the intention of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The novel’s intention is not its plot, or sequence of events, or its romantic triangle; its intention is served by, among other things, that sequence of events, and those characters.
In that novel, Greene had another intention, one of more immediate interest to him than to the reader: rather than falling back on the sort of authoritative third person narrator he used most often, he wanted to continue to experiment with a dynamic, self-conscious, sometimes contradictory, other times ambivalent first person narrator. Thomas Fowler’s narrative is another crucial element of the book that serves Greene’s intention—but his interest in learning how to make the most of such a narrator was a private, technical matter. Ultimately, the effects the work means to create for the reader are what defines it; as writers, we must sacrifice or eliminate anything that interests us or intrigues us, pleases us or frustrates us, but fails to serve that ultimate intention.
So one way to teach revision is to help students to recognize and articulate their intentions. What interests you most about this story? What do you mean to explore or investigate? How do you want your reader to feel when she finishes reading? What do you want her to think about? (Eventually, of course, thorough revision involves asking those kinds of questions of every sentence.) A story or novel or poem is, after all, an attempt to make the reader think and feel, an attempt to communicate. And while nearly all of our students—like us—were once enchanted by stories they either read or heard, they may not have stepped out of their role as readers long enough to consider that the author set out to enchant them, and worked to weave a spell. Do they want to enchant their readers? To make them laugh? To make them feel the depth of a character’s despair? To lead them to reconsider their beliefs or attitudes? These are all general examples of a story’s intention for the reader.
The work’s intention for the writer would include all of those, but also goals the writer sets for himself: Maybe the student is trying to use the omniscient point of view for the first time, or trying to tell a story that covers the span of a character’s entire life; maybe he’s trying to avoid using the verb “to be” so often, or trying to vary sentence rhythm effectively; maybe he’s trying to tell a story in three acts, or to make sure that the story’s speaking characters have distinct voices. To encourage students to think about their work this way trains them to read as writers, and to consider the technical choices that make a story effective.
To put it another way: learning how to palm a playing card is the apprentice magician’s intention for himself; his intention for the viewer is to make the card disappear.
One of the most useful things a workshop, or we as teachers, can do for an apprentice writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her. Far too often students, and even teachers, slip into a default mode of finding what’s wrong with a draft—or, just as bad, what’s right with it. It is of course helpful to give the writer suggestions for developing the work; and it’s useful for students to learn to diagnose the ailments of a draft that falls short. But falls short of what? If the conversation doesn’t begin by trying to recognize the work’s intention, there’s a great risk that the suggestions offered will be suggestions for ways to make the story what the speaker thinks it should be, or could be, or might be.
When I talk about a workshop describing a draft’s intentions, I don’t mean students should try to read the writer’s mind, or guess what she was thinking. Rather, students should describe what the pages they’ve been given appear to be trying to do—and they should support their conclusion with evidence from the text itself. Because unless this articulation of the work’s intention is done carefully, thoroughly, any criticism—or praise—of specific parts is irrelevant. While readers might agree that a particular description is “hysterical,” a particular scene “shocking,” a particular character “familiar,” it’s impossible to say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing without having considered the work’s intention. For example: “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past” is a world-class last line—for The Great Gatsby. It would be an awkward last line for Moby Dick, and it would be an absurd last line for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The comment “Great line!” is not useful without consideration of the context—which is to say, the work’s intentions.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but another reason it’s useful for readers to articulate the apparent intention of the work is so that the author can hear it. Ideally, the majority of readers will describe something like the intention the author had in mind. But often, due to the fact that work in progress is either insufficiently focused or not fully considered, different readers will have very different understandings of a work’s intention. This is good for the writer to know. And then there are the times when readers will be affected by the work in a way the writer hadn’t anticipated, but which seems worth pursuing. Our intention for a piece of writing isn’t stable; in fact, when we set out to write a first draft, we may have no clear intention in mind. As we revise, our intention may become more clear, but it is also likely to change, even drastically. Our goal, then, is to help the writer understand what a thoughtful reader sees on the page, and what other exciting opportunities the pages suggest.
It’s tempting to end by telling you that, this past year, I finally completed my first marathon—but all material has its limits. I can confirm, though, that the gene pool has a sense of humor. My son turns out to be a gifted athlete. His first love is soccer, a sport his grandfathers never played, but this past fall he was recruited to be the kicker and punter for his high school football team. He likes it, and he seems to be good at it. But my son is 6-foot-3 and weighs 150 pounds—on the football field, even in pads and a helmet, he looks likely to be snapped in half. So his coach assigned him to a special PE class for the varsity football team. The single intent, at least during the winter months, is for the players to get stronger, mostly by lifting weights. But after a week my son had hurt both his knees and one shoulder, and he began cutting class. One problem was that he didn’t know how to lift weights properly; another was that the primary motivational tools among the football players were mockery and ridicule.
My son complained about this to his goalkeeper coach (who happens to be a woman, but that’s another story). After his knees heeled, she took him to the YWCA. For two weeks she taught him how to lift weights properly—and she did it without ever putting weight on the bar. That is to say, she taught him technique. Without all of that weight bearing down on him—the metal weight, I mean, but also the weight of those older, stronger boys harassing him, and so without feeling forced to lift too much too soon—he learned what he needed to know.
This, I’ll suggest, is analogous to the difference between writing fiction with an emphasis on the product and learning craft. Elements of craft can be, and sometimes should be, learned in isolation. And so we offer students general exercises, and specific exercises related to their work in progress, and suggestions for revisions that focus on one element of craft, with no thought that the result will be the “final” draft. Because learning to write is not, after all, a race—or, if it is, it’s the sort of race that’s won, again and again, by the slow but steady.
* Well, their Triple A affiliate, but still. back to story »
** Which is not to say that identifying and fulfilling the intentions of apparently straightforward writing tasks is simple. See the prefatory note. back to story »
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This was published in the anthology Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville and published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2006.
Rule of Thumb: Make it More Complex
By Peter Turchi
I remind myself to make a story more complex when it seems one-dimensional, single-minded, predictable, familiar, or thoroughly understandable. Often the first draft of a story will feel flat, its options limited; I’ve allowed the events, dialogue and character’s lives to become too narrowly focused. Make it More Complex is a reminder to cultivate another aspect of the main character’s life, a secondary character, a secondary line of investigation, a tertiary line of investigation, a pattern of images—something intriguing that is not (yet, apparently) directly related to whatever has become the story’s whirlpool, it’s enormous, powerful, potentially reductive vortex.
Some writers need to have the ending of a story—or an ending—in mind before they can begin. Others of us have trouble writing a story if we (think we) know the ending. The problem with knowing where you’re going is a problem of over-determination—of limiting a story’s possibilities from the outset, so that the writing is an execution of a notion, a literary equivalent of a mathematical proof. If I suspect I know a story’s ending before I’ve started writing, I need either to write past that ending (“So then what?”) or to consider which of the givens along the way bear further exploration—ways to add to the story’s journey, and to make it more complex.
For writers of conventional realism the ongoing challenge is to create characters of realistic psychological complexity. This means constantly working to allow characters to think more, and differently; to allow them to be self-conscious, self-critical, and contradictory. There’s an element of perversity to this, because writing about simple-minded people facing clearly-delineated conflicts is easier. So another way to state the rule would be: Make it More Difficult. Increase Your Ambition. For writers of fiction other than psychological realism, the challenge might be to avoid writing to a thesis, or to avoid creating work that merely illustrates a design strategy. “What more can this be?” “What more should this be?”—these are questions we ask ourselves in order to Make it More Complex.
Do I need to acknowledge that there is beauty in the austere, that we admire Shaker furniture, primitive paintings, and the song of a single voice? Complexity in itself is no virtue.
Rules are reductive, rules are constraining, rules are what the beginner wants and the experienced distrust. Create rules, follow them; but know when to ignore them. Like any “rule” that comes to mind—to my mind, anyway—this one immediately leads me to recognize the virtue of its opposite. But that in itself is a demonstration of the need to Make It More Complex: Question Every Rule.
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A version of this piece was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education to coordinate with the publication of Maps of the Imagination.
On Teaching Writing
By Peter Turchi
This is a tale about being lost, and finding a way, and then deciding to get lost again.
Long, long ago, on the verge of graduating from college, full of desire and naiveté, I accepted a Graduate Assistantship in Teaching from the University of Arizona 1) thinking that meant I was going to assist a teacher and 2) not knowing Tucson, Arizona, is in a desert. My excuses? I grew up on the East Coast, where deserts existed only in black and white movies; and despite my staggering ignorance, one thing I knew was that I was no teacher. I was a student; I had applied to the university to study.
To their credit, the people in charge of such things at the University assumed, or had learned by experience, that many of my fellow GATs would be as lost as I was. They oriented us: pointed us all in one direction. They told us our goal (to teach Freshman Composition) and how to reach it. We were given the textbooks, the essays to assign, and the standards by which to grade those essays; we were even given detailed syllabi. They provided us, and we, in turn, provided our students, something very much like what the counter clerks at AAA make for their customers: a bound set of strip maps showing the precise route from point A to point Z, with every turn marked.
Considering what the people responsible for Composition were given to work with—dozens of (mostly) young men and women, the majority with not 5 minutes experience in front of a classroom, asked to drag, poke, and prod thousands of first year students through the required writing sequence—the TripTik approach to teaching had some merit. I know at least a dozen of that year’s GATs who are still teaching, more than two decades later, and I’m prepared to admit that our surviving that first year might very well have had something to do with the level of detail in the instruction we were given.
Strip maps have a long and honorable lineage. They were put to use famously by John Ogilby, a former dance instructor, when he set out to make the first road atlas of Great Britain. He knew the people using roads were interested primarily in how to get from place to place. But while we teachers are sometimes destination-oriented, we are often as interested, if not more interested, in how we get there. We ponder, How can this material be communicated most clearly and effectively? Even as GATs we recognized that, in order to stay sane, we needed to find a) the relationship between what we were required to teach and the sort of reading and writing we loved, and b) a way to convey that passionate interest to our students.
That is why, as practical as that teaching TripTik may have been, in order to progress in the profession we had to throw it out the window. Teaching by strict adherence to someone else’s plan is like dancing by stepping on the yellow footprints mapped out on the studio floor: it isn’t dancing at all, but an imitation of dancing. It’s mechanical, uninspired, painful to watch and awkward to do. It’s a start, but needs to be brought to life in ways that can’t be dictated.
In education we talk about a course of study. According to no particular dictionary, a course is a channel, like the course of a stream; a path or route, like a golf course; or a habitual, common, and/or logical way of proceeding, as when we say “of course.” Students sign up for a course expecting to be taken somewhere useful, interesting or, ideally, both. Exactly what they learn, and how they learn it, is not, often, their primary concern. They trust us to understand what they need to know and how, after 8 or 12 or 14 weeks, they will come to know it. They get on the bus and trust us to drive.
The problem comes when the “course” is so deep and frequently traveled that it’s more rut than route, more gutter than way to get there. The ultimate liberation from a dictated itinerary came, for me, at a community college that might as well go unnamed. I was invited to propose any course I liked, with the understanding that, if enough students were willing to pay to enroll in it, I had a job. This, we all know, is a dangerous practice, one that can lead to classes such as “Individual and Community: An Investigation of Gilligan’s Island,” and “A Survey of World Beers: Part 3.” But I proposed classes I had dreamed of teaching, classes no one, as of then, had let me teach: “Great American Short Stories,” “Great American Novels,” “Great Contemporary Fiction,” (“Great” being my concession to the need to sell the class), etc. The courses had no prerequisites, and they led to no major or degree. No one told me which stories or novels to teach, and no one particularly cared. So I taught what I loved, and students came along for the ride.
Here’s my confession: Although I was driving the bus, I had no idea where I was going. I knew the major landmarks and points of interest—the texts I had chosen—but not what I was going to say about them, or whether the 12 weeks we had together would add up to anything more than a reading group. And so I prepared each week knowing that when I stepped into the room on Wednesday nights, my (adult) students were likely to demand answers to questions their younger counterparts often thought of, but rarely dared to ask: “What does this mean?” “Why did we have to read it?” “What makes it ‘Great’?” A dozen or twenty backseat drivers insisted that I defend the route I had chosen, the stops we made. Some nights (Lolita and Moby-Dick come to mind) the room held a distinct air of mutiny.
While I don’t endorse such a cavalier approach to curricula, those students and others like them taught me that the demand for justification created justification. Both the questions students asked and the questions I feared they would ask played crucial roles in defining the course—not the course that had been planned (which was hardly more than a notion), but the course we made, together. What we reached wasn’t an imposed destination but a way to see relationships among the texts, the ideas they contained, and the choices their authors had made—the result of close reading and thoughtful discussion.
For the past 11 years I have had the extraordinary luxury of teaching fiction writing in a low-residency MFA program. I call it a luxury not because the work is easy or overpaid, but because ours is, essentially, a tutorial program, one in which each faculty member works with a very few students. This offers my colleagues and me the luxury of time, which in turn allows for tremendous individual attention. We aren’t driving a bus, or even a taxi; we’re walking alongside our students.
While there are specific requirements for the degree, and for what has to be accomplished in any given semester, there are no syllabi; there isn’t a single required text. Instead, we have what we call a “Semester Project Study Plan,” which consists of two sheets of blank paper. Terra incognita. At the 10-day residency that starts every semester, my colleagues and I meet with each student we’ll be working with for the months ahead, and together we map out a plausible course on those blank pages. The student has ideas about where she should go: what she should write, what aspects of craft she should study, and what she should read to learn them. We have our own ideas about what she needs to learn, what she might read. We tailor the journey to this particular student at this particular time. We change direction as often as seems useful, or necessary.