Martha Wilson

This is the first sentence of my short story about Nova Scotia. The first sentence of any short story is easy enough to write; its function is to plunge the reader into the action of the story, and by reading the first sentence of this story the reader will have a fair idea of what kind of action to expect. I find the second sentence of a short story harder to write, because it hardens the style into Naturalism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Realism, Impressionism and so on. But in this story, as the reader can see by now, I am not particularly concerned with any of these styles. Such labels refer to various modes of reference to external nature. (My whole plan is to beguile you with the reference to Nova Scotia in the title, and then finish the story without resorting to description of it.)

The tone I have established might suggest that what I am really writing here is a pragmatic story. Wrong again. I am not interested in writing a short story about Nova Scotia with sociological, journalistic, philosophical, historical, or even pornographic intent. To treat any of these topics, I would have to be well-informed in a field besides English literature, and, as a child of specialization, I admit I am not.

It has been out of fashion to write with a moral intent since the 1860’s, but this story might be a disguised diatribe, judging from the tone, which is ambiguous. I advise the reader to be on the lookout for covert references to an approved social norm. But the tone also does not eliminate the possibility that this story is intended as a joke, so I further advise that the reader try to keep a lookout both ways, to avoid embarrassment.

The lewd suggestion left over is that this story is really “art” appearing incognito as a short story without much point. I’ll let this flattering idea flutter for the moment in the background while I try again to start this story out on another foot.

Here I am, making a clean slate of it again. In writing about Nova Scotia (as I said I would do in my title), regardless of what the tone suggests I do, it seems to me I must turn either inward or outward. I can write about “what Nova Scotia means to me”, for example. This approach has the advantage of eliminating the need for knowledge about Nova Scotia in the technical sense. If I were going to write a short story like this, I would write about the wildflowers that appear in the St. Margaret’s Bay area between May 1 and June 1, because I lived out there once and the wildflowers were incomparable. (I know I said I wouldn’t do this, but my sympathy for the amateur botanists who might be reading this story is sufficiently strong that I’ll briefly list the wildflowers I would have talked about in much detail if this were some other kind of story: Buttercup, Canadian Mayflower, Cinquefoil, Evening Primrose, Fireweed, Goldthread, Lupine, Violet.)

If I were to turn outward and write about Nova Scotia “objectively,” I would still be limited by what I chose to be objective about. A compromise might be to try to prove by what I write that I really am in Nova Scotia, and am not an imposter, writing from New Brunswick. In either case, the assumption has to be made that there is an external reality I can refer to with some accuracy, and from which facts can be derived empirically. Most people don’t question that the information they receive can be verified by sensory data. For example, if I say Peggy’s Cove is notable for its exposed granite cliffs, whether they have been to Peggy’s Cove or not, people will assume that if they go there, they will be able to perceive exposed granite. But the question of whether we know what’s out there is too broad for short stories to treat. From my point of view as a short story writer, it would be vastly more interesting to make up everything I say about Nova Scotia. This would have the advantage of outraging everyone who thinks he knows something about Nova Scotia, and hoodwinking everyone else.

Back to the clean slate. My aim, in case it hasn’t become obvious yet, is to write a short story without actually writing it. In other words, I’m trying to assemble about two thousand words that can make sense even if my personality doesn’t exist, and even if Nova Scotia doesn’t exist. I’m trying to create a self-conscious system analogous to a system of mathematics or philosophy. Any such system is based on presuppositions, so I will define them as best I can: This is a “short story”, so it will be composed of enough words to fill several pages. It will have a focus, or problem to solve (besides getting itself written) that will be to answer the question implied in my stated aim: Why should anyone intend to write a short story without actually writing one?

To answer my question, I’ll have to reconsider all those intents mentioned as possibilities in the beginning. If this story had a moral intent, for example, I would be writing with reference to some moral order. As far as morality is concerned, didactic stories always fail to influence sophisticated readers, so if I intend any moral at all, it should be conveyed by default. (The absence of moral judgment in this story, however, will be taken by some to be a comment on the absence of morality in the larger world; such a conclusion will then supply the reader with the incentive for reformed behaviour, or the incentive for licensed behaviour.) Sophistication makes moral stories pretty difficult to write nowadays. I certainly don’t intend to worry about morality in this story. When the time comes for me to exert a moral influence over someone else, I’ll do it by more direct means, such as spanking.

Lots of stories are pragmatic these days, but this one does not have a pragmatic intent. So far, I have not referred to Nova Scotia much, which might seem a travesty of my title. But I want to say as little about Nova Scotia as possible to prove that a short story doesn’t need to communicate any external facts to exist. (Even though I want to avoid facts, just for my own amusement I will mention that fishermen in Nova Scotia are often non-swimmers, and drown if they fall out of their boats.)

Why I am trying to write a short story without actually writing one must be for a joke, or perhaps it really is for “art.” The irony is that both of these possibilities boil down to the same thing, unless some kind of distinction can be drawn between them. “Amusement” I take to mean therapy or preoccupation with one’s activity without regard for how this activity will fit into a larger system of activities. But if “amusement” is taken to mean activity (funny or not) that finally makes its way into a public system, then I think it if no longer therapy; it becomes “art.” (It also becomes a “joke.”) The act of writing a pointless short story can be seen as an affirmation or as a negation, depending on how the reader chooses to view it. My story exists now, so readers will think I think there is still need for short stories in the clean modern world, or they will take my short story as an epitaph for the short story form. But in either case, a public of some sort makes the judgment. When I say that this story might be a joke, I mean that in order for it to be art or a joke, it must be public.

Before I finish writing this short story, I should try to convince the reader that it was worth reading. Given that this story is art and not therapy because it has found its public, is it good or bad art? Has the intention of this story been fulfilled? And was the intention itself worth the attempt? Since nothing I say to explain myself outside the limits of this story will reach the public, I will incorporate my explanations directly, and call them more art. I wanted to write a short story, and I have done so. The near-finished product describes little, does not proselytize, and is good for nothing, but it seems to have order; the sentences are intelligible, and follow one another logically. It is a self-conscious story, I think, and that is all it needed to be to fulfill my intention—to write a short story without actually writing a short story. Whether my readers are tickled or disgusted by having wasted so much time in reading an absent story, is not my concern. Now that I have made my attempt at nothing, posterity will have to decide if the effort has value in relation to all the other attempts like it in the past. The job remaining for me is to stop what I have started. Some readers will be asking how this story can keep going on, now that it is finished justifying itself. Others will wonder whether, if I have made it this far, I can keep going interminably. A pointless story is interesting up to a point, and then it really does become pointless. Even the short story writer who places value on doing pointless things can have enough, like the child with a new kite on a windy day. I will have to find a sentence to end my short story, but with the proper click; if it just fizzles out, it will not fulfill the demands of short story form, and all of this will have been written for nothing. So, this is almost the last sentence of my short story about Nova Scotia. Although I did not write it for “amusement” (as I have defined it), it will probably be called funny by all the point-seekers who have made it this far. I don’t resent chuckles, or even snickers about my short story, because if someone laughs, at least I know someone is there.

Martha Wilson is a writer and performance artist, and the founding director of Franklin Furnace Archive. This is a 2005 storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story.

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