Why The Short Story? “Goosebumps,” says Dennis McFadden

Photo Credit: Heidi Brown

Dennis McFadden lives and writes in an old farmhouse called Mountjoy on Bliss Road, just up Peaceable Street from Harmony Corners in upstate New York.  “Diamond Alley,” from his collection of linked stories, Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press, June, 2010), was recently selected for inclusion in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.  His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Missouri Review, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, CutBank and The South Carolina Review.

Dennis and I met years ago at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference in Maine (we were housed on the Bowdoin Campus where we walked the same paths that Lawrence Sargent Hall did.) We were both trying to fine the balance between our “real” lives and our writing lives. Dennis was better at that than I, and his truly fine debut collection shows just what hard work and tenacity can get you. His insightful answer to “Why the short story?” is below, as is his follow-up question, “How the short story?”

Dennis: I was flattered when my friend Patty asked me to join this conversation about writerly things with some of her writerly pals, flattered and perhaps (that is, “per” “haps”) a bit flummoxed. My credentials can’t compete. Unlike Patty and Gina and Vanessa, I’m neither a teacher, nor an editor, nor a full-time writer. I’ve had one book published. I’m a state worker, a project manager for the New York State Department of Health who tries to write an hour or two in the morning before work. My apprehension was validated when Patty kicked off the conversation with “Why the short story?” and all I could come up with was, well, why not the short story? Because it’s short, that’s why. Then, when I saw the eloquent and elaborate offerings of my co-conversationalists, I knew I was in trouble.

But one of my mother’s favorite stories came to mind, and I was granted a modicum of hope. Good old mom. According to her, I was no more than two or three when I looked out the bus window at a busy Washington, D.C. sidewalk and said, “Look at all the pedestrians.” Was that not eloquent? And, anytime you use a word with more syllables than your years, elaborate?

Still, there weren’t many books around my place when I was a kid. Nobody’d gone to college. Dad told a few bad jokes when he was drunk, but no bedtime stories. I remember getting my hands on some Hardy Boys books, and enjoying them, and when I was 15, I picked up a paperback called Boy With a Gun. It was, coincidentally, about a 15-year-old boy. It takes place during the Hungarian uprising, and the kid’s father and brother are killed, and he ends up fighting in the revolution, and he and this 15-year-old chick are crazy about each other, but the end left me hanging. The kid was still fighting. The war wasn’t over. He and the chick still weren’t together. What happened? What the hell happened? I had to know. So I wrote to the author, James Dean Sanderson, and asked him, and he actually wrote back! I tore open the envelope, about to have all my questions answered, all the mysteries revealed. But he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He was flattered, he said, that the book had affected me that way. He suggested I write an ending. I should write the damn ending! I should talk to my English teacher—I might even be able to earn credit for it.

The bastard.

Maybe that planted a seed, I don’t know, but I never entertained writing, not seriously, until my senior year, when my English teacher spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise. His name was MacBeth. That’s right. MacBeth.

How could I then not go on to college and major in English? I became known as a writer, a couple of stories published in the old “lit mag.” I was on my way. Then a funny thing happened. I took off 10 or 12 years after college to drink and party. And when I finally did get back to writing, it was to the novel, not the short story. My third book was pretty good, good enough to get me an honest-to-God New York City literary agent. But alas. All she succeeded in doing was getting me a higher class of rejection slips, and she dumped me after a year. In my state of despair, Irish activism caught me on the rebound, and I spent the next fifteen years getting England out of Ireland (no hard feelings, Philip, Vanessa). All I wrote during that period was propaganda, but I wrote it well and I wrote it plenty. And you know what? It wasn’t bad practice. Some of those satirical pieces are very much like short stories.

They had to be short. The old attention span blues that Gina referenced.

So maybe we’re on to something here. Short satire evolved into short stories as Irish activism fell by the wayside when peace broke out (thanks in large part to me, I like to think).

So why didn’t I go back to writing novels? Oh…just thinking out loud here…maybe because I hadn’t had one published? Just a thought. Maybe because I was getting older now, the green banana syndrome, hesitant to begin any two year projects? Maybe because I loved the high of finishing a story and craved it more often? I became addicted, jonesing for finishes.

It’s not that I really prefer one to the other, the novel and the short story. I read both, write both. I can become equally immersed—reading or writing—in both. The aforementioned Boy With a Gun, Plunkett’s Strumpet City, Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Nichols’s The Sterile Cuckoo—these are novels that have stayed with me all my life. On the other hand, I (like my new found friend, Vanessa) will never forget “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, nor Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children,” George Saunders’s “The Falls,” and any number of other stories, particularly those with an Alice Munro byline.

In the end, it probably comes down to goosebumps.

A few years ago I was sitting around a table at Stonecoast listening to Patty read a George Saunders story called “The End of FIRPO in the World.” Toward the end, I felt a wave of goosebumps breaking out on my arms, on my neck and back. Not for the first time, nor the last. Same thing happened toward the end of “The Ledge,” and many other stories I’ve heard or read—including, I’ll shamelessly admit, my own story, “Painting Pigs.” Same thing almost every time I write what is, at the time at least, the last sentence of a new story.

On the other hand, much as I enjoy novels, I don’t recall a single goosebump ever caused by one (though, admittedly, a single goosebump might be difficult to detect).

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you.

The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.

Now I’m curious as to how the short story. (We can defer what the short story, who, where and when the short story for later.)

How the short story? We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? One moment there’s nothing there, blotto, oblivion, nothingness, and the next there’s a seed that leads, a week, a month or years later to a fully formed, complex and meaningful story. Do you will it into existence, or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion?

How does it happen? A theme? An event? A character? Something else altogether? Is there any discernable method or pattern, or is inspiration random and chaotic? Thinking through my collection, one story originated from a buried childhood memory of snow floating down through the glow of a streetlight and covering a park bench. The scene itself never made it into the story. Another was inspired when I imagined how a gaudy Christmas light display might piss off the guy’s neighbor, another was sparked by a news article about a deathbed confession, and yet another by an actual experience (finding a kid lost in the woods) of my nephew.

What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?

3 Replies to “Why The Short Story? “Goosebumps,” says Dennis McFadden”

  1. I’m not offended (remember my Irish blood, and the name ‘Hartigan’.)

    I am, however, deeply impressed by this contribution. I like (sorry, Patty, ‘notice’) the turn to the ‘how’ of the short story. You are one hell of a writer of stories yourself, Dennis. Thought I should tell you that.

  2. The McFadden Goosebump Theory will become a CW teaching topic, I predict.

    Been thinking about these goosebump moments, and for this reader they usually come at the end of a stunning story, and I am left suitably stunned.
    I wonder if that’s why the short story is so powerful – I am sure you get goosebump moments in novels, but the narrative sweeps you on and the moment is fleeting.

    I can’t think of a novel where the ending produces that same feeling, meself.

    1. I remember A. Manette Ansay talking once about the short story and how when it is working, it is like the clear, bright sound of a bell. This, too, can cause goosebumps. Thanks again, Vanessa, for the comment and keeping the conversation going.

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