Dispatches | August 20, 2008

Yesterday after I had left the office and was standing outside waiting for my carpool ride, I felt something on my foot.  I looked down.  It was a big black ant, and it was heading up my leg.  To stop it, I scraped at it with the sandal on the opposite foot, knocking it to the sidewalk.


At first I thought it was okay.  It was moving.  Then I saw that it was running in half circles; it looked like a dog sniffing at something—it would run this way for a couple of centimeters and then turn and go in the opposite direction.


I haven’t closely observed ant locomotion ever, but this ant wasn’t moving right.  Its navigation system was down.  After a minute or two it appeared to be widening the radius of the half-circle it kept traveling, but it wasn’t going to recover.  I felt  sad, though it was “only” an ant.  That’s what I thought and felt, and at the same time I had turned on my mental video camera.  “Get this down,” said a voice in my head.


Most writers have a built-in radar for those moments that are important to notice and record, mentally or on paper.  The moment that says “notice me” is different for everyone, but for me, the deaths of animals, from gnats on up to horses, have always triggered the recording and writing reflex.  (As evidence there is archived somewhere in a box of juvenilia my adolescent poem “Salute to a Dying Wasp.”  I had sprayed the wasp with Raid and then repented as I watched its death throes, and my penance was an elegy. At least it didn’t rhyme, but I’m ashamed to admit it had something of the tone of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”)


My point is not about the ant, though I was even sadder when it just stopped, like a battery-powered toy running out of juice.  It twitched a little, and then I had to get in the car.  I took out my notebook and “got it down,” though writing in a car makes me sick.


There’s no substitute for those experiential “finds” writers harvest that give authenticity to a piece of fiction.  Someday, in something I write, that ant will probably die again, just a sentence or two of ant death that will lend verisimilitude to a scene—or perhaps its death will carry some emotional weight also.  And it will feel real because it was.


While proofing the issue one last time yesterday, I was struck by a passage of description from Andy Mozina’s forthcoming story. It had that aura of something actual, not invented, harvested from real life so that it would be preserved, and I’ve been charmed every time I read it:



. . . a street where trees don’t grow very tall. South Milwaukee. Small houses with complicated roof lines: dormers, additions, awnings and porches; an air conditioner punched out a window like a Pez in mid-dispense. Gutters sag, downspouts dangle, shingles grow moss. Inside, staircases with hairpin curves, dining rooms with old built-ins, upstairs bedrooms with slanted ceilings, tiny closets shaped like mathematics problems.


One scrubbed kitchen smells from years of meat, a century of congealed gravy, coffee grounds, pill canisters. A candy thermometer has fallen between the stove and the cupboard, visible with a flashlight but essentially lost forever.