By Aaron Hamburger
In January 2010, I was lucky enough to serve as a faculty member at our Stonecoast in Ireland residency, in the atmospheric fishing village of Howth.
Given our spectacular setting, I decided our workshop should begin by exploring the use of place in fiction. On our first day, we wrote down “see, smell, taste, hear, touch” in the margins of a notebook, then went for a walk to collect as many details as we could for each category. There was one caveat: We could not talk.
Upon our return, we pooled the results of our walk: green lichen growing on damp stone, the complaining cries of sea gulls swooping over a ruined church, the sizzle and smell of cod frying in a fish and chips shop. I then invited the students to take that same slow, thoughtful stroll through the worlds of the stories they’d submitted and see if they could come up with details of similar depth and poetry.
While waiting for them to complete the exercise, I thought: Why not try it for out myself?
This is not the first nor the last time I’ve appreciated the wisdom of J. M. Coetzee’s observation in his masterful novel Disgrace: “The one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons.” One of the many things that makes Stonecoast special is that faculty and students stand side-by-side in the trenches together, contending with our inner demons, chipping away at the blank page, leaping together into the ever-widening chasm of what we don’t know about literature.
Sure, sometimes I play the master chef in the kitchen. Yet I often find that the students and I learn the most during those times when I act more as the delivery boy, telling my students, “Here’s a bunch of raw material I’ve brought for us to play with. Let’s see what we can make of it.”
So that morning in Ireland, still slightly jet-lagged from my transatlantic flight as well as highly giddy from my morning walk through Howth, I took another walk, this time through my imagination.
I began by choosing my setting, in this case a restaurant called The Golden Mushroom, which my parents used to frequent on special occasions. I chose the restaurant mainly for its name, which I thought might make an evocative story title. The odd pairing of the magical “golden” with the lowly “mushroom” sounded like such a strange yet suggestive mix, something earthy and streaked with dirt, yet filled with promise.
I walked slowly through The Golden Mushroom and its thick gray carpets that muffled conversations. I stroked the starchy linen tablecloths, clinked silver against china, tasted a drizzle of savory grapefruit curd, and inhaled the strange perfume of urine and artificially scented soap in the bathroom.
Over the next few days, I brought in other exercises. We did one on character—so I filled my restaurant with people, including a character much like the teenage version of myself, filled with all kinds of longings he didn’t understand. And since The Golden Mushroom was a restaurant, I decided to make my alter ego a foodie, someone who subsumed all those dangerous longings into an obsession with something more safe: food.
When our workshop turned to plot, I gave the boy someone to react against. I remembered that as a teenager, I’d walked into the bathroom of a fancy Detroit restaurant (this one, The Whitney, is still open), where I saw a spectacularly handsome man asleep on a velvet divan. I was on a date with a girl at the time, but I remember being spellbound at the sight, unable to move from where I stood.
I woke up the handsome man, and wrote him in.
Over the course of my eight days in Ireland, I’d created an entirely new project, from seed to sprout. And when I came home, I continued fiddling with that story, so that by the time the next residency in Maine rolled around, I did a public reading of it. The enthusiastic reception encouraged me to submit it to journals in the fall, and, by December, I’d received a note from one of my dream magazines, the Michigan Quarterly Review, saying the editors wanted to publish “The Golden Mushroom.”
A few weeks ago, I got a finished copy. How exciting to have my words included alongside those of one of my literary heroes, Francine Prose, as well as of a sensitive writer named Rebecca Makkai, whose work is new to me. But just as exciting is the fact that “The Golden Mushroom” will forever remind me of the magical fellowship of writers to which I belonged on a cloudy January morning in Ireland, when this story was born.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize in Literature, and Faith for Beginners. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poets and Writers, Out, Nerve, Time Out, Details, and The Forward. Currently he teaches creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.