Streams of Consciousness

At Bedtime Stories, four literary heavyweights write stories based on a single prompt; things get weird

Alissia Blackwood

Let’s play a little word association. When I say “red eye,” what do you think? Take a second, we’ll wait.

What popped up? Exhaustion? Tears? Hay fever? Hindu Kush? Logan International at dawn?

Weird. Us too.

For the 14th straight year — and for the first time in Spokane — Humanities Washington will host Bedtime Stories, a dinner reading of original stories by Northwest writers. Kim Barnes will be there, and Jim Lynch will be there, and Shann Ray will be there, and Nance Van Winckel will be there, too. Jess Walter — who is quickly becoming Spokane’s Dick Cavett — will emcee. The draw of the event, says Kari Dasher, development manager for Humanities Washington, is mingling with your literary idols and hearing them read work that has never before graced the ears of mortal men.

The point of the show, though, is slightly different, Dasher says. “One of the things Humanities Washington strives to do,” she says, “is to spark conversation and critical thinking using story as a catalyst. This event gets to that.”

The catalyst for the stories themselves was the prompt “red eye,” to be taken however the author deigned. The catalyzers are an eclectic group, and used the ambiguity of the prompt to spark off every which way.

Shann Ray, author of the American Book Award-winning short story collection American Masculine, says his mind skittered of in several directions, “like pain, tears, flights, colors, races and vision.” He ran with a theme of red eye flights, but didn’t settle there. His story, “Love is Blindness,” ended up being about “a ballerina here in Spokane and a big construction worker from Tum Tum out past Suncrest along the 9-mile corridor, water among mountains and wilderness and sky,” Ray says, in his free jazz way. It’s a story about “how we all fall in love and then after time passes we sometimes fall harder into hate.”

Kim Barnes — the Pulitzer-nominated PEN/Jerard fellow — says her mind went “to overnight flights, of course. But then... well, gravy and intoxication. Oklahoma. Tornadoes.” She ended up with a piece of nonfiction, “a personal essay,” that began with the kernel of a family anecdote and grew, shrub-like, into a 20-page story that was tough to prune.

For Jim Lynch, “red eye” was an excuse to dive back into genre. He had created a “goofy noir private eye” character for last year’s event in Seattle, and that character served as a nice creative comic foil during the writing of his well-regarded new novel, Truth Like the Sun, about corruption surrounding the 1962 world’s fair in Seattle and its long, nearly 50-year tail of influence. The prompt was less a challenge than putting himself back into the mindset of a Spokie. Lynch lived here in the mid-ish ’90s.

“The fact the story is going to be read aloud to a bunch of people who live around Spokane created different challenges and joys,” he says, not least of which was bending a noir plot into the form of the Lilac City.

Nance Van Winckel, the multiple-Pushcart-winning poet and short fiction writer, didn’t use the prompt to grow a full story, but to fill in a detail that, literally, unlocked an entire story that had been closed to her. “The image itself of a person’s red eyes gave me a detail I wanted to weave in,” she says. “That eye, in fact, turned out to be just the nudge I needed to start writing.” The story she was trying to tell was about a pair of couples who experience a tragedy and her narrator wasn’t complete.

Before she can write a story, she usually needs to know her narrator, she says, the character’s “thinking language, emotional baggage and, oh, everything about how she walks or what sort of hairdo she has.” It’s only after she gets “a grip on the steerage of this little machine of a story, [that] I can start to tinker with the ‘dramatic elements.’” The bit that was missing from her story of friendship and tragedy, she says, was red eyes.

“I had to let the people in my story cry,” she says. She’s been afraid of her characters crying in the past, she says, “and that was not a good fear.” The exercise taught her a lesson, she says, “People cry. Thank you, Mr. Prompt.”

Each in their own way, the authors landed quite far afield of the close, clear, initial associations they had with a pretty bleak bit of vernacular.

To Barnes, that’s the peculiar joy of these things. “I love how a prompt like this sets fire to the process of associative thought,” she says, “I think that, as poets and storytellers, we are always looking for that spark that will set fire to the imagination, and once that spark starts roaring ...”

Barnes leaves her thought there, but it’s easy to see where she’s going: in the direction of the Skyline Ballroom, Friday night. 5:30 sharp. 

Bedtime Stories “Red Eye” feat. Kim Barnes, Jim Lynch, Shann Ray and Nance Van Winckel, with emcee Jess Walter • Friday, Sept 28 at 5:30 pm • Red Lion Skyline Ballroom • 303 W. North River Dr.

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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.