Yesterday I came upon the story “The Ghostwriter” by William Lychack, whose work I had never read before. It starts with a man who has heard the voice of God saying, “Go to Peoria”—and who has followed that voice. Within the space of five pages, the narrator, a ghostwriter, takes those three words and changes them into something I didn’t expect, not the opposite of my expectation, but something more like “that and its opposite and something else.” When a writer can do this, it’s no fluke—so I intend to read his collection The Architect of Flowers. I am holding off just a little until I have made more headway through my current readings and kept to my budget for the month.
The story got me thinking about how stories in general work. I love the distillation of the short story, the way it makes the most of its time. A good story is a riddle of sorts; it bares itself in a surprising way. Also, this story plays intriguingly with the idea of a takeaway; the ghostwriter’s work is all about takeaways, but in his work he goes beyond his work.
We often think of “going beyond” one’s work in external terms (working more hours, taking on more tasks, etc.), but one can go beyond by going inward, into the subject and principles of the work. This is the neglected part of teaching: thinking about the subject matter and the lessons. Not attending meeting after meeting, but thinking and reading. A performer “goes beyond” by practicing and practicing until the fluency itself opens up the piece in new ways. He reaches a new place of entry. It is not mystical in practice; it comes from persistent work. But the work is not “busy”; in fact, it leaves the busyness behind.