My Love Affair with the Short Story

Photo: John Levanen / Flickr

Photo: John Levanen / Flickr

I don’t remember the first short story that I fell in love with.

It may have been “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway. I mean, the tension, the powerfully pruned prose, the dialogue that kept me on the edge of my seat. It may have been one of the first short stories I read for pleasure and not for a high school
English class, where I was expected to dissect every aspect of it. Instead of dissecting I allowed myself to be immersed in it—in the language, the setting, the characters, the story. I swam far out into the depths of the story, treading water, staying there as long as I could.

I remember looking up and feeling out of place. Like I had traveled some long distance.

And, indeed I had. That story revealed the power of the short story. The power to transport us in such a brief amount of words.

I don’t understand why story collections aren’t more popular. In this age of truncated attention spans it would seem that short stories would slide easily into those gaps.

Writing stories myself is where I began really honing my craft. The brevity of it allowed me to play with character, plot, setting and theme without drowning in the massive undertaking of a novel. As Lorrie Moore says:

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

I could hold a short story—physically in my hands and mentally in my mind.

I still love to read and write stories. It still stuns me to read stories that are perfect whole worlds unto themselves. I read them for pleasure, for the ability to be transported, to read a story that will, as David Sedaris, says:

“…take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” 

I love that feeling of being a tad discombobulated after reading a story. Like all of my cells have been slightly rearranged. Nothing is exactly as it was.

And I strive to write stories that evoke the same thing in my reader.

I love how an entire life can be revealed in the brief space of a story as Alice Munro does so masterfully.

I love reading a collection and the writer’s obsessions are revealed through what she chooses to write about—love, family,loss, betrayal, loneliness.

I love when a story takes me to some place unexpected like a man’s memories and literal brain as in Tobias Wolff’s “A Bullet in the Brain.”

I love when a story that I read years and years ago still lingers like “MIlk” by Ron Carlson.

I love when linked short stories all stand on their own yet merge together to reveal a whole life like “Stop That Girl” by Elizabeth Mckenzie or “Normal People Don’t Live Like This” by Dylan Landis.

I just love the short story. The really short ones, the long ones and all the ones in between. I love reading them. I love writing them.

How about you? Are you a fan of the short story? Reading them? Writing them? Please feel free to share in the comments.

“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” ~ Andre Dubus

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” ~ Neil Gaiman

“Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it’s a lot smokier and less defined.” ~ Paolo Bacigalupi

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart…”  ~ Haruki Murakami

“When well told, a story captured the subtle movement of change. If a novel was a map of a country, a story was the bright silver pin that marked the crossroads.” ~ Ann Patchett

In Honor of National Indie Bookstore Day.

Gertrude & Alice's bookstore

I admit, I’m a bit of a stalker when it comes to indie bookstores.

Whenever I visit a new city, the first place I look for is the nearest independent bookstore. I’ve even amassed quite a collection of bookmarks from The Tattered Cover in Denver, Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor and Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

It was in an indie bookstore in New Hope, Pennsylvania that I stumbled across a book called The New Diary by: Tristine Rainier. I had attempted to keep diaries over the years with many pages filled with the hastily scrawled words “forgot to write.” The obligation to write on every dated page was stifling. The New Diary opened up a new way of journal writing that was more spontaneous, deeper and even (gasp) fun. I began filling up blank pages with my words.

Then one day I was attending a seminar in Philadelphia. During the lunch break I browsed this amazing little bookstore off Sansom street. I can still see the table filled with this book called Writing Down the Bones. Just the title gave me goosebumps. I picked it up, stroking the image of ink spilling across the cover, already aware on some level that my life was about to change.

I began filling notebooks with what Natalie Goldberg called writing practice. Practice made it easier to approach. I wasn’t “writing.” I was practicing.

I was becoming a writer.

Of course, the flip side of writing is reading.

Read the rest of the article here.

Books Read in February, March & April

Descent book

“Descent” a novel by Tim Johnston

First sentence: Her name was Caitlin, she was eighteen, and her own heart would sometimes wake her—flying away in that dream-race where finish lines grew farther away, not nearer, where knees turned to taffy, or feet to stones.

All I can say is, don’t start this one at night. Or if you need to sleep. You’ll want to keep turning the pages to find out how it all ends. Plus, there’s so much suspense you may not even be able to fall asleep.

Caitlin and her brother, Sean go out for an early morning run in the mountains but only Sean returns. It’s a family’s worse nightmare. How do you stay together when the family is so violently fractured? How long do you keep looking and hoping?

Johnston gets into the dark knotty places of a family in crisis. We are allowed deep into each person’s secrets that they guard close to their heart. Each one struggles in their own way to deal with this loss, striving to balance hope with pragmatism, letting go with moving on.

Not only is this a thrilling suspense story/mystery, the writing is just, well, stunning. Whether he is describing the sun in the pines, the mountains or the relationships between the family and strangers, his language is lyrical and precise.

Here he is, describing curtains:

They belly out over the bed, rippling, luffing—and abruptly empty again, and for a moment everything is still.

He has a gift for creating the absolutely perfect verb in each and every sentence.

I borrowed this one from the library but may have to buy it at some point so I can read it again slowly, with pen in hand.

A sentence I love: The sunlit creases in the pines where some living thing might travel, bear or moose or hiker or daughter.

Yonahlossee book

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, a novel by Anton DiSclafani

First sentence: I was fifteen years old when my parents sent me away to The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.

Set in the beginning of the Depression, this novel is fraught with all kinds of tension: between families, between classes, the financial tension of the depression, the sexual tension that comes with being a teenage girl, the tension between a horse and its rider. Seriously, this story is steeped in tension and that is what kept me turning the pages.

After her part in a mysterious family tragedy, Thea is exiled to a horse camp for girls high in the Blue Ridge mountains. Far from the home she loves and separated for the first time from her family, including her twin brother Sam, Thea must find her place in this new world as well as come to terms with what got her sent away in the first place.

A beautiful, engaging story.

The Dead Lands book

“The Dead Lands” a novel by Benjamin Percy

First sentence: She knows there is something wrong with the baby.

So begins the new thriller, post apocalyptic story by Ben Percy. I was reeled into this dark, decimated, mutated world from the first sentence and hung on for the whole wild ride that included slavery, mutant creatures, the grappling for power and so much more.

It’s one thing to have an intriguing premise. It’s another to populate the premise with deeply flawed yet beautiful characters in a deeply flawed yet beautiful world.

150 years ago the world suffered a massive flu pandemic followed by nuclear war that left the world unrecognizable. A small group of citizens in St. Louis built a wall around their city, calling it the Sanctuary. There they lived in a prison of their own making, keeping the world at bay. Then a stranger rides into their midst, declaring that there is life beyond the Sanctuary—a life that that includes fresh water (which is very short supply within the walls of the Sanctuary). Do they trust her? Do they leave the safety of their own walls to explore what may lie beyond them?

“The Dead Lands” weavess together all of the dangers we face as a society, as a world: flu pandemics, nuclear war and fallout, climate change, water shortages.

Is there actually a reason to have hope? Is there ever a time to give in to despair? Percy explores these questions and more brilliantly in a novel that Stephen King describes as, “Good God, what a tale. Don’t miss it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

2 Sentences I love:

• The night is wrapped in many sheets of silence.

• Life might be a catastrophe, but it is a beautiful catastrophe.

30 WYA Challenge: The 1 Thing I Didn’t Do Taught Me the Most

Photo found on Pinterest via travimp.com.

Photo found on Pinterest via travimp.com.

I recently participated in the 30-Day Write Yourself Alive Challenge with Andrea Balt and Tyler Knott Gregson. I connected with so many amazing writers from around the globe. I connected with my words, my stories, my Self.

I showed up, I did the prompts, I put my words out there.

The one thing I didn’t do was show up everyday.

The one thing I didn’t do was give my writing top priority over everything else: yoga, meditation, dirty dishes, laundry, TV, internet.

Some days I didn’t write at all. Other days I wrote pages and pages, catching up by doing five, six or seven prompts in one sitting. And that was great—riding that energy that had built up over days, feeling those words simmering just below the surface of my skin, aching to find a way out. It’s fun to surf that wave of creative energy.

It’s fun but it’s not sustainable.

It’s fun but it is not dependable.

What is dependable is structure, routine, consistency.

Not fun words, are they?

But it is what I need. What my creative process needs. I’d rather sit down every day, not knowing what comes next, not knowing if I will eek out a few meager sentences or if pages will spill out of my pen than wait for the words to build up until they can’t be contained anymore.

So, for the next 7 days I am committing to show up each day. To work on my current WIP each and every day for seven days. To build up that muscle of dedication and consistency.

To have fun within the structure of discipline.

How about you? Are you an every day writer or does more sporadic work for you? I love hearing about your process. Please share.

Five on Friday

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1. Save yourself the time it would take to read Moby Dick and read David Ebenbach’s interview with Ishmael.

2. What happened when one writer committed herself to the 30 Day Write Yourself Alive challenge with Andrea Balt and Tyler Knott Gregson.

3. Margaret Atwood has a new book coming out this year.

4. My new favorite TV show.

5. Add to your TBR pile with these spring releases.