Patricia Lear's "The Fist of Life"
Voice is one of those elusive qualities of good writing that’s difficult to teach. It comprises almost everything about a piece of writing—sentence structure, word choice, paragraphing, form, point of view, style, even subject matter. Great writers can often be recognized immediately by their voice. You know it when you hear it. It’s something beginning writers yearn for—to “find their voice.” But it can’t be invented or forced. Usually, writers grow into their voices, just as they grow into themselves.
Patricia Lear’s voice is intimate, surprising, funny, and wise. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and Kansas City, Missouri, and now lives in Evanston, Illinois. This is an excerpt from her story, “The Fist of Life,” which appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Antioch Review. This comes from a scene where the young narrator is driving around the new town they’ve just moved to with her mother.
We went past the little church my dad was going to make us go to. In the back there was a cemetery full of our dead (Yankee) relatives. The whole church was pretty much a one-room set-up, but the cemetery, my mom said, had plots enough for all of us, gratis Uncle Winn. She didn't seem happy and she didn't seem sad. It just was. They were there waiting for us when the time came, that was all.
"I don't want to die," just popped out of my mouth, like it of course would from any moron.
"Well, you will," she said, as straight and factual as could be, too, and not saying, I think now, that it would be a long time and that I had my whole life ahead of me before death was to become any big deal. Or that I shouldn’t worry since I would go to heaven anyway if something like that were to happen to me, and anyway I shouldn't worry my head about any of it now, which is something that I would have told one of the grasshoppers I was about to step on even if he couldn't have understood me.
"There are our plots," my mom said, and I turned my head around and looked back where there were headstones sticking up all Icabod Crane-like, and I blurted out, “Why are you hitting me in the stomach with the fist of life?”
“I am not. Life is hitting you in the stomach with the fist of life. I am helping you learn about things. That’s really my job as your mother in the same way that daddy is teaching your brother about the things that are important for boys to know.”
“I just want to go swimming at our new country club. I want to see A Summer Place. I don’t want to see the graveyard where I am going to be buried. How is that going to help me?”
“You know, I don’t know. I will have to think about that one. But there they are anyway, facts are facts,” said my mom.