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Where Stories Come From

"Dig deeper into the unconscious and open to the water that rises from the dark."

Published onMay 27, 2024
Where Stories Come From

Photo by Kelemen Boldizsár:

Back in 1977, in my mid-twenties, I wrote a story called “A Caring Man.” I was attending the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City at the time as well as living and working with my wife Jeri at a nearby Quaker boarding school.

That summer we were deep in drought. Even though the well at the school didn’t seem threatened, there was talk about how to conserve water if the rains didn’t come. This was farming country, and crop failure would be a disaster for farms and families. When we walked our brown lab-mix Thea out onto the school’s restored prairie as we did every day, the dried grasses and flowers rasped against our legs while grasshoppers wheeled outward from our passing like popcorn. In the distance, fields baked in the sun. Thea would blast through the tall grass flushing birds, only to return with tongue lolling. The whole landscape breathed exhaustion and despair.

That summer, I’d also reread Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Noon Wine. I’d always loved the story, but this time something clicked. Maybe the drought we were experiencing resonated with Porter’s description of an early twentieth-century Texas farm. Or maybe it was the depiction of the farm life itself that brought back childhood memories. Minus tractors and pick-ups, the world of Noon Wine wasn’t all that different from some of the small farms of nineteen fifties Iowa. Those farms, with their ramshackle houses and dark outbuildings full of old machinery and junk, would disappear in the seventies and eighties as they were bought up and consolidated into larger and larger holdings that operated on an industrial scale. But in the fifties, there were plenty of Iowa farmers like the Thompsons, scrabbling by with a few cows, a garden, chickens, pigs, and some fields of corn and beans. The setting for the story felt familiar, a known territory from which I drew some of my earliest memories and images.

But ultimately, I suspect Noon Wine struck a deep chord because I felt an unfortunate kinship with Porter’s main character, Royal Earle Thompson. Perhaps I was afraid I was more like him than I wanted to believe, and the fear seeped into my own story in the character of Walters, a farmer who almost loses everything because he wants to appear to be a reasonable, caring man with a genial persona. Like Thompson in Noon Wine, Walters has trouble rebuffing a threat—in Walters’ case, two dubious characters who approach him for help when, during a drought and barely hanging on himself, he has no help to offer, and in Thompson’s case, a blowhard bounty hunter who threatens to destroy the gains he’s made on his farm largely with assistance from his hired man Helton.

A Greek tragedy in three acts, Porter’s Noon Wine tells of two strangers who appear at the Thompson homestead—the first a Scandinavian drifter, Helton, whom Thompson hires to do the manual chores he thinks he himself is above, and then several years later, Hatch, the bounty hunter who has come to capture and return Helton to a North Dakota insane asylum where Helton had been incarcerated for murdering his own brother.

Suspicious, Thompson takes an immediate dislike to Hatch as his intentions become clear. He impulsively murders Hatch with an ax when he mistakenly believes Hatch is about to kill Helton with a knife that turns out not to exist. Even though the slick lawyer he hires obtains an acquittal for Thompson at his trial, the last act of Noon Wine follows the farmer’s agonized attempt to convince his neighbors and family that he is innocent. He sees only too clearly that if he had done things differently, the outcome might have been avoided. The harder he tries though, the more condemnation he feels, but he can’t just leave well enough alone. In the end, the overwhelming feeling that he can’t persuade his community of his innocence leads Thompson to elaborately stage his own suicide.

The drought-stricken landscape, Porter’s dark tale, and my own memories were gestating that summer when I wrote the first sentence of my story—"Walters saw them coming, walking through the late afternoon heat.” The sentence was as flat as the landscape in the story itself, but with that sentence, the story came to me from another place, as if it had been quivering in my unconscious, waiting like a seventeen-year locust for the right conditions to emerge. As with my main character, Walters, I knew from the beginning that the two figures ludicrously dressed like preachers in black suits walking through the summer’s heat were a threat, but how could Walters deal with them and still maintain country courtesy? Intuitively, he recognizes these folks do not mean him well, but his weakness, his passivity, and inability to put up any resistance leaves him vulnerable. Even with warning bells going off inside his head, Walters invites the old man and the sick boy up onto his front porch.

Back in 1977, when “A Caring Man” was coming to me full blown in one sitting, Porter’s Noon Wine was my guiding model. I particularly admired Porter’s ability to hold back information, so that the reader and the main character are simultaneously experiencing the story unfold in front of them. How long could I keep Walters in the dark about the threat from the people coming toward him? Like Thompson with the opportunist bounty hunter Hatch, once Walters has invited the old man and the boy onto his porch and into his personal space, he has trouble disposing of them. The old man preys on Walters’ sympathy by using the boy’s fever and coughing to try to extract something from him, though the old man is slow to come to the point. Attached to his genial persona, Walters is initially unable to counter the old man’s aggression.

Ultimately, Walters does get rid of the pair, and that is what the whole first half of the story is about. He musters the resources to act by listening to his wife’s voice in his head, even though she has taken the car into town and is not at home. With his wife’s voice insisting, he gives the boy aspirin and a glass of water. Ignoring the pointed remarks made by the old man to engage his sympathy, he pressures them off the porch and into his old farm pick-up truck, the fastest way to get them off his place.

Walters drives them back to a grove of trees where a woman waits with more children beside a beat-up old car. She glares at Walters, then turns to slaps at one of the kids who has started to whine. As the old man and boy slide off the seat of the pick-up, Walters yells over the engine at the woman to tell her that the boy needs a doctor, but she doesn’t answer. Instead, she turns to the old man, chiding him with the accusation that he “couldn’t do it.” Readers don’t know what the “it” is, but it can’t be good for Walters. He pulls away just as she runs toward him and spits on his windshield.


That fall I was taking Fred Busch’s fiction writing workshop at Iowa and put “A Caring Man” up for the class to critique. Busch liked the story but felt it was unfinished. He encouraged me to emphasize the surreal quality latent in the work. A few months later, I wrote the second half of “A Caring Man,” which was no longer told through Walters’ eyes, but centered on the coughing boy in dark clothes who accompanies the old man in his crazy itinerant preaching through a burnt-out landscape. The boy is clearly a victim, since there is no way he can take care of himself as sick as he is, but he’s also old enough to attract some of the anger of the people infuriated by the old man’s preaching about God’s wrath and the end of the world.

With this new section, the world of “A Caring Man” was now explicitly post-apocalyptic, following the story of the old man joining up with the woman and her kids, traveling through the drought-stricken landscape from one abandoned farm to the next. They’d salvage what they could, then set fire to the rest, wreaking violence that apparently Walters only just avoids. The oldest boy, with his constant cough, increasingly finds himself on the outs with his mother and the old man, leading them to abandon him on a farm they’ve just set ablaze. The story ends with the boy walking alone at night stumbling through the dark, still coughing and hallucinating from fever.

 When I discovered that Nimrod magazine published out of the University of Tulsa was sponsoring a new short-story contest named in honor of Katharine Ann Porter, I knew this was where I wanted to send “A Caring Man.” I was pleased when the story won runner-up for the prize. I was invited to the awards ceremony and flown to Tulsa to spend the weekend with the contest judge, R.V. Cassill, in a wealthy family’s home. I loved the weekend, loved reading the story at an evening event to a full audience. In a workshop the next day, I tried to give what pearls of wisdom I could to a class of aspiring writers who had paid money to hear Cassill—and me—talk about fiction writing. Cassill brought up my story and spoke about it for a bit before turning to me and saying, “But what I really want to know is where the two figures in dark suits come from?”

Believe it or not, I’d never even thought to ask myself that question, and for a moment, I stared back at him dumfounded. I immediately understood that the two figures walking toward Walters across the drought-stricken landscape were my father and me, dressed as Quakers in plain clothes. Of course, the figures were exaggerated. Neither my father nor I had dressed like old Quaker men, but the very dreamlike exaggeration was telling me something, nevertheless.

I’d grown up in the Quaker faith, a peace church with a long history of people steeped in certain ideals, committed to simple living, avoiding the sins of envy and avarice, and cultivating the life of the spirit rather than a life of worldly concerns. But in “A Caring Man,” this was Quakerism gone mad with the old man preaching repentance by day, but exacting revenge on the unsuspecting countryside by night.  With Cassill’s question, I suddenly became Walters sitting on his front porch with two dark figures approaching bearing a message that perhaps I didn’t want to hear. No wonder the warning bells were going off for Walters. They were now going off for me as well. But how was I, like Walters, in trouble?

I know now that the story was speaking to me about my own mental and emotional life, but I didn’t see it then. Where did the story come from?  On one level, the story is about my religious upbringing. Under the tenets of Quakerism, I was brought up to believe what mattered most in life was a person’s moral stance. Desires for worldly things, possessions, and accomplishments were signs of vanity. The world was impure. The original impulse of those nineteenth-century Quaker communities founded in the Midwest that my mother’s family immigrated to was to establish a world set apart, a world of pure spirit where a person could remain close to God.

In Quakerism, anger was to be avoided since it only proved that you were selfishly thinking of yourself. This meant constant questioning of the self and curbing of one’s impulsive desires. For me, it meant hiding complicated feelings behind a sensitive façade. The two figures coming toward Walters would challenge the naïveté of his genial persona, but my own naiveté was being called into question as well. The moral purity of my religious background, the constant self-examination, which was my default, didn’t prepare me to confront people intent on doing me harm—the problem that both Thompson and Walters face.

But the old man and the boy also represented a relationship between my father and me that was ongoing and particularly painful in 1977. In “A Caring Man,” the old man turns his religious outrage at the world and sets out to destroy it, believing he is a messenger from God. Although my father did not believe he was a messenger from God in that way, nor did he set out to burn down the world, he did have something of the old man in him.

A pacifist during World War II, at age nineteen, my father served two years in federal reformatory for his refusal to register for the draft, and while in prison, he committed himself to a life of poverty and prayer, believing that was how he’d align his inner life to God’s will. I think my father truly believed he was destined for great things in a world that seemed set on destroying itself during World War II and that he would eventually be recognized for his nonviolence stance, in much the way his hero Gandhi had been. But this recognition never materialized. The war ended with what became known as the “greatest generation” defeating the axis powers. While his pacifist friends from prison took up careers in academia and social action, he went the other direction, increasingly staking out a spiritual territory that was more extreme.

For the first years of our family’s existence, there was an itinerant quality to our life as we moved from rental house to rental house. Even though he had a college degree, he stuck to rural Iowa, choosing not to live in the cities or large towns where he might have found professional employment. We finally settled down when he took a position as the manager of a farmers’ co-op in the small town of Napier, Iowa, where we fit into a community and lived for fourteen years. His family’s growing needs forced him to come into the world. He had to think about putting a roof over our heads, feeding and clothing four hungry boys. His life choices no longer affected just himself.

There was a willfulness to my father’s poverty. For him, it was a choice he was making. In the face of a world fueled by greed, wrong thinking, and violence, he insisted on an extreme moral stance. In his mind, there were many rules that had to be followed to maintain his religious purity—not eating meat, not owning property, not taking a job that he judged would cause harm in the world, not even seeking his own advancement, something he didn’t actively do until his fifties when, desperate to solve his family’s financial situation, he took a professional job in Kansas City. It was hard for him to participate in any of his sons’ dreams because in the end it didn’t matter to him what we did. I could get good grades in school or not, but it really wasn’t his concern. He was stuck back in 1942, in a time when he believed his moral stance separated him from the rest of the world, and he was on the verge of being recognized for his spiritual leadership. For a long time, mentally that was where he stayed.


Fifty years later, I can see more clearly the truths that “A Caring Man” was bringing to me. The story was a complicated mental image of the state of my interior life in 1977. I was so conflicted about whether I believed in my father’s spiritual identity, and that conflict tied me up. Would I follow him or choose another life? I could imagine a writing career. I found I could write and hoped that the stories coming to me almost magically would give me the life I desired, but I couldn’t imagine planning that life, step by step, being responsible for making money and fulfilling the needs of my young marriage. Buying a couch could cause me to grind to a halt. Making a purchase as big as a car was a nightmare.

In the end, I saw that my father didn’t really value anything I did—not art, not creativity, not accomplishments. And if my enthusiasm, interests, and relationships seemed trivial to him, were they trivial? Ultimately this led to a break between us, and only during the last few years of his life did we cautiously reconcile, circling each other warily, avoiding the conflict we both knew was there.

It’s too easy to label my father as the crazy old man in the story preaching against the evils of the world and leave it at that. To understand “A Caring Man,” I had to see I was all the characters in the story—Walters, the crazy old preacher, the boy, the mother tiredly slapping her children, even the drought-stricken landscape. I couldn’t fight for the life I wanted because I was allowing my father’s judgement to destroy it. In the story, Walters recognizes that his wife’s insistence during the drought that they dig the well deeper saves the farm, clearly a metaphor for what I had to do. Dig deeper into the unconscious and open to the water that rises from the dark. Only this could help me navigate the world.

Writers often sense that there is another self involved in making their work, a self that seems larger and smarter than the “I” we perceive ourselves to be. That was the case for me in “A Caring Man.”  The story was showing me I didn’t understand the forces at work in my life tearing me apart. I needed to stop filtering my choices through my father’s eyes and trying to win his approval. His vision was not my vision. Cassill’s question about the two dark figures flipped the story inward where it belonged. The story was bringing me a truth. There’s plenty to love in the world. There are goals worth striving for. The world isn’t vanity. It’s all we have.

Jonathan Griffith grew up in Iowa and is a 1974 graduate of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and a 1978 graduate of the University of Iowa Fiction Writing Workshop. He has published stories and essays in literary quarterlies, including among others Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, Flock, and the North American Review. His essay on registering from the draft during the Vietnam War was posted to the SAR website in October 2023. He lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, with his wife Jeri, their best friend Nancy, and a beagle, Molly.

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