Sunday, May 15, 2011


My stories are often the result of the serendipity that occurs when several ideas are brought together in a thought-experiment. I know from much personal experience that I always need at least three good ideas in order for me to conceive, then execute a story---one potentially fertile idea at the beginning for the premise or conflict or what John Barth once called the "ground situation"; a second good idea in the middle that develops or complicates the conflict, often taking it in unexpected directions that surprise me; and, lastly, a good idea that arises in either Act One or Two that at last brings the story to rest.
An example of this kind of serendipitous discovery is "Dr. King's Refrigerator," one of my most reprinted stories. It was composed in 2002 for Humanities Washington's annual "Bedtime Stories" fund-raiser. The idea given to those of us who wrote a new story for the event that year was "a midnight snack."
I started writing the story---about 300 words---clumsily and uncertainly, having only a vague idea about a man awakening hungry at midnight. But who was this man? What was his biography or background? I didn't have answers for those questions (in fact, I didn't even have a "story" yet) so I decided to go to bed and start the story over again from scratch the next day.
On the second day I decided to take a phenomenological step back from the theme or prompt of "a midnight snack" by bracketing or setting aside my own assumptions and presuppositions about the subject. I wanted to regain what Buddhists call "Beginners Mind," with my cup (mind) emptied of what I thought I knew about food. I wanted an attitude of innocence.  I asked myself, "What is a snack?" Well, obviously, it's food. But what is food? On my bookshelf I have a  memento from my childhood, a complete set of The World Book Encyclopedia from 1956, which my parents bought for me. I grew up with them and as a kid I could lose myself for hours reading the entries. So I pulled from the bookshelf the volume marked "F," and began reading its ten pages on Food as Trade, Transportation of Food, Food Through the Ages, Religion and Food, etc. And what struck me more powerfully than anything else was how a meditation on food forced one to see the interconnectness of all life, and what Buddhists call dependent origination or pratitya samputpada.
So now I had a fresh perception of "food." But who would be the story's protagonist having such a perception? Suddenly, I knew. After more than a decade of immersing myself in studying Martin Luther King Jr., who believed that all life was "a network of mutuality," with all beings "tied in a single garment of destiny," I realized he was the perfect candidate for this. But not when he was a world-historical figure changing America during his 14 years as the nation's preacher and gadfly of the state. Rather, I saw him earlier in life, exactly a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, when he and his wife Coretta were newly married, and he was still a Ph.D. candidate, ABD (all but dissertation) and trying to make a good impression on his first job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
When the story opens he is enveloped by what one of my students once called a quotidian "chronic tension"---that unfinished dissertation and weekly sermons to write, a strangulation-tight schedule, and a nagging sense of guilt that his work is keeping him away from his wife (the conflict or story's first good idea). The second good idea is his epiphany about food when he opens his refrigerator. And the third arises at the story's end, which turns way from a meditation on the metaphysics of food to a more tender moment when the protagonist prioritizes his wife over his work.
All in all, this is one of the "quietest" (and for me most satisfying) philosophical fictions that I've published, one that offers an imagined version of King before he became internationally famous, politically powerful, and found himself at the white-hot center of America's racial agonies, which is the way he is portrayed in my novel Dreamer. Why do I like this story so much? Well, for the same reason I've always admired James Joyce's "The Dead" and Gabriel Conroy's revelation about his wife Gretta. Profound, perception-altering epiphanies that forever change our lives happen not exclusively during big public events recorded by the world's cameras, like the electrifying Birmingham campaign, but also and perhaps most often in the quieter, private spaces we move through---a Dublin hotel room, say, or a kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama at midnight.

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