This week’s story, “The Depletion Prompts,” uses the idea of writing prompts for its structure. When did you start thinking of this approach?
The narrator of the story—and the second-person voice—developed as I was writing the story. The narrator is worried about depleting his material and losing his ability to create during the pandemic, in that weird lockdown period. It gave me a sense of catharsis and freedom letting this narrator do the worrying.
The story employs a second-person address, though it can sometimes feel as though it’s written in the first person, perhaps because the narrator may well be addressing himself in the prompts. The “you” has a sister, Meg Allen, a character who has appeared in your fiction before, but as a reader it’s possible to slip into thinking that this is the author of the story.
Although the prompts are largely in the second person, at times drifting into the third person, what I think you’re picking up on is the intimate nature of their content—which feels close to the narrator. And therefore, for some readers, it might feel close to me, the actual person writing the story. All fiction builds on that sense of intimacy, but perhaps with this story, because it seems like the bones are exposed, are on the surface, that’s even more the case.
In the story, the narrator mentions a writer he admires but says he’s decided not to name her. Do you want to do so here?
The narrator was probably thinking about Lorrie Moore’s stories in her book “Self-Help.” I admire her work, and her innovations have fed other writers, including me, because she opened a door to new modes of writing. The same could be said of many influential short-story writers: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Lydia Davis, Clarice Lispector—the list could go on and on. The narrator is slightly snarky about the use of Moore’s fiction techniques by other writers—but I think that’s coming from his insecurity and his fear of losing his ability to fully imagine new material.
In “The Depletion Prompts,” what might be a real memory—the boy’s recollection of hearing his parents’ voices coming up through the heating duct as they discussed his sister’s disappearance—becomes an invented scene, when an image of two figures in a bed together is invoked. How important is that imaginative leap?
When you prompt yourself as a writer, which is what this narrator seems to be doing, you start with what I think of as a seed (I like that word better than “idea,” because it’s smaller) and then take the leap as soon as you start writing, inventing—in the case of this story—an imagined memory, and then exploring the possibility of a story that might come from that memory.
Throughout the story, the narrator describes the way boys and men responded to Meg. Did you set out to write a story about masculinity?
Not specifically—but I had the narrator let that aspect of his concern come to the surface in the prompts he was giving. Part of what the prompts are working through is the way “the male gaze” enters into the consciousness of someone whose beloved sister is particularly vulnerable to predatory men.
How valuable are writing prompts as a tool?
Prompts, as far as I know—and I’ve used them in teaching—are usually, paradoxically, highly restrictive and yet strangely vague at the same time. Write an entire life in three hundred words is a good example of one that I’ve used in a class. They’re useful for young writers who are trying to find a way into writing or are learning narrow-bandwidth aspects of writing. But the absurd thing about the prompts this narrator comes up with is that they are so precise that they become the story. What a young writer has to learn is how to make up prompts—again, I like to think of this as finding seeds—that are unique and personal, ones that arrive out of the writer’s own concerns, and then trust in the huge, almost cosmic, ability of the imagination to make stuff.