Skinner’s Wife’s Box

by Claire Guyton

Microsoft Word - Claire_Guyton-Skinner%27s_Wife%27s_Box.doc

[Editor’s Note: Click on the triptych for a full view.]

Claire Guyton, the Maine Arts Commission’s 2012 Literary Fellow, is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach in Lewiston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse; Hunger Mountain; River Styx; Sliver of Stone Magazine; Summer Stories: Paintings by Leslie Anderson, Stories by Ten Maine Writers (Shanti Arts Publishing, 2013); and elsewhere. Beginning May 2012, Claire wrote a short story every day for a year, and blogged about this challenge at She’s working on a book about the experience. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

What is the origin of this three-columned box-like piece?

    A few years ago I attended a talk by James McBride, who exhorted his writer-audience to cleave tightly to our obsessions. He told us to worry a recurring thought or image over and over until we had discovered why we were obsessed by this thing, this person, this subject, and then worry it some more until we could wring a proper story out of it. He was talking about creative nonfiction projects but I thought his advice should apply to all writing–it serves, I think, as a better version of “Write what you know.” I remember his advice when I wake up thinking about, for example, the Skinner box, something I learned about only briefly many years ago in my freshman year of college. The morning when I woke up thinking about it I realized that the image of that box comes to me pretty frequently, despite never focusing on it as a subject of study or interest. Worry your obsessions. Well, these are the days when we can happily worry an obsession online for as many hours as we like. After spending a couple of days with some articles about Skinner and his box, and studying instructions for how to create one, I wrote my first sentence of this story. Mix in some life-long anger at the far too common problem of domestic abuse in this country; then spice that anger with my frequent, surprised appreciation for the ways in which vulnerable people in even extremely constrained circumstances attempt to affect some measure of control, which I imagine the wife to be doing in this piece in a couple of ways, and out comes the central story. I knew it wasn’t finished but I wasn’t sure what else needed doing. Then I discovered that JCCA had created a short fictional form, your “triptych,” and that form inspired the additional text. And what do you know, after adding the left and right columns, I had a complete piece that said exactly what I wanted it to say. Many thanks for that!
This entry was posted in Guyton, Claire and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.