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Aren’t You Happy With Me? by Richard Bausch

By on Feb 25, 2014 in Reviews, Short Story Reviews | 0 comments

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 The short story, Aren’t You Happy With Me? can be found at http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/arent-you-happy-for-me-1621301.html

Aren’t You Happy With Me? is the second story we have read of the incomparable writer, Richard Bausch. The first was Letter To the Lady of the House. Both stories are wonderful and have made me cry. He’s sentimental. Could he possibly be Irish? Not with a name like Bausch and anyway he doesn’t ever get soppy. He looks the part with his little Leprechaun-like beard and cap but Bausch means “fluffy ball” in German. I don’t know what to make of that so I’ll not comment. In his photo a mischievous smile playing on his lips and I feel he’s making fun of me.

The story was written almost entirely in dialogue and without attributions. For those that don’t know, attributions are the “he saids” and “she saids” of dialogue. There is a current movement toward eliminating them. Bausch does that in this story. A writer is supposed to get out of the way of the story, be invisible and Bausch does this beautifully in this story. He also makes us wait for the punch line. He holds back until the last moment to tell us that the daughter is pregnant. He masters the tension, another trait of a great author. The first line of the story is expository. He tells us that he is on the telephone. After that, mostly dialogue. Exposition probably takes up less than five percent of the story and it’s only used to convey certain information that isn’t spoken like the upcoming divorce. What does this craft device accomplish? It forces the reader to use his/her imagination. I picture the girl as pretty, young, intelligent wearing perhaps a long skirt and a peasant type blouse. She doesn’t wear much makeup. She’s an intellectual and probably is big on healthy food and recycling. In much the same way, I have a mental picture of the mother, the boyfriend, the kitchen and the girl’s apartment. He didn’t have to tell me. I need to learn this. I describe too much. I want everyone to see it exactly as I see it and it’s not necessary. I’m not going to give up description. I love it too much. Francine Prose, who writes how-to-write books, writes “Most conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking. When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal.” In other words we are self-conscious when we speak. We want people to think of us in a certain way and by our dialect, our word choice, our expressions, we convey a lot of information. When people don’t look at me when I speak, I become uncomfortable. I tell them to look at me. Why? Because I want to see how my words are striking them. I need to see their eyes, the expression on their face, the set of their jaw and the tilt of their head. If I’m denied that experience, I get nervous. The idea in writing dialogue is to get all that into it, all the background, all the gestures without actually saying it.

Bausch says he doesn’t edit much when he’s writing. I think he means first draft. He says somewhere that he tries to access the dreamlike part of his mind. He wants to give forth “the best and most flattering sense of my tender soul and my ‘bag of sorrows.'”  He wants to convey a “visceral feeling of events.” “I want the words to disappear, in a way, so the reader is not so much aware that he is reading. It is indeed a fine line, but when you go through it 75 times, it gets a little clearer. You’re better able to tell the difference between the anemic or slipshod, and the self-indulgent or excessive for its own sake. Everything should be subservient to the story, including my opinions and all my attitudes and all my ambitions, too.”

He was asked about how he added depth and texture to a story. His response. Besides “paying attention to the writing, the sentences line by line, I also try to see if I am involving all the senses, how it feels on the skin, texture, smells, sounds, sight. All of it.  And then in looking at what is said I try to make sure that every line of dialogue is doing more than one thing. That is, carrying the story forward, giving character, leaking in history and the matters that are at issue, the what’s-wrong, as it were, but keeping all this artifice from being visible to the reader.” Later he says it is “Conflict, which scrapes the barnacles from the soul and lays it bare.”

I’ve been told that we live in a busy world, a world where the short, short story and the novella length novel are king, a world where people don’t have time to read and when they do they want to be quick about it. I’ve had many people critique me and with out a thought delete all my description. What? Here’s why. The writing books say to eliminate the fat, “liposuction the flab” is the way one writer puts it. It makes the page read faster. Are they right? Bausch disagrees. Here’s what he says in an Atlantic article entitled How To Write in 700 Easy Lessons.

“My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: ‘literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.'” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/08/how-to-write-in-700-easy-lessons/308043/

Yea! Thank you Richard.

Lastly, he makes me cry. I’m including this whole quote although it’s long. The interviewer asked him, “In the workshop you once said it would be a “sin” for us not to write.  Could you elaborate?”

“We live in a culture that sees trying to write as some sort of indulgence of the ego, when not a plain presumption. But if you have talent for it, you are morally obligated to do it, and all one need do is look at that passage in the Bible about the ten talents: it’s where we get the word. The very word implies responsibility.
I had a dear friend, gone now, the poet Roland Flint, who called me one night crying, because he’d had this thing happen on his way home from school: he saw a little toddler on the island between two lanes of traffic. Stopped to keep him from wandering into the road. Held his hand and walked him across the street, thinking all the while about his son, Ethan, who was run over by a car and killed before his eyes twelve years earlier. The toddler’s parents came running from a house in the opposite direction of where Roland was walking the child, and the father got down on one knee and yelled at the child. “Don’t EVER go out of the house without Mommy and Daddy.” And Roland had to say, “I think he’s very frightened now.” And the parents stood there, the mother holding the child, now, and Roland went on to say, “I must tell you, I lost my son in this way, twelve years ago.” The parents said they were sorry and went on to their house and in, and Roland went, crying, back to his car, got in, drove home, wrote about the event in his journal, then wrote a poem about it, still crying, and finally called me.
He said, “To think that I could cheapen Ethan’s death by writing a god damned poem about it. To think that I could use it in that way.” And I listened, and told him I loved him and understood, and we hung up. But then I thought about it and I called him back. “Roland, you’re supposed to write the poem. You’re morally obligated to do it. You must do it. For Ethan, and for all those people out there who don’t have the words, which’ve gone through this very thing. It’s what you’re absolutely supposed to do now.”
And he wrote his poem, “Stubborn.” And had it printed in a large picture frame, and inscribed it to me like this: “I wondered who I’d sign this first copy to, but of course should have known all along it would have to go to the Bausch who made me write it.”
It was one of my proudest possessions for all the years I was in that house in Virginia, and as far as I know, it is still on the wall there.http://fictionwritersreview.com/interviews/an-interview-with-richard-bausch

Of course, you’ve got to read the poem now. I’m only including some of it but you can read the entire poem at http://www.best-poems.net/roland_flint/stubborn.html

Stubborn

by Roland Flint

On Nebraska Avenue I see a very small boy
walking on the grass between the sidewalk and the street,
alone except for a big golden retriever, near him.
I can’t tell if they are together. When it comes to me
the boy really is alone, so near the street, and only two years old,
or younger, my stomach moves, with fear.
I pull over, stop the car, get out and ask a jogger,
who is slowing to a walk, if he knows the boy. No, he doesn’t.
I try to be calm and talk quietly to the boy.
Where do you live? where is your house?
He doesn’t answer, the cars blowing by, but
seems to wave toward the dog. I say let’s go there,
and try to smile him into walking along with me,
aware the jogger has stopped and, as I would do,
is wondering about me and what I might be up to.
I don’t try to take the boy’s hand. Mine, I see, is trembling.
He doesn’t speak: he may not be old enough to speak.

Then I hear someone scared and calling—we’re next to
a steeply banked yard, behind a wall, chest-high.
I see the parents running down, and hear them calling a name.
I pick up the boy under his arms slowly as I can,
and hold him up so they can see him. He does not cry out.
The mother is nodding, yes, and waves relief. They are not
coming from the direction I was trying to get the boy to.

I put him down and now he takes my hand as we walk,
back around the corner, toward his parents.
When he sees his father, he pulls away, and, making wordless noises,
runs to him, back onto the grass, next to the curb.
The father is so angry with himself
he begins yelling: “Michael, where did you go?”
and I say, too loudly, hearing how my voice is shaking,
“I think he’s very frightened now,” hoping
he will stop yelling at his son—and he does stop.
Michael wants his father to come with him,
back to the corner, where he points at the dog.
“Ah,” says his father, and calls to him: “Bennie!”
Bennie comes running. Michael had been following Bennie.

We talk, they thank me, they had just now noticed
Michael somehow got out in the rain.
As the guilty father talks me back to my car,
I answer carefully, trying to hold my voice down.
I tell him I understand, that my oldest daughter
somehow got out when she was eighteen months
and almost got into the street, how a neighbor
took her in and called me. I understand.
I don’t want to say more, and I’m afraid I’ll start crying,
but I have to, to make it clearer:
I tell him my son was killed in the street like this.
He says, “Really?” and thanks me again, and I leave.

I don’t start crying until I get back in the car—
and I’m furious and groan with it to know,
even then, in spite of myself, that I’ll write about this
as well, pulled through the pages by something,
as if in the hand, to write it down here.
Besides despair of writing it well enough
in this revulsion at smearing grief
in order to do it, to use a poem as if you were
trading what you have lived through for words,
selling out, by using, the worst secrets.
But the words come anyway. So when, finally,
I have to write them down, I fear
I may be stupidly tempting death, and yet
I write them as if my life is the poem to give—
its work come clearly, saying, go and write,
do what has been given to do, and
if it is given in grief accept it there,
where you may see whatever else is given:
this time Michael following Bennie in the rain
has made you feel in his small hand bones
the unknown body of his living,
his unrepeatable life, which you write down
as if it were your own, as if its
prayer Michael might have his
is something mending your. And maybe it is.

Roland Flint was Poet Laureate of Maryland. He died 2001 at age 66. He is known for writing accessible poetry.

Are you crying yet? If you aren’t there is something wrong with you. Time to let it out. One last thing. In 2012 our group read Richard Brausch’s Letter to the Lady of the House. One of our members wrote him to tell him it was her favorite story. He wrote back the following letter. To hear this story read by the author, click on the link at the bottom. It will be worth it.

Hello,

Just back from New York, where Wordtheater was doing a story of mine called “Trophy,” from the most recent book of stories.

About “Letter To The Lady of the House”—

I wrote it first as a song when I was twenty-two and playing guitar and singing out and around. The lyric goes like this:

 

The paper at five, the street car at six
The cracks in the sidewalk and children with sticks
The newspaper rolled, in a readable fold–
Marie, we’re both getting old
Marie, we’re both getting old

If it should rain, the early cab home

Another escape from electricity and stone

Still afternoons, in the smoke of a room

Marie we’re dying too soon

Marie we’re dying to soon

But I remember when these things that keep us apart, were toys in our hands

Marie, I don’t understand, I just don’t understand.

If it has come to this kind of thing

The silence shocked by the telephone’s ring

Then something’s died within          

But I know I loved you then           

And Marie, I’d do it, again.
Marie, I’d do it again.

 

I sang it many times, and haven’t now for maybe close to thirty years. In 1985, I had a conversation with a lovely elderly lady who recalled making a trip to Charlottesville to see her cousin, who was just married. Her cousin and husband were waiting for a delivery from Sears. Something from the catalogue. She told me it was a lovely trip and a good memory, and then went on to say that the husband had died not long before our conversation. And that stuck with me. Perhaps a week later, I remembered the song, and wondered if I might put the two elements together—my friend’s memory of visiting her cousin, the sadness in her voice as she remembered two young people in love, and the matter of the song, which is basically the matter of the story: a man saying to his wife that even if he knew where it was all headed, because of the happiness he had known, he would do it all again. I wrote the story in a single night, and then supposed that it was not, finally, a story. And I left it off the end of my first collection, SPIRITS.

Later, nearly by accident, it got taken by The New Yorker, and won them the national magazine award, and I put it into my second collection, THE FIREMAN’S WIFE. And I still get letters about it, and have come to see that it is better than I thought it was, and that it does indeed make a story.

We are sometimes not the best judges of our own work.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words about it, and I hope this is helpful.

 

Best wishes,

RB

 

To listen to Richard Bausch read this short story, go to this website, then click on the little play button at “Act One:  Before and After.”

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/349/valentines-day-2008?act=1

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