The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org

Lit Matters: The Staying Power of “Bullet in the Brain”

by Jenny Wortman

Graduate school. I began classes fresh off a breakup. I had a penchant for drama and Hot Damn 100. After “reconnecting with” (drunk dialing) an old boyfriend, another inevitable breakup ensued. My two best friends in the program left. I suffered recurring bouts of depression, brought on by recurring bouts of not taking my meds. During the worst of it, I nearly stopped eating, subsisting on Ensure “meal supplement” shakes and, if I could handle the effort, an occasional Hot Pocket. My weight plunged. I dragged through campus, a stick figure with crazy eyes.

It was one of the best times of my life.

I made lifelong friendships, found great teachers and mentors. I became a teacher myself. I wrote, of course, which was part pleasure, part pain. And I read. I had to for my classes. But I also had to for my sanity. Stories, the contemporary and the classic: They were a way out and a way in. My critical faculties ballooned to unwieldy proportions. I didn’t like all I read, and when I didn’t, people heard about it. This story was too sentimental, that one was racist, this story patronized its characters, that one was contrived. But even my overgrown criticality was a form of love, a longing for what I knew a story could be. And sometimes a story was more than I ever thought possible.

WolffOne afternoon, over an omelet at Perkins, I took out a photocopy of a short piece I’d been assigned: Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I began reading a clever story about an all-too-clever protagonist, Anders, a jaded book critic who can’t help mocking the clichéd speech of the armed robbers who’ve burst into his bank. Enter the bullet. I don’t want to say much about what happens next because if you haven’t read the story, you should see for yourself. But what follows is nothing short of a narrative miracle, a feat of artistry and humanity that in two-and-a-half pages makes dying Anders whole.

After reading, I rose from the booth, exhilarated and stunned, near tears. As I made my way out of the restaurant, an old woman stopped me. “Excuse me,” she said. “I just have to say, you are so beautiful.”  That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. What she’d seen was the story. Its beauty had somehow become mine.

Good stories share. They give you something you didn’t have before. You can’t hold that something in your hand or buy anything with it. You can’t use it to text or Google or map. But it stays with you.

Years later, what I got from “Bullet in the Brain” has stayed with me. And now, when I think of grad school, I don’t dwell on the heartbreak, the drinking, the loneliness, the depression. I don’t remember the mean quips to my ex I couldn’t seem to control or his fist, beside me, hammering the bed. I don’t remember my drunken pronouncements and peccadillos and hysterics. I don’t remember the sudden, mysterious coolness of a once-dear friend. I don’t remember a particularly bad depression. Or my shame when my friends taught my classes and graded my papers and took out my trash. Or my shame when a professor I hardly knew called to offer his help or when a professor I knew well avoided me in the halls. Or my shame when I officially quit teaching, mid-semester, and fled town.

What I remember is that booth in Perkins, that story, that woman. And I know, without doubt, that it’s good to be alive.

This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!


Jenny Wortman is a fiction instructor at Lighthouse and an associate fiction editor for the Colorado Review. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including the North American Review, Confrontation, the Massachusetts Review, the Southeast Review, and PANK.

12 comments on “Lit Matters: The Staying Power of “Bullet in the Brain”

  1. EmilyS
    November 15, 2015

    Jenny, I love the truth and rawness here. Also those lines–“Good stories share. They give you something you didn’t have before. You can’t hold that something in your hand or buy anything with it”–are perfect. I’ve been listening, post-Paris attacks, to NY podcasts with Mary Gaitskill stories. I don’t know why, but her honesty about the darkness within is a real comfort to me. Thanks for this.

    • Jenny W.
      November 15, 2015

      Thanks, Emily!

      When I grow up, I want to be Mary Gaitskill. She’s amazing.

      • EmilyS
        November 16, 2015

        Right? I didn’t understand the darkness of those stories years ago; now they seem just right.

  2. Karen Palmer
    November 15, 2015

    This is wonderful, Jenny. Thank you.

    • Jenny W.
      November 15, 2015

      Thank you!

  3. andreadupree
    November 16, 2015

    What a beautiful piece, Jenny. I love what you say about stories being a way out and a way in. So true…

    • Jenny W.
      November 16, 2015

      Thanks, A!

  4. Mike Nugent
    November 17, 2015

    I am going right now to find a booth and read this piece again and see if someone comments on my visage upon leaving! Thanks too for letting me discover Tobias Wolff.

  5. Jenny Itell
    November 17, 2015

    “What she’d seen was the story. Its beauty had somehow become mine.” I just love how you capture that moment of being transformed by a story.

  6. Jenny W.
    November 18, 2015

    Thanks, Jenny and Mike! And Mike, let me know how that goes. 🙂

  7. mjohnson1009
    November 19, 2015

    Jenny- Like Tobias’ BITB (I’m such a lazy typist),your post here will stay with me for a long time. It’s a fantastic example of how to bare one’s soul and elevate a piece to unforgettable status. Just great. And Hot Pockets –ha! Thanks for this!

    • Jenny W.
      November 22, 2015

      Thanks, M!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on November 15, 2015 by in Good Books and tagged , , , .

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 640 other followers

Follow us on Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: