“We know ourselves only insofar as we have been tested.”
This is a quote from a Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska.
[The Write On The River Conference in Wenatchee this weekend features Jess Walters as a keynote speaker. I am teaching a workshop on Saturday, May 17 about situation set up in short stories, or, to make it simple, how to hook the reader with a good lead.
There are many ways to be tested, of course. Many banal. Watching your ten year old son strike out with runners on base in the bottom half of the final inning of a rec-league baseball game when his team needs two runs. What do you say? Good job, great game, you guys really tried hard – the usual pap? Maybe the usual pap is exactly what’s needed. It’s a game. Nothing more at stake than a smidgeon of personal pride. You want them to play for the love of playing and not knot up inside with anxiety just because you are knotted up. Because you remember failing in those dramatic moments as a kid. Because you wonder, if that was a test then, and your inadequacy as a human being was on display for all to see, is this a test now for your son? Is this the first kink in his knot?
Here’s a not so banal example. Three university friends in the 1970s communist Poland take part in opposition rallies. They are young. Untested. In 1977, one of the three is murdered by the communist secret police. No one is arrested for the crime. Bronislaw Wildstein, one of the three, embarks on a career in journalism and devotes his life to finding out who murdered his friend and to bringing that party to justice. Wildstein discovers that the secret police sent his circle of friends letters accusing the murdered young man of having been a secret informer. The police were playing a dangerous game. Someone was an informer, but who? The truth only emerged ten years after the breakup of communism, when the police archives were finally opened to the public. The third friend, Maleszka, was the informer responsible for the murder. For a quarter century, Maleszka had continued his double life. Now, with this knowledge, Wildstein was being tested.
What did Wildstein do? He started a list. Wildstein’s List. Wildstein published a list of everyone who had worked for the communists. The list backfired. Many of those listed turned out to be former dissidents who’d been arrested, tortured, and turned. Including Maleszka.
Last example. In my novel, Better You Go Home, one of my characters is beaten by a prison guard with a baton. Why? My character needed to face a test he could not possibly have prepared for. The novel is set in 1994, four years after the fall of the communist regime. I had listened to first person accounts of beatings and mistreatment of political prisoners. I had read much on the subject. The test my character was put to was nothing compared to what in real life many endured. Yet, when I showed my novel to a Czech scholar, she said no, that is not believable. Beatings in prison in the 1970s? Yes. Maybe still in early 1980s. But after 1990? No. Wouldn’t happen. Especially not to a foreigner. They wouldn’t touch him, she assured me. I watched a YouTube video in which a traveling foreigner a decade after the fall of communism described in graphic detail being detained and subjected to treatment that stopped just short of what happened to my character. Fiction requires asking what if. So I speculated. No Czech audience will believe in this book after this happens, I was informed. It is for American audiences. It is what they expect to see.
Does it matter that the Czech audience will not suspend their disbelief? Why does it matter to me? Could it be that I wanted to be tested? Could it be that I am like Wildstein? When asked why he started his list, Wildstein said, “I would like for my life to have some weight.” Could it be that I wanted to be tested, so that my life would have some weight?