Asking for Directions

May 27, 2015 - garden totes

In a second section of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, there’s a startling thoroughfare in that Biff Brannon, owners and renter of a New York Cafe, upbraids his mother Alice: “‘Listen,’ he said. ‘The difficulty with we is that we don’t have any genuine kindness. Not though one lady I’ve ever famous had this genuine affability I’m articulate about.’” The critique itself isn’t what’s surprising; after all, in a brief time we see Alice on a page, she lies in bed and complains, threatens her husband, calls him a freak, and can pattern no care for a dipsomaniac Blount. When Biff’s night change ends and Alice finally gets up—only after scheming her Sunday School doctrine (she reads aloud from a “fishers of men” thoroughfare in a Gospel of Matthew while Biff tries “to apart a tangible disproportion from a sound of Alice’s voice”)—Biff can't mount to get into a bed as she’s left it: “Deftly he topsy-turvy a sheets in all probable ways, putting a tip one on a bottom, and branch them over and upside down.”

They’re unusual details—the sheet-changing, a try to apart a disproportion of Christ from a sound of Alice’s voice reading them—details that tell us precisely how Biff feels, in a abdominal sense, about his wife. But what we find extraordinary in this part is Biff’s—and by prolongation McCullers’s—almost metaphysical grasp of a psychology underlying Alice’s unkindness, what he claims is preventing her from carrying a “real kindness” he’s articulate about: “Or maybe it’s oddity we mean. You don’t ever see or notice anything critical that goes on. You never watch and consider and try to figure anything out. Maybe that’s a biggest disproportion between we and me, after all… . The delight of a philharmonic is something we have never famous … we don’t know what it is to store adult a whole lot of sum and afterwards come on something real.”

Certainly Alice’s accountability is, on a surface, a disaster to empathize, to put herself in someone else’s shoes. But Biff intuits that a smirch underneath a smirch is a failure to notice. To Biff, curiosity—sitting with uncertainty, perplexing to figure things out—is really scarcely a same thing as kindness.

Seeing, noticing, enjoying a spectacle, storing adult detail: Biff competence contend that unkindness is a failure, first, of a imagination.


I re-read this thoroughfare on a moody from Chattanooga to Minneapolis. we was going to attend a welter of panels and readings and unpretentious reunions that is a annual Associated Writing Programs Conference. In my carry-on, in further to a McCullers novel, was a story I’d started drafting called “The Directions-Giver,” about an aged male in New York City with a singular present for giving directions. As a child, he could report certain landmarks with such beauty and clarity that when visitors went to see a thing he described, they were disappointed, since they felt as if they’d already seen a authentic version, a genuine one before them usually an unlawful copy. The Directions-Giver grew skilful during gauging distances between points, converting yards to meters and miles to kilometers with speed and mathematical precision. Under his guidance, tourists felt as if they were simply remembering a track they’d taken many times in a past. The Directions-Giver became world-famous. Luminaries who came to New York always sought him out. Alas, bad Directions-Giver—with a appearance of smartphones, his present was no longer required in a world. Tourists became self-sufficient. They traversed a city looking during all since they no longer indispensable to demeanour for anything. The Directions-Giver wandered a city among them, still honing his skills inside his head, looking and sounding really many like a babbling homeless man.

I comprehend what we have here is a situation, not a story. In a story, this male would act or be acted on in a approach that forced him to confirm something. What does he want, what is he peaceful to do to get it? He wants someone to need him again. we don’t know what he’s peaceful to do. And so a breeze idles.

Still, it was an suitable story to have taken to AWP. Directions—the miss of them—became a go-to theme of conversation, rumpled writers late for panels and mislaid in a companion intricacy of stores and skyways above a downtown streets. Walking outward was a cinch, though it was raining—then snowing—and my hotel was one of a farthest from a gathering center. Inside a obstruction Siri was of no help. It incited out that seeking for directions was of no assistance either. The few times we stopped people who looked not-like-writers (business attire), we would hear, “right right left afterwards another right,” or “there’s a map usually past Target.” Perhaps directions-giving is indeed apropos a mislaid art. My roommate and we asked a concierge how to travel to a nearest Starbucks. Go down to travel level, he said, enter a atrium, and smell your way.

I indispensable a round of string, a track of crumbs. we told a crony we wished we had marker so we could leave outlines on a walls. “Red, right, return,” he joked. He’d schooled a approach after a night of trial-and-error—making a mental list of visible details: stay on a nauseous red runner with gray stripes for dual uninterrupted skyways; enter Macy’s, exit by a Ralph Lauren men’s department; round clockwise around a hulk atrium until we see a pointer for a International Center. If we pass a dangling china bird (or is it a fish?), you’ve taken a wrong turn.

I noticed. we beheld hard. But afterwards it stopped raining and a object came out and we didn’t need to take a skyways anymore—all of us with phones articulate from inside a pockets and receptacle bags.


I’m home now and operative on a novel though we consider of a Directions-Giver any day, half-sketched on a handful of yellow authorised pages still pressed in my book bag. we feel a low clarity of grief trustworthy to him and his archaic skill. Why? What is it he wants to say?

I’ve wondered if a area of grief is a sold loneliness of a augmenting self-sufficiency. Don’t get me wrong—I use Siri liberally, with joy, though she represents one some-more fissure in a large exploding edifice of face-to-face interaction. In Minneapolis, a day a object came out, we watched a immature woman, alone, sketch herself in front of a “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture regulating a selfie stick. A year ago she would have been compelled to ask a foreigner to take that shot. She competence have enjoyed a conversation. And she would have indispensably ceded a little magnitude of artistic control, permitting a stranger’s framing and eye to impact a bid of a photograph.

What I’ve realized, looking behind on a selfie-taker, is that a story’s sold grief isn’t the erosion of tellurian interaction. It’s what’s underneath it, a smirch underneath a flaw. When we ask a foreigner for directions we knowledge a impulse of humility; for an instant, we are fixation yourself, in a small, scarcely unsubstantial way, into another’s hands. There is an acknowledgment of need, an acceptance of a state of not-knowing, followed by an power of listening and looking for a details.

What my Directions-Giver story wants to suffer is a spoil not of tellurian connection, though of an whole talented act—one that is closely same to storytelling and listening, to a taciturn sell between author and reader.

Say we need to get to an unknown residence in an unknown city for a matrimony shower, circa 1992. we call to ask a stewardess for directions. She tells me to exit a turnpike on Hanley Road, spin left, go by dual stoplights. After a second light, I’ll pass a Shell hire on a left usually before my spin onto Blackberry Lane. If we start to go adult a towering and see a glow station, I’ve left too far. Go dual blocks on Blackberry, take a third right onto Adams. Fourth residence on a left, blue Cape Cod with shuttered dormers. Tire pitch in a tree, scarecrow and pumpkins beside a mailbox.

As she speaks, cinema form in my head. we strech into my past (creating some kind of amalgam from recollected scarecrows and Cape Cods and glow stations) and plan into my future, devising a expostulate I’m about to take. Further, we make assumptions formed on a sum she’s selected to share: she has children; a interior of her home will expected enclose anniversary decor. we consternation if she keeps a garden. What I’m experiencing is, in essence, a holistic act of empathic imagination.

When people ask, since review brief stories? we wish to say: stories learn us to be noticers a approach directions once taught us to be noticers. We lay down with a brief story and know we’re going to get somewhere in a singular sitting. The sum are what will get us there. “It is sum that make a story personal,” James Wood writes in his memoir, The Nearest Thing to Life. “Stories are done of details; we obstacle on them.” We’ve never been where we’re going, though we trust a eye of a directions-giver. We humbly contention to a verse dream. If a poem is a singular landmark we lift over to admire and a novel is a cross-country trip, a story is a obligatory expostulate to an critical event. A insane rush to a hospital. Our life might count on looking for a details.

But since is looking important? It’s roughly a platitude: We need art since it teaches us to notice. But since do we need to notice? Why not let Siri simply speak us there—allow all to rinse over us and disappear into a ether?

Here we round behind to Biff and Alice. We need to be conscious lookers in sequence to preserve, within ourselves, a genuine tellurian affability that is a outmost phenomenon of a sensitive imagination. Reading novella teaches us how. When Ishmael describes Ahab’s scar—”It resembled that perpendicular join infrequently done in a straight, lofty case of a good tree, when a tip lightning tearingly darts down it, and though slashing a singular twig, peels and grooves out a bellow from tip to bottom, ere using off into a soil, withdrawal a tree still greenly alive, though branded”—we see Ahab as Melville sees him, stricken though erect. We demeanour during Melville looking during Ishmael looking during Ahab, reading over a shoulder of what Wood would call a “serious noticer,” suspending visualisation since a account does so. we consider of Mrs. Ramsay looking around a list “unveiling any of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, though bid like a light hidden underneath H2O so that a ripples and a fibre in it and a minnows balancing themselves, and remarkable wordless fish are all illuminated adult hanging, trembling.” Woolf watches Mrs. Ramsay examination a guests; we watch during dual removes, component a stage as Mrs. Ramsay does. we consider of a sound of light drumming on a windowpane after Gretta tells Gabriel about Michael Furey in “The Dead,” of a edging pleat on women’s underclothes that “reminded [Gurov] of fish scales” in “The Lady with a Little Dog.”

A scar, guest seated around a table, sleet drumming on a windowpane, edging underclothes. When I’m spending time in a mind of a good storyteller, such sum in a “real world” enter my sightline already colored by their literary counterparts. we simply see differently. Certain images and sounds and smells arrive imbued, somehow, with feeling and possibility. What feeling? What possibility? we don’t know. we have to watch and consider and try to figure things out. “You don’t know what it is to store adult a lot of sum and afterwards come on something real.” Perhaps a ability to store adult fact gives us a calm to lay with and consternation about and feel consolation for a real, in whatever form it presents itself to us.


The 10 brief stories in this emanate are all, in their particular ways, adore stories. In his introduction to My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, Jeffrey Eugenides astutely points out a disproportion between adore as a theme and a adore story: a former a collection of philosophical and biological and eremite theories, a latter a account that “can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, a requited love, a enterprise that never dims—these are propitious eventualities though they aren’t adore stories.” In other words: in a story, adore is in a complex, mostly unlovely details. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis quotes Thomas a Kempis, essay “the tip does not mount though a lowest” (summa non stat sine infimo). Lewis is positing a truce between a loves—Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity—arguing that a some-more prominent loves can't be parsed from their humbler forms. A purifying dedicated adore emerges underneath a origin of Eros; full-bodied Eros (which Lewis distinguishes from a merely earthy passionate act he calls Venus) is indispensably secure in Friendship; Affection undergirds all three.

In life, we might forget a fundamental formation of high and low, might shimmer over sum to constitute adore usually in a fanciful sense—Shavian evolutionary impulses, Platonic notions of reunion—but novella remembers that even a many soaring, shimmering adore stands on a minutiae: a doorknob in a woman’s childhood bedroom with “bulbous nose” and “scandalized keyhole mouth” watches her have sex with a practical stranger; adore for a failing father is dense into a picture of a “bloom of bruise” where an IV slips underneath waving skin; a Viking watches a “unkicking tendrils, white as pearls” of a falling woman’s legs after a shipwreck; a father despairs when he realizes a son he loves is lethal, anticipating a “bright coupler of a hobo child in a high grass.” A severe homoerotic kiss, “teeth opposite teeth,” precedes an assertive passionate encounter; a drug turns a dear daughter “into a march balloon in need of handlers.” The geometry of 3 bodies in a hammock translates into a wider psychology of yearning and loss; a integrate spends a lifetime revelation tales, mostly charmingly, about a approach they met. Grief over a mislaid pet is perceptible in a cold specifics of euthanasia and a dive bar saltshaker “made from an aged prohibited salsa bottle.” A passed lover’s fighting gloves are “enormous eggplants.”

Following John Berger, Wood says that “civilians merely see, while artists look.” Here are landmarks from master directions-givers: 10 writers who, in looking, learn us to be lookers.


When friends come adult to a residence on Lookout Mountain for a initial time, we give them directions. GPS default settings track drivers adult a Ochs Highway prolongation to a Tennessee side of a mountain. You can walk your approach behind over to Georgia—the side we live on—but it adds 6 mins to a drive.

Ignore Siri, we tell visitors. Follow a hulk arrow indicating toward Rock City. Pass a welcome! we’re blissful georgia is on your mind sign. When a trees open adult and we see a rapids during Lovers Leap, you’ll know you’re tighten to a top. At a initial cranky street—the Chanticleer Inn will be in front of you, a round pointer with a rooster—turn left onto Oberon Drive. Wind around past a boulders in front of a Fairyland Club. Go over a stone overpass during Mother Goose Village and take a fourth right onto Wood Nymph Trail. Our residence is a third one on a left—the one with weed that needs mowing. Suburban parked in front.

Look for a blue tardy line in a trees.

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