In a followup to the publication of my story "Goodwill" in BULL: Men's Fiction, I was asked to comment on stress management; the main character dreams of smashing some of the knickknacks his mother hoards. Instead of writing about stress in general, I took the opportunity to write about creating narrative tension by not allowing characters to blow off that steam. Here's what I came up with:
I think there’s got to be a release valve, whether that be smashing tchotchkes or working a heavy bag or lifting weights. At least for me there needs to be. And it’s always healthy when I’m letting go of that energy. It’s like a controlled burn in the forest. Most importantly, it allows me to work. I’m not one of those people who writes to let out their feelings. I need to let that anger, anxiety, fear, or whatever out before I show up at the page.
So it’s healthy to release that pressure, but as a writer I’m not interested in characters who manage their frustration in healthy ways. How damn boring would it be to read about well-adjusted, normal people? I want to see how long my characters can keep that valve shut. Let that pressure build and build and build. I want to hear that teakettle whistle. Junior dreams about smashing that salt shaker, but he never acts on that impulse. Likewise, at the end of the story, he knows he should say something to his mom about her hoarding problem, about her not getting over the dad’s leaving, but he’s never going to say anything. It’s that not doing of things—the regret that goes along with it and the anticipation for the blow-up at some point—where I find an infinite source of narrative tension.
All the Proud Fathers, the book-length manuscript in which “Goodwill” appears is packed with characters not acting, not releasing that tension, and then blowing a gasket in some way. There’s a boxer who keeps training for a title shot that passed him by a decade ago and ends up trading punches with the cops instead of the champ. There are family men approaching middle age who seek an escape from their bourgeois lives by obsessing on a shared childhood memory of a mysterious Gypsy encampment in the middle of their city. There’s a luchador who rises to the heights of the professional wrestling world only to buckle under the pressure of being the top guy. He ends up in a two bit promotion wrestling bears in the North Woods of Wisconsin.
If there’s a common thread to all those stories (and, maybe, a recurring pattern in the way I craft narratives) it might be that building pressure, that frustration when it comes to withholding action, and how it manifests in unexpected—sometimes destructive, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes fantastic—ways.