Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thoughts on an alternate history

Yesterday Kate Schapira posted my contribution to her wonderful and essential Climate Anxiety Alternate Histories project (which you MAY RECALL I've written about briefly here). I'll link you to my story, but I once again highly recommend reading all of them, or at least a good solid chunk of them. They each rely on one another at least as much as on themselves. I'm so grateful to be able to be part of it.

I said I'd post some notes on the thoughts behind what I wrote, so here they are:

  • When I read my anxiety (I asked Kate to assign me one rather than letting me pick one) my first thought was that I would have to write about the person who lost the money, not just the person who found it. Whether you've only just won it gambling or you brought it with you (maybe even in the full expectation of losing it gambling), having $2700 disappear on you is probably a major life event.
  • The anxiety is about success, so the history tries to be about ways that (some kinds of) "failure" might be better than success, or at least maybe not so bad as we've been led to expect. C's efforts to free himself of obligation entangle him in a web of mutual dependence. He tries to retreat to the wilderness but only gets a little farther than someone's backyard (until the backyard goes away). The structures that supported the existence of suburbs break down, and the forest comes back. Efforts to contain an invasive species are unsuccessful, but one way or another life continues. The community starts with thirty-one people, and by the end of one lifetime only nineteen remain; whether the others died or left or both, it's clear they haven't founded a new way of life that will live on for eternity — and they certainly haven't saved the world — but what they've done is not nothing.
  • Also on that population drop: one of the things that inevitably happen when people come together is babies, and I wanted to gesture at that. But I didn't want to suggest that reproductive heterosexuality is The Way Forward, and even more I wanted to resist the instrumentalization that usually comes along with it: people have children, yes, but children aren't Our Future or even The Future. Children are people.
  • This is a story about the eternal Living Out In The Woods fantasy, written by (and about) someone who has no idea how to live out in the woods. Another kind of failure. Rather than try to cover it up or pretend it doesn't matter, I tried to make that part of the story. With any luck that helps to make the fantasy less naive and less banal than it might otherwise have been.
  • Navel gazing: This is the first time I've ever written a story on request, or with a specific project in mind. It's also my first story that anyone other than some family and friends (...and editors) will see. Turns out things work very differently under these conditions: I've never written a story quite like this before. I worried (I still worry) that it's too much a pastiche of the way Kate writes her alternate histories, though I'm coming to think that was inevitable and not such a bad thing. It was interesting to find myself writing with such assurance — not in terms of artistic process, but in terms of authority, the ability to make statements: C worried, H lost herself in awe. Normally I wouldn't allow myself to say such things (at least not left so uncontested), because how on earth do I know what these people are feeling? Who am I, even, to say that this thing that hasn't happened happened? Strange too that I was able to give myself such license when writing off of someone's real words, words that emerged from their real life. Someone I've probably never met! Beyond the strictly imitative level ("this is how Kate writes hers") I wonder if I was taking on the voice of The Project, allowing the power of Kate's work and its extrapersonal dimensions — the larger space of its sources and the larger space it has opened up — to temporarily infuse me with a greater authority. Put another way, I wonder if submission to something external to me made possible what might not otherwise have been. If so, I wonder what that means — if I should have resisted more or if I was right to welcome it.
These notes have been longer than the story. Hopefully everything else speaks for itself. Maybe all of that spoke for itself, anyway.


Will Ellwood said...

Notes should always be longer than the story.

Ethan Robinson said...

I approve this message!