Deena Goldstone on Amy Bloom’s “Sleepwalking”

Deena Goldstone
photo: Patricia Williams

Readers of a certain age (my age and thereabouts, in fact) may recall the TV-movie A Bunny’s Tale, in which Kirstie Alley plays a young Gloria Steinem, going undercover as a server at the Playboy Club. That film was one of the early screenwriting credits of Deena Goldstone, whose debut short story collection, Tell Me One Thing, has just come out. In this guest essay, Goldstone talks about the valuable lesson that one of Amy Bloom’s stories provided as she was making the transition from screenplay to short fiction.

Amy Bloom showed me how to write about grief without ever mentioning the word. Many months before I even contemplated writing my first short story, I read one of hers, “Sleepwalking.” It was in the days when I considered myself a working screenwriter.

I was at the point in my writing life, thirty years in, when I felt I had really mastered my craft—one that is precise and structured and disciplined. But just as I reached that level of confidence, I also began to bump up against the limitations of the form. There’s little place for lyricism in screenwriting or long descriptive paragraphs or internal monologues. Characters’ emotional states have to be inferred from dialogue and behavior. I found myself reading voraciously in other forms—short stories, novels—without quite understanding that I was schooling myself in another way to write.

Amy Bloom became my teacher early on. “Sleepwalking” is about a recent widow, Julia, whose husband, Lionel, a musician, has died of causes we don’t know and never learn. Bloom’s focus is on the small family he has left behind: Julia, his third wife, Lionel, Jr, nineteen, his son from his second marriage, Buster, his young son with Julia, and Julia’s mother-in-law, Ruth. It is a story about how these people get through the raw and painful days right after the funeral.

What stopped me in my tracks when I read the story was how much Bloom can tell us in a single sentence. Here is a description of her difficult mother-in-law and of the man her husband was when she married him—Ruth “hadn’t raised Lionel to be a good husband; she’d raised him to be a warrior, a god, a genius surrounded by courtiers. But I married him anyway, when he was too old to be a warrior, too tired to be a god, and smart enough to know the limits of his talent.”

And here is the sentence describing the first meeting of Julia and her future stepson: “When my husband brought his son to meet me the first time, I looked into those wary eyes, hope pouring out of them despite himself, and I knew that I had found someone else to love.”

Now we know everything we need to know about the past—who Lionel was when Julia married him and about the, guarded, hopeful boy she raised and loved as he needed to be loved. Amy Bloom gives us the “backstory,” as we say in screenwriting, in three amazing sentences.

Then she tackles the grief both characters feel with straightforward descriptive words: “He pushed his head against my leg and cried, the way men do, like it’s being torn out of them. His tears ran down my bare leg, and I felt the strings holding me together just snap. One, two, three, and there was no more center.”

In screenwriting, you learn to paint a vivid picture of what the audience will see up there on the screen, the external reality. Here Amy Bloom is using the same powers of observation to describe her characters’ internal reality. I could do that, I thought. I could try.

And Amy Bloom taught me one other essential lesson as well about writing and grief. She showed me how to hint at that hard won hope which can appear, miraculously, during one’s journey through grief. Here is the next to last paragraph of her story: “I see my husband everywhere, in the deft hands of the man handing out the bingo cards, in the black olive eyes of the boy sitting next to me on the bench, in the thick, carved back of the man moving my new piano. I’m starting to play again and I’m teaching Buster.”

So elegant. So understated. So factual—a new piano, a new beginning, playing music again, teaching her young son so he can appreciate what his father so loved and hopefully open his heart to the joy of it all… despite the grief that still infuses their lives. All that information given to us in beautiful, simple, descriptive words which make us “see” so we can feel.

5 May 2014 | selling shorts |