My favorite creative works evidence a culling, nothing extraneous to cloud the experience. Minimalist paintings (Agnes Martin! Mark Rothko!), black box theater, and compressed prose have always resonated with me. I don’t think this comes down to aesthetics, but rather my appreciation for precision, and the idea that for a work to truly sing, there must be a space left for the audience. When reading Peg Alford Pursell’s book, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow I felt invited to participate and knew that my own sensibilities and history would become part of the reading.
Peg Alford Pursell lives in Northern California and directs Why There Are Words, a national neighborhood of literary readings she founded in Sausalito in 2010. She is the director and founder of WTAW Press, an independent publisher. Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow is her first book. Below, Pursell and I discuss openness, brevity, lyricism, and the benefit of dwelling in our emotions.
The Rumpus: Many of your pieces, “The Map She Is Trying to Follow” and “Day of the Dead,” for example, are quite lyric. You set such an interesting mood, contemplative, full of yearning. Talk a bit about your use of poetic language in storytelling.
Peg Alford Pursell: Thank you! I started out writing poetry before making a conscious decision to learn to write fiction at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, though even during my time at that program I often sat in on poetry classes, helpless not to do so, it seemed. The sound of language is what I’m most drawn to, so it’s not so surprising that it, if not governs, at least shapes my writing. Lyricism played against the narrative arc of fiction produces a satisfying tension at the line level, for me. That tension can express the sense of yearning you speak of. Yearning, in one form or another, is the human condition, our shared story.
Rumpus: The stories collected here, all brief fictions, while able to stand alone, feel as if they refer to each other. I’m wondering if when compiling this book, you noticed any changes in thinking about any of these pieces, once they were situated together? I’m curious to know whether they were written with the whole in mind?
Pursell: In this book, I didn’t write the pieces with a whole in mind. The stories or prose poems, in some cases, were written over several years, and I decided to cull through the variety of my written work to see how I might put together a larger work. Selecting and placing these stories in relationship to each other made for some surprises and discoveries. Naturally, I became more aware of my particular obsessions—though I’d hardly have thought I’d have needed to—and I became excited about writing new work (and did so), and that result was a very happy surprise.
Rumpus: Most of your characters are unnamed, referred to by pronoun only. The openness sort of invites the reader to place themselves in the story. I also, at times, read the “she” of each story as the same character. What do you see as the benefits of this strategy?
Pursell: I’m grateful for this question as it presupposes there are benefits. And strategies. When I’m writing my characters unnamed, I’m inhabiting the point of view of the narrative voice and seeing, introducing, and depicting characters through that creative process. To insist on a name for a character when writing can evoke a kind of artificiality that’s like a badly played note in my head. Not always, of course: sometimes an “Amy” or a “Paul” or a “Douglas” comes immediately to mind in the writing of that character’s tale and is exactly right. That said, I do think that a benefit can arise from the unnamed she or he in lending a subtext of mystery to the text, and that mystery can create another form of tension for the reader, another inroad for engagement and co-creation of the story.
Rumpus: Your first sentences are killer. From “Circle”: “The day after her eighth birthday, her father said he was going to break her.” And from “Marvelous Gardener Tends to the Sapling”: “No other feeling so slowly and uncomfortably crawls over a body like defeat.”
I’m curious about your process in placing and shaping your openings and then crafting a story that lives up to them. Given the brevity of these pieces, how much weight do you place on the opening lines?
Pursell: You’re exactly right to draw a relationship between brevity and the importance of the opening. The premium is on the opening—and the closing sentences. While each story has its own needs—for example, in some pieces it’s critical to establish the stakes immediately, while in others it’s more a sense of tone that’s urgent—what they share is my desire to bring the reader into the world of the story as deeply as possible.
Rumpus: Have you always written brief, or did you move towards compression from some longer form? I’d love to hear about your process, as well as your evolution as a writer.
Pursell: I mentioned that I started out writing poetry, so writing in short form came first. (Though as a young child I wrote stories frequently, and once tried to write a play.) I have a novel in a drawer and a novel-in-stories long in progress, and several stories of conventional length published and in progress, likely enough for a collection. My process for the very brief story, the micro-fiction or prose poem is varied. Sometimes I distill something quite long into the opposite. Sometimes I build something collage-like, putting language that’s caught me together in relationship to see what happens, watching to see what meaning wants to construct itself. Other times I have a scene to start with. My mind tends to gravitate, at least in the current time, to action that takes place in a blink, those moments—in life—when we see each other clearly before the river rushes on.
Rumpus: Also, there seems to be this idea out there (a misconception, I’d argue) that short means: here is a thing to be taken lightly. What are your thoughts about creating impact and the power of streamlining?
Pursell: I’d agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m reminded of a martial arts video I once was forced to sit through, a small man doing incredibly powerful things by virtue of his ability to focus all his attention on a single spot. Good short work has this same ability, to occupy weighty thematic intentions and, by way of its focused attention, make those intentions feel incredibly forceful.
Rumpus: Who are some of the authors whose writing has affected your way of working? Or writers you simply love?
Pursell: Virginia Woolf, always, unwaveringly. Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Harrower, namely her novel The Watch Tower. Jean Thompson, Joan Silber, Karen Brennan. The latter two I had the great fortune of working with in the MFA program. Lydia Davis. Diane Williams is likely a genius. I could go on! And on!
Rumpus: There are these studies out recently, which, to the delight of readers everywhere, say that reading fiction makes us more empathetic. Assuming the premise to be true, what are you hoping that the reader gains from reading your book?
Pursell: My first awareness that an author “knew” me came to me as a child when I was reading an abridged condensed version of Jane Eyre—my mother was a member of a subscription book “club” that monthly sent her books that contained these forms of classics. That was a profound moment for me to felt known and understood by someone, an author, who I’d never met. I felt less alone in the world. To imagine that I might in turn affect a reader in some small way, to imagine that a reader might feel in some measure less lonely, less alone, more known or understood—then writing the book will have all been worth it.
Rumpus: There’s this idea that comes to mind, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t make it up, but your stories really have me thinking about emotions. It’s that sadness or the state of being forlorn aren’t so much things that we, as humans, need to get over, but instead that this darkness is a thing that we need to understand. Maybe “getting over” means to ignore, but understanding means to care for, to try to get closer to. Maybe it goes back to that empathetic reader thing. Any thoughts on that? What’s the power of leaving the reader staring into the question?
Pursell: How many times have we been told that we’re overthinking an experience, to “stop dwelling on it”? How many times have we felt the pressure to move on from or get over a loss? Loss, sadness, shadow, darkness—these states aren’t appropriate topics in social situations, yet they’re what defines our humanness and humanity as much as success, happiness, light, and laughter. Socially, we’re underexposed to the so-called darker emotions and are largely left to struggle through them on our own. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to putting them on the page.
The Rumpus: Your stories feature characters on the brink—of discovering an affair, of confession, of realizing someone they thought they knew has become someone they used to love. “The Associate” and “I Should Let You Go” land on the anxious moment of just-before-loss, while “Nora and Paul in the Coffeeshop” juxtapose not knowing with not being known (mixing in a disaster). Talk a bit about writing to the precipice and knowing when to stop. Do you find that the strategy is any different when writing flash?
Pursell: Often in what I consider traditional fiction—that is, fiction other than flash—the arc of drama involves what happens after the brink: the affair is discovered, for example, so now what happens? While I find those stories as satisfying as anyone else, where my interest lies is in the moment in which with the discovery that understanding coalesces. What happens after seems nearly incidental. I want the reader to feel the character’s moment of coming up against whatever it is that life has tossed to her or him. The moment when a character suddenly knows—and those moments immediately preceding that knowing—that’s when everything happens that is interesting at the level of individual consciousness. I know you. I see you. What happens next is someone else’s story. The denouement happens, really, in that flash, and is created by the reader. To write past that is not only unnecessary but undercuts the flash story. When the story is working, the reader has a sense of how the character will next proceed, if not the laid-out progression of activities.