Foreword | March 01, 2008

I took a walk with a friend one fall afternoon in the woods. We drove to a national forest just outside town and started on a trail. At the time I was having difficulty in my working life and talked to her about it. Our talk didn’t turn up any remarkable new ideas, but it changed my attitude in a way that allowed me to get through my troubles. It turned out to be an important moment in my life. I naturally assumed that for my pal it was just a few hours of politely enduring my complaining, but later I learned that it was a memorable experience for her as well. Over the years of our continuing friendship, she still mentions our fall walk.

Nothing significant happened. It was an afternoon merely of comradeship and openness about a recent quandary. Why then so memorable?

Perhaps one reason was that we decided while we were walking, almost as a joke, to take off into the woods without any idea of where we were going and to pay as little attention to direction as possible-just to walk wherever the ground took us and to talk about whatever. We would worry about discovering our way back later. Symbolically at least, in a small way we let ourselves go. To hell with worrying about direction and about scintillating conversation. We gave up.

Going off the grid can result not just in changes of behavior and attitude but also in discovery. Many of the breakthroughs in science and technology have been the outcome of one kind of research or work-often with a modest goal-becoming something that no one could ever have guessed. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek was a draper’s apprentice whose job of examining fabrics led him to create lenses and eventually the microscope: identifying cloth resulted in the first sighting and description of a whole hidden world of microorganisms. Louis Pasteur’s research on fermentation for making wine, beer and vinegar led to the discovery of bacteria, to the germ theory of infection and, eventually, to the process of pasteurization. In 1903, German-born scientist Otto Loewi intuited that nerves worked by chemical transmission rather than electricity, but he didn’t pursue the idea until seventeen years later, when a dream suggested the experiment that proved his theory.

In science and also in life there is a peculiar, sometimes mysterious relationship between practical thought and unexpected realization as well as between action and reflection. The best writing often leads in directions not intended and to surprising discoveries-both welcomed and unwelcomed. Otis Haschemeyer’s complex and wonderful story “The Fantôme of Fatma,” this year’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize winner in fiction, concerns a group of Americans rock climbing in Mali, where they encounter a native boy who lives in the rocks, doesn’t speak and is known among the locals as a fantôme, or ghost. It is a story that unravels the real and sometimes discordant relationships of the climbers and, paradoxically, narrates an experience in their lives that is magical, disturbing and ultimately uniting.

John Alford’s story “Whistling in the Louvre” concerns a father who is processing and accepting the impossible: his own failure as a father and his son’s decline into mental self-destruction. In “Never Trust a Man Who-” Cynthia Morrison Phoel describes a young woman who lives near Sofia, Bulgaria, trying to find her way during that nebulous, untethered period between youth and adulthood. Intelligent and self-aware, she discovers both a conflict within herself and the fact that there is consequence to every choice. Natalie Sears’s “Arctic Summer” is about a schoolgirl living for a few months in an exotic place, an island called Qikiqtarjuaq, above the Arctic Circle, where she experiences the wonder of place as well as a romance that defies her former assumptions about herself and love.

Robert Kimber’s “Big Jim,” the Smith Prize winner in essay, describes a family that in the 1950s chooses to live part of their lives in the boonies, running a fishing and hunting camp in the outback of Maine. Kimber depicts the camp’s handyman, Don, as someone who teaches by action the qualities of tirelessness and sheer practical efficiency.

Amos Magliocco’s essay “Put on the Petty” depicts the magnetic attraction of two young men to the exotic world of storm chasing, partly as a way to get beyond a darkness in their own lives, while Jerald Walker’s “The Mechanics of Being” depicts a different sort of magnetism-his father’s remarkable story of a life lived actively, despite blindness.

Jude Nutter’s Smith Prize poems form a meditative portrait of a childhood self searching obsessively for rare butterfly specimens, which she traps in her “killing jars,” blind to their suffering. She also confesses that as a child in Bergen-Belsen she lived in a house near the death camp, a house that had once contained overflow from that camp. This poem swerves between lush metaphor and stark admission of facts in order to navigate the territory between her childish innocence and the adult self that seeks to come clean.

C. K. Hutchins’s poems are whimsical and often surreal in their language and images. Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe are evoked vividly but obliquely in a carefully detailed dreamscape. In “Confessions of a Tactile Kleptomaniac,” she lists the objects, observations and shreds of wisdom she has “pilfered” in her travels, from “a soft little stone from an Auschwitz lane” to “the resonance of the courtyard walls” to “my father’s glasses, smudged with the final salt.” She may be approaching locales that exist on the map, but what she finds is a territory of whimsical discovery.

Likewise, in his sections from “Landscape with Origins,” Michael McGriff explores the dimensions of a working-class mill town in Oregon in a manner that seems to probe beneath the surface. Using quick, impressionistic turns and incantatory language, McGriff evokes surprising scenes and characters from a milieu that already feels off the beaten track.

In his interview, Charles Baxter talks about the craft of writing. Baxter believes in a certain kind of serious play in fiction: thrusting characters into action, getting them in trouble, discovering their true motivations, never tying them to concepts-all of which result in discovery of the unexpected.

–SM

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