National Short Story Month to heart and condensed its celebration down to seven days. All this week, I'll have guest posts from some of the best writers of contemporary short-form fiction...and one dead author who will report from beyond the grave. Today's guest is Alyson Hagy, author of the short story collections Ghosts of Wyoming, Madonna on Her Back, Hardware River and Graveyard of the Atlantic. Her latest book is the novel Boleto. Hagy was raised on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Her stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Five Points, Virginia Quarterly Review and on National Public Radio, and they have been awarded a Nelson Algren Prize, a Syndicated Fiction Prize, a Pushcart Prize, as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives and teaches at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
and the Ch’i of a Great Short Story
Recently, when the Wyoming winds were flailing away at their version of spring, I attended a demonstration by Shozo Sato, one of Japan’s finest living artists. Sato is a Kabuki master. He is also a celebrated painter. Why was I there? Curiosity. It’s always curiosity with me.
I know I like the way it makes me feel when I view a screen or a scroll, especially if the work is one that places a tiny traveler, on foot or on horseback, in a toweringly lonely landscape. I love the spare style. The scale. The near-invisibility of the humans in those worlds.
I didn’t know artists in the sumi-e style use brushes bristling with hair from wild sheep or their first child or thick-pelted bear. I didn’t know about “warm” and “cool” inks, or the great chambers where pine resin is burned to soot which is collected by nearly-naked men who knead the soot with animal glue to form sticks of precious, traditional ink.
I watched Sato dampen his brush with water, then feather its tip through ink. I watched him face a blank sheet of paper, as upright as a colonel, with his eyes closed.
Almost nothing matches the pleasure of watching a genius use his hands.
This is a truth for me, and it’s a bit of a sad one. I’m not good at making things, real things people can use, with my hands. My brothers are surgeons. My parents are joyful gardeners. I can sing well enough to carry a tune, but even that—making music—eludes me. I knead and brushstroke language, hour after hour, but I don’t have the calluses to prove it.
Sato drew three watery lines from left to right.
The sound that came from his small body was the sound of a man swinging a sharp axe.
It is, he told us, important for the Zen artist to work from his ch’i, from the life force at the center of his body. A great painter, he said, should be as hard to lift away from his work as the martial arts champion is to lift from the mat. Ch’i provides a kind of weight. Ch’i is also like electricity, he said, a flow of balance and purpose that runs from the body through the artist’s brush. When he told us that microscopic examination of Japanese paintings has revealed all the carbon electrons in a brushstroke lining up in one direction, I thought to myself, Whoa, I know that feeling. I’ve swung that kind of axe. I thought to myself maybe, as an artist, I still have half a chance.
If you’ve ever read a great short story, something like Joy Williams’s “Congress” or Charles Baxter’s “Kiss Away,” you know what I mean. You’ve felt the electrons line up at the center of your warming body, right in the gut. If you’ve ever—humbly, quietly—been able to create a pure sentence or a perfectly-pitched story somewhere inside yourself, you know what I mean even more deeply. The heat and arc of shaping the letters of language, left to right, left to right. The shush of black ink across a white page. The physical ring in your ear of the small, silver axe.
Photo by Ted Brummond