Narrative Drive

sojo-narrativeI started writing stories because I was lonely. I wish there were more artistic and noble reasons that I put pen to paper, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted people to kiss me and I had the unfounded notion that, if I wrote a good enough story, people would be compelled to make out with me. This was not a sound theory.

I signed up for a creative writing workshop at Vanderbilt; the first story I wrote was about a boy who was stuck in a tree and a hobo who taunted him from the ground. People, amazingly, were able to resist the urge to have sex with me. The second story I wrote was about a kid who has sex with his sister’s stuffed animal. People were now actively avoiding me. I was lonelier than when I had started writing stories. Clearly, I had not thought this through.

Were my mechanics unsound? Had I not grasped the art of telling a story so complex and emotionally resonant that people could not help but love me? I did some research. I found the short list for Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Fifty-two authors. I read at least one book by all of them. In this manner I discovered the work of Sherman Alexie, Rick Bass, Antonya Nelson, Ann Patchett, Jill McCorkle, Michael Parker, Elizabeth McCracken, Tom Drury, Lorrie Moore, Brian Kitely, Joanna Scott, Randall Kenan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Edwidge Danticat, David Bowman and Chang-Rae Lee, all writers who I imagined as movie stars or baseball players, signing autographs and cashing novelty-sized checks. I wanted to make out with all of them. I wanted them to want to make out with me. I wrote harder.

I wrote a terrible story about a group of teenagers who take animal tranquilizers. I wrote an even worse story about a Buddy Holly impersonator who gets mugged. I was eating nothing but candy bars and sleeping on the floor of my apartment. I bought novels and short-story collections as if they were self-help books or how-to guides. If I wasn’t reading, I was writing. If I wasn’t doing either of these things, I was practicing kissing my reflection in the mirror. “This,” I told myself, “is what writers do.”

Tony Earley, the professor in my [Vanderbilt] creative writing class, took an interest in my work. I told him that I wanted the stories to be so good that people would make out with me. He nodded. He asked why I was wearing a beeper. “My mother likes to keep track of me,” I told him. He said that getting rid of the beeper would be even more effective than if I had written “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Then he looked over my stories and told me why they weren’t very good and how I could make them better. I got rid of the beeper. I wrote harder.

Slowly, my stories got better. There were still no takers in the “Make Out with Kevin Wilson” sweepstakes, but I found that I did not care as much as before. I was writing stories that were slightly better than awful, and I felt happiness previously unknown to me. I concentrated on writing stories that were marginal and yet somewhat memorable. I read every literary journal I could find, attended bookstore readings, and pored over author interviews. I started sleeping in an actual bed. I went on a date that turned out to not actually be a date. I wrote a story about a person whose parents spontaneously combusted. It was not bad. It was kind of good. I felt like I might spontaneously combust.

This is how I came to writing. For people who love literature, it is probably not an uncommon story. I wrote draft after draft of bad stories until they became something readable. I read book after book by authors infinitely more talented than myself and tried to learn from them. The only strange detail was that, as I was writing and reading, I was saying to myself, Kevin, this is going to get you laid. It did not. This was for the best.

I’m married now. I ask my wife if it was my stories that first made her want to kiss me. She says it was perhaps the second or third thing, and I’m happy with that answer.

From Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, © 2009 by Kevin Wilson. Reprinted by arrangement with ECCO, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Excerpt From “The Choir Director Affair (The Baby’s Teeth)”


This is the baby, and yes, those are teeth. They are not important. Don’t think about them. Nothing special, this baby with teeth. Usually it is only a snaggletooth, a single, perfectly formed tooth in the tiny mouth, unlike the full set on this baby. Still, it has happened before, it is happening now, will happen again, Jesus Christ, get over it. It is nothing to get upset about. They are only teeth. So forget we even mentioned it because it doesn’t matter: the baby, the teeth, the pacifiers gnawed until they are unrecognizable.

The story isn’t about the baby, anyway, but the father of the baby. He is having an affair with the choir director of the girls’ chorus at the private school where he teaches biology. There is guilt and lust and deceit and the things that stories are made of, the condition of our collective lives laid bare. And yet, this baby.

When you are invited to visit the parents just a few weeks after the birth, you walk into the newly decorated, mobiled, yellow-hued room and you coo and baby-talk over this new thing, this well-made construction of genes. And then the baby flashes those teeth and you … well, you scream.

Why wouldn’t someone have mentioned this beforehand? A small warning: This baby will smile, and it will startle you.

The father, who is sleeping with a beautiful, red-haired woman who sings like a bird, calmly informs you about the teeth, repeating what the doctors said, the pamphlets the hospital had to order from a medical oddities supplier. The wife, who does not know about the affair but knows her husband has things he keeps from her, starts to tear up, until she has to excuse herself for a moment. You feel like a real son of a bitch, but why wouldn’t someone have mentioned this beforehand? A small warning: This baby will smile, and it will startle you.

Later that night, while the mother flosses the baby and prepares it for sleep, you sit in the kitchen and drink beer while the husband tells you about the choir director. You think you hear the father say that he is falling in love with this woman, but you cannot concentrate. You want to. You know this is the thing that matters, the thing that will affect all their lives in myriad ways, but you cannot do it.

You excuse yourself, blame the beer, and seek the bathroom. Upstairs, down the hall, and into the room, quiet save for the hiss of a humidifier. The baby is still awake, eyes wide open. You smile a little nervously, not wanting to cause alarm. And the baby, goddamn, smiles right back. Big and wide.

If, in less than a year, this baby were to sprout its teeth naturally, you would think nothing of it. In fact, you’d be a little annoyed, the constant crying, the blue plastic toy pulled from the freezer and jammed into the mouth. Now, however, in the dim light of the baby’s room, they are inexhaustibly fascinating. Calcified, enameled, not yet cavitied. They really are the color of a pearl. You have heard that cliché of toothpaste commercials that show the tube, the brush, the tiny sparkle that shines off the front tooth, but now you understand the phrase. You think this baby’s teeth could be used as a necklace, something beautiful and perfect.

Now your hand is moving toward the baby, slowly, index finger extended, as if pointing to a place on a map. You touch the smoothness of one of the teeth, the rounded edge on the bottom. The baby’s eyes stay open, calm, but you do not see them, only the teeth. And then the teeth closing around your finger, quickly. Your finger is still there, in the mouth, and now there is skin to be broken, cries to be muffled, shots to be considered.

This was not supposed to happen. You were supposed to stay downstairs with the father and listen to him go on and on about this singing adultress. Instead, you are wrapping your fingers in tissues, bounding quickly down the stairs, wondering aloud where the time went, hugging the father in order to avoid a handshake and reveal the offending finger, and running to your car before you sit there in silence. You are not listening to the father and his newfound desire to perhaps leave his wife and child and run off to Europe with this choir director to visit old opera houses. You are not there to witness this total lack of judgment and decency and advise yea or nay.

As of this moment, you in the car, staring at those teeth impressions on your finger, you think the father’s dalliance will not last much longer and will hopefully cause only a small amount of unhappiness, which is not true, of course. Why would we be telling this story if that were the case? But none of this matters to you now as you speed through the night, the radio playing in your car, the windows down, your finger in your own mouth, your tongue finding the impressions left by teeth much smaller than your own.

From Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, © 2009 by Kevin Wilson. Reprinted by arrangement with ECCO, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

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  • jean moody

    I enjoyed this story mainly for its humor and that it was so visibly described. I actually lost interest in the story of the father which seemed minute the more I read. Very good; however the swearing seemed obsolete. A good quick read.