A STORY TOLD IN A WHISPER, A STORY WE TELL TO THE FUTURE

Welcome to Austin Bat Cave’s Virtual Literary Salon. Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite writers reflecting on the current moment and presenting writing prompts and literary challenges that will hopefully get you inspired and creating. We welcome discussion and your input. Each week, you’ll be able to comment on the post and share your own thoughts, ideas, and challenges. Please tell a friend! And if you’re able to, consider making a contribution to Austin Bat Cave and help support our creative community.

Today’s writing prompt is brought to you by Karen Russell. Karen won the 2012 and the 2018 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and one of The New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2011. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim award and is a former fellow of the NYPL Cullman Center and the American Academy in Berlin. She graduated summa cum laude from Northwestern University and received her MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. 

Photo by Dan Hawk


April 24, 2020

Last month, in what I now realize was my last face-to-face class with my amazing students at Texas State University, I assigned one of my favorite short stories, Steven Millhauser’s “The Invasion from Outer Space.” A yellow pollen begins to fall on Earth from outer space. Without malice, it continues to multiply. Over the course of this very short story—just a little over two pages—readers observe humanity moving through the stages of shock, denial, anger, sorrow, acceptance. Meanwhile, the pollen continues to implacably fall, a yellow snow that buries cars and houses, life as we know it.

When you are reading a story, you understand each stage to be ephemeral. But when you are living through a dark new reality, sequestered in the present, it’s very hard to go groping along mid-clause, feeling ahead for the paragraph break. Watching the virus’ spread has been terrifying, and reading the obituaries of the people we’ve lost around the globe is overwhelming, an ocean of sorrow that’s touched every coast. I know that like many of you, I’m wondering when and how these overlapping crises—our collapsing economy and the coronavirus pandemic—will end.

This virus has shined a light on so much pain, but it’s also illuminating a world that is profoundly mutable. Look how quickly our daily reality pivoted and spun into something unprecedented; hundreds of millions of people have adopted these new safety measures, voluntarily practicing physical distancing to protect the most vulnerable people. In New York City, as the caseload doubled overnight, so did the number of volunteers.

In Rebecca Solnit’s  “A Paradise Built in Hell,” she writes that a disaster gives us “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” Fiction about disasters, like Millhauser’s quietly revelatory tale, does the same thing. Tonight I’m looking out my window at the blank staff of a moonlit street, and feeling aware as never before in my lifetime that we are co-authoring this present moment, and our future.

At the same time, I’ve never been as acutely aware of what I’m not seeing outside my window, where the blossoming dogwoods are decked out like bridesmaids and the only pedestrian is a drunkenly waddling opossum crossing the road at a diagonal. No ambulance lights are screaming down our block; not yet, anyhow. Since early April, I’ve been able to work from home and care for my young children in Portland, Oregon, a state with a relatively low caseload. My first person point of view is a very narrow porthole, and I need others’ stories to deepen my understanding of this catastrophic season. How would the future history of this pandemic read if it were a collaboration between multiple authors, writing under the banner of the first person plural, a vast and diverse “We”? The ER nurses, the child care workers, the line cooks, the hospital janitors, the H.E.B. and Fred Meyer cashiers, the home health aides, the split-shift bus drivers, the blood donors, the public school teachers in front of their glowing Zoom classrooms, the unsheltered people sleeping by the river without access to fresh water—we need all these voices, and yours, to tell the story of how we emerge from the shadow of this virus.

Story prompt #1: FIRST PERSON PLURAL

Write a very short story modeled on Millhauser’s “The Invasion of Outer Space.” A story told from the first person plural point of view. Everybody wakes up to a new reality, and has to figure out how to adapt to it as a collective. Maybe every child grows a pair of green wings. Maybe the trees unionize. You’ll come up with something better.

Note: It’s worth asking, as you write: who is inside this astonishingly elastic pronoun, “We”? Who exactly makes up the mosaic-consciousness of my narrator? What sort of collective have I gathered here? Feel free to experiment with scale. Your “We” could have two people inside it, or 2,000,000.

Try to shoot for 2-3 pages. If you get stuck, you can follow Millhauser’s structure. Watch how his story accelerates, paragraph to paragraph, from a wild premise to a steady and convincing escalation of consequence. Millhauser always grounds his speculative fiction in realistic emotion. Here, a crisis begins as a speck on the horizon that comes to saturate the entire globe, deepening in mystery even as it draws the story’s central questions into focus. “We wanted, we wanted...oh, who knew what we were looking for?”

Story prompt #2: A STORY TOLD IN A WHISPER

Many people have remarked on the eerie silence of our streets during this time of nation-wide physical distancing. It’s made me think of the power of a whisper—the way it draws a listener close, demanding intimacy, establishing authority, immediately implicating whoever leans in to hear the secret (often an audience of one). So for this prompt, tell a story in a whisper.

A confession, a seduction, a family secret, a rumor, an escape plan, a joke at the expense of someone powerful, an unbelievable tale. Something so marvelous or terrifying or treacherous that it can only be told under your breath. Can be very short, or a waterfalling rant. Doesn’t have to be in 3-pt font. But the narration should have the urgency of a whisper, and an aura of secrecy.

Wishing you all safety and ease, and looking forward to finding you again in outer space,

Karen

P.S. A postscript is the letter writer’s whisper, I guess. Before I hit send, I wanted to share two quotes from Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower” that have helped me this spring:

“The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren't any other kind and yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees.”

and

There is no end

To what a living world

Will demand of you.