Cary Holladay is the author of five volumes of fiction, most recently A Fight in the Doctor's Office, which won the Miami UP Novella Contest. Her work appears in recent issues of New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, Ecotone, and Tin House. Her awards include an NEA fellowship and an O. Henry Prize. A native of Virginia, Cary is married to the writer John Bensko. They teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.
A child's voice reached me from somewhere deep in the second-hand shop, where I flipped through a rack of dresses. Over and over, the child wailed, "I want my basket." It sounded like a little boy. High and tragic, his voice sailed over the fluorescently-lit, big-as-a-barn store, right into my heart. I turned around, but the place was too crowded with clothing, furniture, and housewares, so I couldn't see him. I pictured him with a mother or a grandmother—a little fellow, a preschooler—worn out from shopping. "I want my basket!" he yelped, and his voice sounded jagged and full of tears. Did he mean a shopping basket? An Easter basket? The urgency of that wanting, the depth of grief in his cry, mesmerized me as I held clothes in front of a wavy mirror, trying on a suede jacket that smelled of perfume. "I want my basket," the boy insisted, still unseen, as I paid for the jacket and went out the door.
At home, I told my husband about the child, repeating "I want my basket," and trying to explain just how charged the phrase had sounded, how desperately that basket was craved. My husband understood immediately. "I want my basket" became our catchphrase for any profound longing, need, or aspiration, however intangible. John and I said the phrase so often that eventually, we wore it out and banned it. It's still the gold standard, though, the shorthand that means simply, "I want."
I get distracted way too easily. When I write, I run into all kinds of subjects that need answers in order for the story to go forward, and some research is necessary. Then I get absorbed in finding out about falconry or tin mining or Cornish folklore or the lifespan of sea urchins (is it true they can live forever?). And I have to remember to get back to the story. The stories, that is. I'm always working on more than one.
Birds, I love birds. They're in all my stories. When I was in the first grade, the teacher brought out a wooden model of a robin. It was a Monday morning. She said, "From now on, every Monday, we'll learn about a different bird." She pointed out the robin's features. I was delighted. All week I waited for the next bird. Monday came. No bird. No bird that Monday, nor ever after, and I was too shy to ask the teacher what had happened. Did something drastic occur to put a stop to the bird program? Did the teacher forget she had made such an important promise? "From now on, every Monday " Nobody asked her, and I wondered if I was the only one who was disappointed. Mrs. Dickinson, that was the teacher's name. Does she ever think about all those birdless Mondays? Hey, Mrs. Dickinson, I'm still waiting for that second bird.
I often dream of discovering rooms full of old, fascinating, dusty furniture that seems familiar—treasures I've never seen in real life but which in the dream are inexpressibly dear: a sideboard, a cradle, a chest of drawers, a box of linens. My dream-self reaches out to touch them, and I feel joy and reclamation. This week's version of the dream featured a stream running underneath an old boarding house, with ten turtles swimming in the current, and upstairs, of course, room after room of chairs and bedsteads and paintings, all askew in dimness and cobwebs.
Sometimes I start my Fiction Workshop by asking students to introduce themselves by telling something they've never told anybody else. "It doesn't have to be a big secret. Just a little thing." Well, they don't stop with little things. Some students reveal truths and events and feelings that I remember long afterward, honest, brutal things that their faces show have been closely held. I am touched, but also shaken. People rip the covers off their lives, all because I say, "Tell."
Often I ask students, "Describe something you want." Wanting is fundamental to fiction. "After all, your characters have to want something." I might tell about something I want, or that one of my characters wants. I might talk about Mrs. Dickinson, dangling that robin in front of me and promising a bird a week, which to a six-year-old, is a bird forever.
So many baskets, so deeply desired!
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