I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
December 1, 2019: Peg Alford Pursell
Peg Pursell is the creative source behind the award-winning Why There Are Words Reading Series, which she started back in 2010 in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2016 it jumped its geographical boundaries and can now be found in NYC, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, Austin, New Orleans, and Asheville. A wonderful literary citizen, Peg also created WTAW Press, an independent nonprofit publisher of literary books.
A Girl Goes Into the Forest, Peg’s second book, was published in July by Dzanc Books. It’s a collection of hybrid stories and fables centered on the female experience. Hallelujah, right? For contrary to the great J.R.R. Tolkien, women also enter the perilous realm.
In the title story, however, the girl does not go into the forest on her own–which, of course, was the experience of so many of us. “[S]he followed him into the woods, moving in the direction where perhaps she imagined the rest of her life waited. So ready for something to happen.”
From a purely personal standpoint, I would have had a hard time not following that story with “The Ossuary,” which begins with this line. “She fell into something with him almost immediately, a spell she decided to call love.” And includes this line, “But life is never only a moment.”
78 flash, hybrid, and traditional stories pour into these 226 pages. Peg groups them into 9 sections, each section titled by a line from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Peg landed on this particular fairy tale by asking herself the question, In what fairy tales does a girl have agency?
The shorter the fiction, the harder every word has to work. Compression is key. Take a look at the following paragraph from “Old Church by the Sea.” The repetition is so lovely, an echo of mother and daughter. And so much story rises off the page from these few words.
I always think I’ll circle around to the exact explanation for what went wrong. Having and wanting at the same time–that’s what it was to carry my daughter inside me. After, I was emptier than I could ever have imagined, I thought then. Then, when I thought I would have the chance to tell her one day.
Notice the image in the next excerpt. “The day she turned eighteen, she was gone. I’d felt that departure coming all along, but the sight of her empty closet took the breath out of me.” (“Smoke, Must, Dust”) The image of the empty closet seems to reverberate out like a sound.
One more image that creates a different sensation. “I’d imagined we would run and play as in a game of tag, like we had when she was younger, as if we were two butterflies in the tall grass.” (“Old Church by the Sea”) This image seems to play on like a video, long after we read the words.
In these next three examples so few words do so much work that we have to hold on to the book, look up, and let our mind wander for a while.
Character description: “a man who’d set his mouth closed against anything that might seep out of it without his approval.” (“Smoke, Must, Dust”)
Sky description: “The arched sky was so blue it was hard not to believe in something grand behind it, behind everything.” (“A Man With Horses”)
Use of language: “I’ll think of this night, of you, a blurry image in my mind’s eye that won’t come true.” (“Your Spree in Paris”)
Also doing so much work is the cat In “The Old Cat on the Countertop,” a one-page story of three paragraphs, where the ending is perfect. The excerpt below is from the middle paragraph.
Last night she and her daughter, now a young woman, had had another fight…The old cat watched from a spot on the countertop where the animal wasn’t permitted to be, whiskers up and unmoving. Neither mother or daughter had been who they thought themselves to be. She’d slapped her girl. How to reinhabit herself, a tight, foul-smelling shoe lined with fear and remorse she would have to journey in, wishing for a beacon promising forgiveness.
The power in so many of these short, short stories comes from metaphor, which seems to rise up like steam. Take a look at “Iguana,” “Pond Water,” and “Exposed,” all of which I love. Another one I really loved was “A Pair of Sisters,” where it’s not metaphor but language and image that weave their magic. “Exposed,” though, might be my favorite of all.
Peg’s first book, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, was the Foreword INDIES 2017 Book of the Year for Literary Fiction.
Come back on DECEMBER 1st to read how PEG ALFORD PURSELL spends her days.