Friday, March 18, 2011
SWEET DREAMS AND THE CREATION OF STORIES
“Sweet Dreams,” a satirical, science fiction story about a future dystopia, was the first story I wrote for Bedtime Stories, the most exciting literary experience every year in Seattle. This literary event began quietly in 1999 when Margaret Ann Bollmeier, then director for Humanities Washington, asked me to serve on the board of that organization. With that membership, there came a duty---people on the board served on different committees, and so I needed to select one. As it turned out, the board was thinking about having local authors read their fiction at a fund-raising event that would help Humanities Washington’s outstanding activities devoted to encouraging literacy in Washington state, for example, Mother Read/Father Read, a program that empowers parents to learn how to read, and then to do so with their children.
Now, I have nothing against authors reading their published work, which at the time was something I’d done for twenty-seven years; and since the late 1960s, I’d been to literally hundreds of poetry and fiction readings like the one board members were naturally thinking about. The format was commonplace. But I confessed to Margaret Ann how weary I was, personally, of reading my own stories written years ago. Try to imagine what it’s like for me to read today a chapter from my National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, which was published in 1990. It may be fresh for a new generation of listeners, but for this author twenty-one years later, it’s a work I've progressed far beyond in my life. Where, I wondered, was the artistic challenge in reading old material? Furthermore, I said, the writers who I hold in highest esteem are, first and foremost, storytellers. I have always envisioned my ideal writer to be a raconteur with a robust imagination, a man or woman capable of conjuring on demand a spirited entertainment on any subject he or she is asked to dramatize. “ Can we do something like that?” I asked. “Have all the participants this year create a new story?” And Margaret Ann, bless her, said okay.
That first year the theme or topic was simple “Bedtime Stories.” And what a happy choice that was, for in every child’s life, during those early years of innocence and trust, the magical story filled with mystery and wonder told at the end of the day---by parents or perhaps grandparents---to help us sleep and seed our dreams pre-dates all the other kinds of stories we experience in life. Or think of this in terms of our ancestors spinning tales around a campfire, holding the other members of their tribe enthralled for hours on end, there in the darkness where the story and its characters---and the question “What happens next?”---was as brightly lit in their minds as the embers of the campfire itself.
Just before this first fund-raiser, I had paid my quarterly taxes and was feeling---ahem---a bit raw. I dutifully pay my taxes because that’s the law, not because I enjoy doing so. I'm not interested in winding up like Wesley Snipes. But for me to say I enjoy it would be for me to tell a lie for the sake of political correctness. And, as a philosopher who is obliged to always value the truth, I don't like lying. So “Sweet Dreams” depicts a not-too-distant future society in which the government taxes people’s dreams in order to raise revenue. Quite possibly people in the Tea Party Movement might enjoy this tongue-in-cheek tale, but it pre-dates that grassroots phenomenon by a decade and wasn't intentionally written for them or their political agendas. Later, “Sweet Dreams” was reprinted in an anthology devoted to black science fiction, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, edited by Sheree R. Thomas (Warner Books, 2004). It is also the first story in my third short story collection, Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (Scribner, 2005).
With that first Bedtime Stories fund-raiser a tradition began. Every year since 1999, the board has selected a topic---always a surprise for the writers who participate--- related to the nocturnal. Some years they have caused this writer to dive deep into the well of my imagination, finding depths I never knew were there. For these themes have been nothing if not diverse from year to year: “Insomnia” (2000), “A Kiss Goodnight” (2001), “Midnight Snack” (2002), “In the Wee Hours” (2003), “Dreamland” (2004), “Moonstruck” (2005), “Night Watch” (2006), “Night Light” (2007), “Night Hawk” (2008), “In Your Dreams” (2009), and “Night Flight” (2010).
The most recent, 2010 event raised $110,000 in a single evening for Humanities Washington’s programs for encouraging literacy and the humanities. As daunting an enterprise as it has been every year to create a new story for that wide-ranging list of topics, I must say that this rare opportunity to do so has been a creative blessing for me, demanding but also deeply rewarding (and full of self-discovery) as few assignments have been in my forty-six years of publishing fiction. Over the span of a decade, the Bedtime Stories event has nudged me to create an expansive range of short fictions that I simply would never have dreamed of doing on my own. Never! Furthermore, all the stories I've written for this event have been published, several of them reprinted and anthologized often, broadcast on radio station KUOW in Seattle, and one (“A Kiss Goodnight,” which I renamed “Cultural Relativity”) was made into a short film by David S. DeCrane and shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 17, 2004. Five of the stories are in Dr. King’s Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (the title story sprang from the topic “midnight snack”), and four appear in the philosophy textbook I co-authored in 2010 with Michael Boylan, Philosophy, An Innovative Introduction: Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts, and Responsive Writing.
My friend, the late playwright August Wilson, also greatly enjoyed creating fiction for Bedtime Stories when his always demanding schedule allowed him to be in Seattle during the fall. Like medieval troubadours, we both relished the chance to test anew our storytelling process and see what the other had managed to come up with. During our conversations before the event (We receive our theme from the board in spring and have until October to get the story done), August would ask me (or vice verse), “You got yours done yet?” and in this playfully asked question there was always a poke of the elbow to one’s ribs, a gauntlet thrown down, a twinge of the competitive delight that two veteran artists experience when they are handed the exact same problem to solve (or two kids daring each other to do something), and the immense pleasure they have when the other stands at the microphone and delivers for the first time a job well done (which the rest of the world will only learn about later)---but not for money. Or even publication. No, all the writers have created their Bedtime Stories for free, and in the spirit of generosity and giving of themselves that jazz musicians enjoy when they sit down for an after-hours jam session, trading off riffs on a single musical theme (“Yeah,” one might say, “That was good, but can you top this?”), and learning from each other during a festive evening of good food, good fellowship, and good fiction.
Thanks to Humanities Washington, you can read some of the best Bedtime Stories in Nightlights: Stories & Essays from Northwest Authors. Twenty-one authors are represented in this book, which you can order through Amazon. (Sales support Humanities Washington's many programs.) You are certain to enjoy it, for these are entertainments that sprang from the purest creative impulse, from the pleasure skillful literary artists enjoy when they are given the chance to just do their thing---like world-class athletes relaxed and at play, performing not for a gold trophy but simply because exercising their hard-won skills feels so danged good.
(The above is my introduction for Nightlights: Stories and Essays by Northwest Authors.)
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 9:28 PM