A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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I love short stories. I love reading them, I love writing them. Doing both is how I taught myself to write. When I first saw this week’s title seven years ago I knew I had to buy it.

It is “If I loved you, I would tell you this” by Robin Black. The title alone grabbed me but then the writing. Oh, the writing and the characters and their stories. Well, I knew immediately that it would be placed on my Permanent Bookshelf. They are exactly the kinds of stores I long to write—honest explorations of what it means to be human.

Ron Carlson once said that literary fiction is about the complications of the human heart. That’s what these stores explore with such grace and depth.

Today happens to be the 7-year anniversary of this book’s publication. I’ve read everything she’s written since including the novel “Life Drawing” and a collection of essays on writing and life, “Crash Course.” Honestly, I’d read her grocery list. And once I learned that she was 48 when her first story collection was published, my writer crush was solidified. As a writer approaching 52, I yearn for role models of women who didn’t give up, who started late, who set their voice loose into the world. Robin Black is absolutely that role model for me. My writing bucket list includes taking a writing workshop with her.

(As a bonus, there’s a great conversation between Black and Karen Russell at the end of the book.)

A sentence I underlined: Every once in a while. though, that softening patina an extra glass of Chianti can give, that velvet cloth it lays over every jagged edge, evokes a kind of humble gratitude in me.

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