Writers on Writing: The Art of the Short Story

By Maurice A. Lee | Go to book overview

Giacometti's Foot and Proust's
Madeleine: The Short Story of Desire

Janette Turner Hospital

Years ago, in some magazine (I can't remember which, but it would certainly not have been a sports magazine), I read an article that fascinated me, and which now seems to me relevant to the hazardous attempt of a writer to talk about her craft. Here is the gist of the article, refashioned, no doubt, and embroidered a little, by the cunning unreliability of recall.

A young American pole-vaulter had just won a gold medal at the Olympics. A Soviet athlete, one of his competitors, asked him a question: how many steps did he take between the starting line and that moment when he lofted himself into the air? The American was baffled. He had no idea. He did not count his steps. He leaped at precisely that moment that his body told him was the right moment.

Some time later, the Soviet athlete passed on classified and volatile information: eastern-bloc coaches had analyzed multiple tapes of Olympic trials and performances. The American medal-winner took exactly the same number of steps every single time—let's say, 43—never more, never fewer. This was deemed ideal by the analysts of peak performance. The Soviet athletes were subsequently drilled in a 43-step routine until it become natural to them, until it became a bodily instinct, until they no longer needed to count. Their pole-vaulting records were measurably improved.

Of course, if I were fashioning this account into a short story, the American would be the protagonist. At his next international meet, self-conscious, aware of the video cameras and counters, aware of his body as template, he

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