A Conversation with My Mother (by Michael Downs)
The Missouri Review published Michael Downs’ story, “At the Beach,” in the September 2006 issue. That story is now part of Downs’s recently published collection, The Greatest Show (LSU Press, March 2012). Here, Downs writes about how the story was his response to a personal challenge: be happy.
Looking down on the Earth they saw it explode. With it, exploded the atmosphere.
— from “The Day the World Went Poof,” by Michael Downs, fourth grade
Once, my mother wondered aloud why my stories were always so sad. I had always sent them to my parents as they appeared in literary journals, and in part I measured their success by whether they made my mother cry. Admittedly, that was a low threshold; she’s a soft touch. But apparently she had begun to see something in my stories—and not in a good way. Childless couples. Marriages without love. Marriages with an excess of love. Strokes. Was I so unhappy? she wondered aloud to me and my father. Was it her fault? The conversation that followed went something like this:
Dad: “The stories aren’t all sad, Jude.” (My mother’s name is Judy) “There’s always something hopeful at the end. They’re hopeful stories.”
Mom: “They are sad. The people are so unhappy.”
Dad: “People are unhappy. But in his stories, there’s always a hopeful note.”
Recently, I asked a friend, whose father had spent his life as a professor teaching Shakespeare, “Is your Dad tragic or comic?” He looked startled, thought a moment, then said, “Tragic.” He seemed sad to have to say so. I think I would like his dad.
My favorite Shakespeare plays are the tragedies, yes, but because I find tragedy beautiful does that mean I’m sad? Most of the time my mood is good. I look for the loveliness of the glass no matter how much water it holds, so long as that water is drinkable, and clean, and it catches the light. I am not so gloomy as Tifty in John Cheever’s “Goodbye My Brother” whose unrelentingly dour realism leads the narrator to hit him with a tree root while proclaiming “Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand…?” Nor am I like Grace Paley’s dying father character in “Conversations with My Father,” insisting that his daughter is frivolous for taking the comic view. “Tragedy!” he yells at her. “When will you look it in the face?”
I try at all times to see what Cheever calls “the harsh surface beauty of life.” But his words, as always, are careful. The beauty is “harsh,” and it is on the “surface.” Even to see beauty (or comedy) means you might be aware of the tragedy it conceals. As a sports reporter fresh out of college my job was often to visit the loser’s locker room, on deadline, notebook in hand, trying to convince some some guy with a towel over his head to answer questions about committing the wrong foul at the wrong time. I found such moments to contain beauty. Like the speaker in Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” I’ve long understood that “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
Go back even further, and you’ll see me in fourth grade, scribbling out a 12-page opus called “The Day the World Went Poof,” a story that won third-place in my elementary school’s writing contest, and which my long-suffering mother typed.
“He brought the ship down toward the sun. Mercury was gone and so was Venus. Not to mention that the Earth was gone too. … Soon the whole Solar System would be destroyed.”
No surprise, then, that twenty years later when I turned to short stories, a great disaster would be my inspiration. The 1944 Hartford Circus fire killed 168 people when the Big Top canvas burned during a matinee, and it is the inciting event in my book, The Greatest Show. As a fourth-grader I might have titled it “The Day the Circus Went Poof.”
We have our tendencies. My governing impulse, mirroring that of many writers, is toward violence, grief, and all things dolorous. Some writers tell those stories with a sense of humor, and we call them tragic-comic. I’m serious as granite. I once told Buddy Nordan, who is appreciated by many but not by enough, that I wanted to write as he does, to make my readers cry sorrow-tears from the left eye as the right shed tears of laughter. I can’t remember exactly how he answered, but the gist was that it is so awfully hard to write like ourselves, why torture ourselves by trying to write like someone else?
Okay. But I did once read a story Buddy wrote that wasn’t funny. And one of my favorite George Saunders’ tales is “The Red Bow”, a story he wrote post-9/11 that has not one whit of his brand of humor. Clearly, writers can succeed against their tendencies. Especially if by doing so a writer might make his mother happy. Or make a better book. There has to be some relief in a book of sad stories, right? A little light by which to see the darkness more clearly?
So I challenged myself: Write a happy story. And I added another hurdle: keep it short (by short I mean fewer than 3,000 words; my stories average about 6,500).
Thus, the story “At the Beach,” which The Missouri Review printed and which sits now at the center of my book of sad circus stories, a fulcrum story, in which love and good will triumph.
You are asking yourself, perhaps, how does he know it is a happy story? What is happiness anyway?
Well, you’re right. I don’t know it’s a happy story. But I know that at the end nothing terrible has happened. My characters are happy. Their lives aren’t perfect. One suffers from a vodka hangover, which I gave her to temper the happy feeling and avoid schmaltz. Likewise, I made a point-of-view switch in the last sentence that, I hope, undercuts the tra-la-la just a bit.
The story came out of me quickly, in three weeks. The final draft isn’t much different from the first draft. I’m not often so fortunate, and so you might think that I’d try to write a happy story again, given how quickly this one wrote and that it had some publication success.
But no. I was back immediately to writing sad tales. In my next one, I killed a dog on the second page. After that, things got worse.
Oh, what can you do with a writer like that? What can you do?
Michael Downs is the author of The Greatest Show (LSU Press, 2012) and House of Good Hope, winner of the 2007 River Teeth prize for nonfiction. Visit him online at greatestshow.blogspot.com