Today our writer-in-residence, Chang-rae Lee, led a one-hour workshop discussion with a group of middle school English teachers. This workshop was really about learning how to become better readers, so that we can help our students to become better readers, so that they may, some day, become better writers. "You can't teach someone to write without first giving them an appreciation of reading. That's what they will have to draw upon when they go to write. Practice reading with a writerly eye and thinking consciously about what the writer has chosen to do, line by line." So that's basically what we did. Chang-rae had asked us to read a fairly short (four page) and quite wonderful short story called "Pet Milk" by Stuart Dybek, and he basically asked us to work through it with him, sequentially and deliberately, paying attention to and asking questions about the choices the writer made from line to line, sentence to sentence.
This is a different kind of reading than we often ask students to do. Often, in schools, we manage to convey the impression to students that stories are somehow to be thought of as elaborate puzzles, and that it is the goal of readers to find the "hidden meaning." I have students who have described their impression of what they have been taught in more or less exactly those words. But, as Chang-rae observed, "literature is not created as a compendium of signs and symbols." Stories, he argued, are about what Flannery O'Connor called "the mystery of of personality." Stories are about people, and about possibility.
"Pet Milk" is about a young man and one of his early girlfriends, Kate. But that's not where the story begins. It begins like this:
Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable—compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. There's almost something of the past about it, like old ivory. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.We began by looking at the these two paragraphs. Chang-rae told us, "I like to ask very simple, almost dumb questions. Why does this particular story start here? And what does that suggest about what the writer wants us to think about?" We talked about that beginning, about the focus on one particular object, about the overtones and undertones of the very first sentence, about the grandmother and her radio, whose presence in the story raises other questions: "Why do does the writer stay for so long here? Why did he bother with it? Why not something else?" As we thought about and tried to articulate answers to those questions, we found ourselves getting deep into the visible and invisible threads of connection in the story, its architecture. As Chang-rae suggested, "Writing is a series of notions and ideas and details that come together in an orchestrated way. My goal with my students is to talk about any piece of writing and its aesthetic universe. A story is an instituted universe."
There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the stat- icky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.
When a writer decides to work into the details of a moment, that becomes a form of characterization, "The density of the details reveals something of the character's desires and needs." In this case, as some people noted, the swirling of the pet milk and the swirling of the sky and the swirling of the memories and, later, the swirling of the emotions between Rudi and Kate are interconnecting threads in this "orchestrated universe," a universe that foregrounds, as all stories must, a certain kind of movement.
Our discussion itself did some swirling of its own, from the story itself to the art of writing to student understandings about reading and writing. Most of our students, even the adept ones, perhaps especially the adept ones, think only in terms of linear movement, plot as sequence of events. "Student writers write and move on. They don't write as if they're bearing treasure as they move. But that kind of sustained vision justifies everything that has come before and goes after."
There are other points in the story where the writer lingers. For example there's a passage when the narrator and Kate are at a restaurant celebrating his 22nd birthday:
The waiters in the Pilsen wore short black jackets over long white aprons. They were old men from the old country. We went there often enough to have our own special waiter, Rudi, a name he pronounced with a rolled R. Rudi boned our trout and seasoned our salads, and at the end of the meal he'd bring the bottle of creme de cacao from the bar, along with two little glasses and a small pitcher of heavy cream, and make us each a King Alphonse right at our table. We'd watch as he'd fill the glasses halfway up with the syrupy brown liqueur, then carefully attempt to float a layer of cream on top. If he failed to float the cream, we'd get that one free.So what is Rudi doing in this story? Why is he there? Why does the author, in a story that is only four pages long, give Rudi so much room, pay so much attention to him? What does Rudi's presence suggest about the narrator's desires and needs? Those questions led to further discussion, which again led us deeper into this "orchestrated universe."
“Who was King Alphonse anyway, Rudi?” I sometimes asked, trying to break his concentration, and if that didn't work I nudged the table with my foot so the glass would jiggle imperceptibly just as he was floating the cream. We'd usually get one on the house. Rudi knew what I was doing. In fact, serving the King Alphonses had been his idea, and he had also suggested the trick of jarring the table. I think it pleased him, though he seemed concerned about the way I'd stare into the liqueur glass, watching the patterns.
“It's not a microscope,” he'd say. “Drink."
He liked us, and we tipped extra. It felt good to be there and to be able to pay for a meal.
The story ends, as many great stories do, improbably, surprisingly. The narrator and his girlfriend are on a train, and they're making out, and the train is barreling through a station, and the narrator says:
The train was braking a little from express speed, as it did each time it passed a local station. I could see blurred faces on the long wooden platform watching us pass—businessmen glancing up from folded newspapers, women clutching purses and shopping bags. I could see the expression on each face, momentarily arrested, as we flashed by. A high school kid in shirt sleeves, maybe sixteen, with books tucked under one arm and a cigarette in his mouth, caught sight of us, and in the instant before he disappeared he grinned and started to wave. Then he was gone, and I turned from the window, back to Kate, forgetting everything—the passing stations, the glowing late sky, even the sense of missing her—but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I'd have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.
The shift in point of view, the sudden move toward dis-embodiment, is both startling and revelatory. It's not what we expect, it's not what is probable. But that, Chang-rae suggested, is what makes it interesting and powerful. "Having created an image, it's the job of the writer to make something of it. We're writing to discover what's possible in the next paragraph, the next sentence. Student writers are attracted to the probable. If something happens 90% of the time in a certain way, they'll write about that. Great writer's don't do that. Great writers invite the possible."