Opening the Gate to the Stranger and Strange Thought
Toni Mirosevich explains the writing process behind one of her Catapult essays and explores one of her craft theories, which she calls “opening the gate”
I notice her right off, the only woman in a sea of men who gather every morning at the parking lot near the pier, a lot that serves as our town’s wrecking yard, our Motel 666. She’s hanging there with the rest of the drifters, the sniffers, the cast-offs, cast-outs, leaning up against a busted-up truck painted a dull, dark, burnt orange, burnt something, as if someone slapped a bucketful of Rustoleum all over that thing . . .
The woman catches my eye, sees that I’m staring, stares back. Gives me a little smile.
The story continues to build, even if I don’t know why, even if initially it seems to be about the most obvious link: people on meth, or who are assumed to be. But isn’t something else trying to emerge? Less about the characters and more about the narrator? I find myself asking:
Who is she? Who is she to me?
Now, wondering is on a roll. What do I truly know about this young mom or the woman on the bus or the three meth users? Beyond my judgment and assumptions, what is trying to rise to the surface? Something more complex. Morrison, later in same article, offers a possible clue:
“Why would we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why would we want to close the distance when we can close the gate? . . . For the stranger is not foreign, she is random, not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known—although unacknowledged selves—that summonsa ripple of alarm.”
I begin putting down the morning’s encounter on the page. A new creative nonfiction story, using a narrator to put a little distance from myself. Then I decide to include those short bits about the trio. I welcome them in. Even if they seem anecdotal or tangential and don’t seem to be part of this morning encounter. They don’t yet fit because they haven’t shown me how they fit.
Or maybe it’s not about fit. It’s about what these disparate scenes have in common and what they are trying to bring something to the surface.
Then, a surprise. I find myself getting closer to the individuals on the page than I have yet to get in real life.
The narrator begins to question her own response to strangers, what frightens her, what attracts her. Morrison writes, “Isn’t that the kind of thing that we fear strangers will do? Disturb. Betray. Prove they are not like us. That is why it is so hard to know what to do with them.”
After a few drafts, certain assumptions begin to fall away. The distance between the narrator and the young mom diminishes as the narrator gets closer to that which she’d held herself back from.
Draft after draft, with each pass through or revision, the story gets closer to whatever is trying to come to light. At the same time, almost simultaneously, the narrator in the story is getting closer, conflating the distance, between herself and the woman. In one scene where the young mom calls out, the narrator goes over to her car and they have a chat. They share names. The narrator finds out the woman has a past, her own story, not the one that’s been projected upon her. In a final scene, the narrator gets closer still, begins to understand something about mothering and how the woman looks out for and protects her daughter. Assumptions tumble, as does the line between what is literally true and what is imaginatively true.
I find myself getting closer to the individuals on the page than I have yet to get in real life.
Every writer I talk with has a different definition of what constitutes creative nonfiction versus story.Mine is to allow for a very big tent as the draft is evolving. In this tent, true events, imaginings, and invention all are invited in to see what happens next.
I once shared a draft of a different story with a writer friend, a piece based on a man I’d come to know at the beach. He’s always sitting on the same bench by the pier, three sheets to the wind, and one day he told me that he wasn’t always this way, that who I was seeing wasn’t who he used to be. “Nor am I,” is what I wanted to tell him. Nor, my bet, is the young mother. Nor is everyone I know. Who knows what lives we’ve led underneath our current iterations?
But the piece was still missing something. After reading the draft, my friend said, “Why don’t you try getting closer. Go and sit next to him on the bench.” Which is exactly what the story needed, a way to ford the distance between me and him, between “us and them.” In the final draft, I took her advice.
Why did this particular young woman catch my eye? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about her, her kid, that scene? What internal chime rang when I saw her there and saw her young daughter in the midst of a group of ragtag men? One possibility: I’d spent a lot of time on a fishing dock as a young child, felt at home around smelly, foul-mouthed fishermen, those outcasts from the nine-to-five, their tongues loosened not with meth but with a drink or three. There was a freedom from rules, constraints, polite society. That’s one possibility.
But another possibility may be closer to the truth. Questions continued to emerge as I was writing: Why am I always drawn to strangers? Even if, initially, I’m fearful about the other person. What is there to fear in getting closer? What might we have in common? What do I need to learn?
What I need to learn often comes in through the side door or the back door, something that begins to come to light when a piece starts to circle around questions like the ones above. And those questions most often come up when ideas, memories, anecdotes that initially don’t seem part of the original story come around and ask to enter the piece.
So here’s my craft theory: Open the gate wide to the stranger and the strange thought, the misfit, the random, the tangential. Open the gate wide to all that seems to have little to do with the story you initially wanted to write. Welcome in whatever gets triggered by what or who has caught your eye. Those associative links might show the way and take the lead in the investigation of why today, why this woman, why this view.
When that happens, you can sometimes conflate the distance between you and whatever it is you’re trying to understand. You get closer to something unplanned but truer. Closer to a person or a character. Someone in a parking lot. Someone on a bench. And closer to what—or who—beckoned to you in the first place and brought you to the page.
Toni Mirosevich's new book of stories, Spell Heaven, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in Spring 2022. The linked stories--about an overlooked community in a crumbling coastal town in the Bay Area--have previously appeared in Catapult, North American Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Toni is the author of six books of poetry and prose and lives with her wife in Pacifica, CA. Learn more on her website, tonimirosevich.com