On Story and Family

Spring break felt deliciously well-earned after Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department’s Story Week Festival of Writers. I was honored to be part of it; thrilled to read–for the first time anywhere–from an actual copy of my new book, The Temple of Air; humbled to be part of the line-up of the 2nd Story event with my friends Lott Hill, Eric May, and April Newman; and creatively stimulated from moderating a panel with the artists and arts related folks Philip Hartigan (artist, writer), Darrell Jones (dancer, choreographer), Audrey Niffenegger (artist, writer), Bruce Sheridan (filmmaker,) Rod Slemmons (curator, writer), and Tony Trigilio (poet.) Through images, readings, and movement, this diverse and talented crew presented on the role of the narrative, of story, in the arts.

Talking story, that’s what we were doing.

And that story talk did not stop when the festival ended. I started my spring break with two other writers, Gail Wallace Bozzano and Jana Dawson, on a mini writers’ retreat at our house (Two Cats Studio) out in Mount Carroll, IL. We ate and drank, walked and wrote, and then read to one another the projects we are working on. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.

The bulk of my break, though, was spent with family. My dear Aunt Margaret, 90-plus years old, recently lost her husband of more than 75 years. Uncle Miller, my mother’s brother, was born in Korea (as my mother was), the son of Methodist missionaries who lived more than a decade in Korea during the early years of our last century. Miller was a remarkable man, one whom I will write about at some length another time. But it is Margaret I want to talk about now.

Margaret has been an Easterner all her life, and has lived most of her married life in the same lovely home in Connecticut. She was the mother of five daughters, all of whom I got to visit with on this trip as well. We ate and told stories (“Remember the time when I…”) the bunch of us, in various combinations, and I took my first ever Tai Chi class in a cavernous room in a church on the campus of Yale with my cousin Ann. I love my cousins; they are strong, talented women who continue to explore new paths in their lives (one has become a photo artist, another recently ran for a state representative seat, and so on…) and it was by spending time with Margaret that I could see where their zest for life and curiosity for the world comes from.

I may have put this somewhere else on this blog, but when I spoke with Margaret before my visit, she asked me about my book:

“I don’t think you will like it, Aunt Margaret.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, it is full of bad language and sex and some violence.”

“I read those things,” she said with some indignation. “I”m in a book club!”

She went on to tell me some of the titles she’s read recently, and let me tell you, she does read those things.

I was surprised. Margaret is a church-going woman, one of considerable faith. I have certain preconceptions about members of organized religion, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that I applied these to my own aunt. One of these is that I assumed that church folks were censorious. Not so in Margaret’s case. In fact, Margaret, like my Uncle Miller (her recently departed husband,) is what a good Christian should be, I think. She is compassionate, understanding, helpful, open-minded, and concerned about the wellness of others and of the world. She is tolerant. She watches Rachel Maddow; she listens to NPR. She is deeply troubled by the wars and military actions we are engaged in, by the willingness of certain parties to take from others under the ruse of fiscal conservatism, by the deepening and widening fissure between the haves and have-nots of the world.

At this time in her life, Margaret has earned, I think, the right to be selfish. I mean, why not? She has lived a long and full nine-plus decades; she has raised five fine women who are productive and giving members of society; she has assisted in the rearing of many grandchildren. She has done community and church service; she has helped feed hungry, she has helped educate the masses. She has traveled many countries and seen the world, engaged in global conversations that were something other than tourist talk (“How much for this wood carving?” “Which way to the post office?” “What time is the train?”) She, at her exceptional age, is in a book club, for godssakes.

Margaret will not simply sit by herself and rest. One morning during my visit, I came downstairs to the den. And there was Margaret, on her feet and holding on to the back of a chair, doing leg curls in time with an exercise DVD on the television. She may not see as well as she used to; she may not walk quite so fast. But she does still walk, wherever and whenever she can. She reads by electronic means; she joins friends of all ages to talk about what she is reading. She speaks up and speaks out about those things that matter to her: fairness, justice, love, art, and family. She has a mischievous sense of humor and tells a good story.

My dear Aunt Margaret is someone I love, learn from, and admire. She is someone I hope someday to be.

Writers’ Retreat | Interlochen Adult Arts Programs

See? This is what it looks like to write in Northern Michigan. Join us for the Interlochen Writers’ Retreat June 20 – 23, 2011. Philip Hartigan and I will be teaching Journal and Sketchbook. Workshops in Poetry, Fiction, and Memoir as well. Craft talks. Readings. Gatherings of like-minded writer folks.

More info? Hit this link: Writers’ Retreat | Interlochen Adult Arts Programs.

Gerard Woodward on the “sagging, ungainly corpses” of bad short stories

Gerard Woodward has picked up the thread of our conversation and provides us with his response to Vanessa Gebbie‘s question “Is the short story training ground for the novel?” It is an interesting juxtaposition to Dennis McFadden‘s answer earlier.

Gerard: I have a playwright friend who says he gets very annoyed when people apply to do his course so that they can ‘improve their dialogue’ in their novels. I can imagine this would be very annoying, just as much as if the opposite happened, and someone took one of my novel-writing courses in order to improve their writing of stage directions. The point he was making, of course, is that dialogue works very differently in dramatic work, and that it is a big mistake to think writing a play will help you with your novel – a category error, almost. I don’t know enough about writing plays (in fact I don’t know anything about writing plays) to know if he’s right. It couldn’t do any harm, you might be thinking – any writing in any form will help whatever you’re doing, it’s bound to feed in some interesting stuff – but maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t be any help at all, maybe it would even do some damage. If you learnt how to write successful dialogue for a stage play, and then applied that same technique to a novel – well, think about it, a novel full of stage play dialogue – what would that be like? Maybe a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel? I don’t know.

Anyway, I take my friend’s point, and I feel similarly with regard to the short story and the novel. I think it is a big mistake to think of the short story as a practice ground for the novel, a stepping stone towards the longer form. This is because the two forms tend to work along opposite lines of force to achieve their effects. The novel is all about filling big narrative spaces, while the short story is all about suggesting those spaces and using the restrictions of space and time to powerful effect. Short stories written with the same blithe disregard for the boundaries of narrative as a novel are usually very sorry-looking things, and many British anthologies are littered with their sagging, ungainly corpses, often begotten by distinguished novelists.

Of course, a short story may sometimes become so gravid with character, plot and theme that it mutates into the larger thing, by which time it will have spawned a family of sub plots and sub characters, and will fill its space with ease, but this doesn’t mean that the two forms are easily interchangeable. As I said earlier, they are more like opposites. Short stories are not just truncated or abbreviated or compressed novels, they are more like the opposite of novels, they are inverted, or reversed or exploded novels. Their power is delivered in an entirely different way.

If you are using the short story as a training ground for writing a novel, both forms will tend to suffer. You will write weak short stories because you will have little respect for the form (because you will simply be seeing it as a prototype of something else) and you will write weak novels because they won’t have the bulk and meatiness necessary for the panoramic scale of a novel. Write both forms by all means, but don’t treat one as the poor cousin of the other, they both need distinctive approaches and different sets of skills.

On the other hand, they do share much. In America there is a great tradition of the collection of linked short stories – as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts. The series of connected stories, or the novel-in-stories, has emerged as a form in itself. But it is a very different thing from a novel. It is interesting how publishers these days often try and present a collection of short stories as though it is a novel, and it’s not until you begin reading it that you realise it is in fact a short story collection. Then, even if you are a fan of the short story, you can’t help feeling a little bit cheated.

I’ll finish with a quote from an article on the novel versus the short story that has just popped up on The Guardian’s blog pages – “The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different.” As Richard Ford once told the Paris Review, recalling arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel, “Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.” Which sums it up nicely. The rest of Guardian article, which ties in to a lot of the issues that have been raised in this debate, can be found here http://gu.com/p/2zxg3

“The Grand Symbiosis.” Dennis McFadden on training…

In the last installment of “Why The Short Story?” our conversation among writers, Vanessa Gebbie asked us to consider whether or not we thought the short story is training ground for the novel. Here then, is Dennis McFadden’s response:

Dennis: Is the short story a “training ground” for the novel?

Unquestionably. Undeniably. Until the cows come home.

Bear in mind, however: the novel is every bit as much a training ground for the short story.

Having begun my own writing “career” with the novel before moving up to the story, it’s not difficult to conclude which was the training ground for which. In fact, based upon empirical evidence posted a while back in this very blog, I would suggest that writing novels is a wonderful training ground for writing satirical, anti-English propaganda pieces. And writing satirical, anti-English propaganda pieces (at least in that particular empirical example) is a great training ground for writing short stories.

And what about the writing of blog-post-essay-rambles (while one’s fiction sits in want of affection)? Not to worry. Can’t hurt. Can only help.

In other words, practice, practice, practice…

Or, as Patty put it, work, work, work.

The only way to become a writer is to write. The only way to become a better writer is to write more. And the only way to become the best writer you can be…well, you get the picture. The more you write, the more you perfect your craft, and the better your product will be, be that product long or short. (There may be, and probably is, a point of diminishing returns, but dementia will probably intervene before that point is reached.)

All writing is a training ground for all writing. Novels or stories, or stories or novels, or anything in between.

Of course there are plenty of differences between the novel and the story, in addition to the obvious matter of length. The novel is far more inclusive, often more complex, and the art of excision, while still practiced by the novelist, is hardly as critical as it is to the writer of stories. The differences can be—and have been—endlessly debated, and Vanessa also brings up the sensible question of unlearning the rules and conventions of one form in order to successfully write the other. Exactly. It seems to me then that it is because of those differences that the best training ground for a novelist is not the short story, but the novel—particularly the first, second and third drafts of the novel he or she wants to write.

For all their differences, the short story and the novel are also tantalizingly similar, and when you throw in that bastard stepchild called the novella, the precise relationships—beyond training ground—are as slippery to grasp as a trout in a brook. Particularly in the arena of linked stories and novels.

The relationship among my own might best be described as symbiotic. Years after I’d written my first two novels, I revisited them and was able to extract a couple of fairly decent short stories, which were essentially condensations of the books. This took place long before I learned in a recent essay by Don Koia in the New York Times Book Review that John Updike abandoned his first novel, Willow, two-thirds of the way through (how does one measure two-thirds of an incomplete entity? Never mind…), but later “mined” the unfinished novel for short story material. So, were those novels training grounds for those stories? Or were they more like blocks of wood from which those stories could be carved?

Right now I’m working on a novel based on a short story of mine (no mining pun intended). Does that mean that the original story was a training ground for the novel? Maybe. Or maybe it means simply that I liked the characters, place and plot enough to go back and spend more time with them. Maybe it means that the story, in this instance, was an outline to be filled in and fleshed out, a seed from which the novel could grow.

Furthermore, when this particular novel was nearing completion, I realized, alas, it was lacking. It needed additional depth and resonance (I often realize, also with an alas, the same thing in the early drafts of my stories), so I thought I’d develop some minor characters into major actors, give them their own scenes and plotlines. A few dozen pages into the new sections, however, I felt I didn’t really know them well enough, so I decided to write a short story—a prequel to the novel—to get to know them a little better.

A few years ago, I liked a story I’d written about a dirty old man so much I kept on writing, and ended up with a novella (I think that’s what it was. Or is). Then I kept on going—picture Forrest Gump running—and wrote three more novellas from three of the other characters’ points of view, featuring the same people and plot. And what did I end up with? A novel? Four novellas? Four extended stories? Beats the hell out of me. Beats the hell out of every agent I’ve tried to peddle it to as well.

Training ground? Sure, maybe, call it that if you will, or call it raw material, background, drafts, seeds, outlines. Whatever it is, it’s all practice, it’s all work. Call it all a part of the grand symbiosis.

→So, friends? What say you? Do you think writing the short story trains you for writing the novel?←

Since we’ve started this conversation…

Our short story conversationalists have had a few rather lovely things happen in their writing lives since we started chatting about writing. Dennis McFadden, up next with his response to the question “Is the short story a training ground for the novel?” has had “Diamond Alley,” one of his stories from Hart’s Grove, chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011; Gerard Woodward’s short story, “The Family Whistle,” has moved from the long list to the short list for the very lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2011 (site has a cool little video with judges comments on what makes a short story great); Gina Frangellos collection Slut Lullabies has been named a finalist in ForeWords Book of the Year Awards; Vanessa Gebbie’s collection Words from a Glass Bubble was selected by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers;” and me? Well, no big prizes or short lists (if I say “yet” here will that screw with my karma?) but the first offering of The Temple of Air, the Story Week Limited Release, sold out before the end of the festival and I have been signing books for friends and new readers alike–a very humbling and exciting experience.

So these writers who are giving so generously of their time to fill the pages of this blog with their thoughts on the short story are the real deal, folks. I hope you enjoy what they have to say on the subject. And do feel free to join in on the conversation. Maybe their magic will rub off on you just a little. Or maybe yours will rub off on them (us.)

Oh, and you probably figured this out, but the lovely image above is by Pablo Picasso. The man whom we named our cat after. We call him Pabs, usually. He has a brother named Enrique (Reeks.)

Reading, by the way, exhausts him.

“The Words, When They Come Right, Are Mine…” Vanessa Gebbie on “How the Short Story?”

Words from a Glass BubbleOur partner in conversation, Vanessa Gebbie, just returned from holiday. Well-deserved her time off, I think. She’s been scribbling madly for our blog, as well as continuing on with her own, adding new bits and pieces almost daily. Among the news on Vanessa’s website is mention of her book Words From A Glass Bubble having been listed by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers.” Congratulations, Vanessa!

Below you will find Vanessa’s response to Dennis’s original questions and comments on “HOW the short story?” You’ll find, too, Dennis’s words in bold, Vanessa’s answers and ruminations in italics.

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

Vanessa: I have to bow here. Talk about concision – yes, the goosebumps do have it. And, if you are so disposed, the tears have it. Or whatever – but the final sentences of several of my stories have had me, the writer, in tears, and I can’t ‘perform’ them at spoken events even now, without apologising for my lack of control. And it is a funny thing – those are the stories that have done the best for me. How does that happen? I write in a state  of ‘knowingness’ – ‘awareness’ – but I do not plot. When I get towards the end of the first draft, I can ‘see’ the ending, with little detail. A blur. As I write it, the tears come. And in revisions – the ending is not touched. How does that happen? Well, actually, in a way, I do not want to know. I am just grateful.

Dennis: Now I’m curious as to how the short story. We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? …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? …What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?

Vanessa: There are a lot of questions up there, and too many to be answered in one blog post, but I will try. For a start, I wonder if the decision process in a creator is quite as simple as ‘deciding’ to make something (leaving aside commissions…) or whether there is a pressure that builds up, some alchemy between the writer’s obsessions and a seed – a setting/character combination perhaps, or a phrase overheard, anything – that begins to grow despite the writer. The writer’s mind becomes the medium for that seed’s growth – not necessarily consciously – think Nietsche’s ‘active forgetting’…until there is no option but to release the pressure by committing something to screen or paper.

The only discernable method or pattern for this writer is the knowledge, gained after so many false starts, that to grab at the idea/feeling too early, ruins the piece. The product takes on a stilted, forced quality as I flounder about with a voice that seems clever, as opposed to the right voice for this piece. Or the characters refuse to become anything but puppets as I take decisions on their behalf and shift them from here to there, doing MY bidding. Not their own.

I know the words, when they come right, are mine, the product of a lifetime of experiences married to my value system  – but I do know that the ancients, with their belief that genius was something external, working with the creator, and for whose visits the creator gave thanks, were much wiser than we are today… I have learned to wait for and welcome those precious moments when the alchemy works, the words flow, and characters do what they must and speak in the voices they must.  And in that sense, yes, ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is, is using me, as much as I am using the seeds of inspiration.

I do get a bit tired of hearing that the short story is a ‘training ground’ for the novel?  Is it? My own view (having written The Coward’s Tale’ over the last four years, at the same time as writing two collections of shorts..) would be quite complex, but might include these sentences:

“I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, I also wonder if they might write a better novel, when they finally do, than they would if they were not.”

Patty: So fellow conversationalists, Dennis, Gerard, and Gina, do you think the short story is “training ground for the novel?” I know what I think, and my answer will be posted, too.

Story Week! Story Week! Story Week!

Story WeekA crazy busy week this one with Story Week Festival of Writers 2011 underway here at Columbia College Chicago. Once again under the fine direction of the 3 Wise Men of Story Week – Fiction Department Faculty Member Sam Weller, Fiction Department Chair Randy Albers, and Fiction Writing Department Adjunct Faculty Member   Chris De Guire, the week-long series of events featuring all things literary and fun (there’ll be drinkin’, there’ll be fightin’, there’ll be fu…n!) is at about the half-way point and already the reviews are good.

Things started out with stories of love, lust, and loss at 2nd Story at Martyrs’  and raced through readings by students and faculty from nearly dawn till way past dusk. (Good thing we all remembered to change our clocks last weekend, huh?) More than fifty writing students have shared their work with our engaged and supportive city-wide audience so far (playwrights with Lisa Schlesinger today at 11) along with award-winning authors Jennifer Egan, Audrey Niffenegger, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Gerard Woodward, one of our conversationalists taking part in “Why The Short Story?” right here on this blog.

Tonight the spectacular and always entertaining Literary Rock and Roll event at the Metro with another of our conversationalists, Gina Frangello, along with the inimitable Irvine Welsh and stories by Preston Allen as read by his editor and friend, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books.

Oh, and there is so much more, friends. Panels on publishing, the future of the book, and playwriting; there’ll even be a presentation on research in the arts by an international collaboration of students from Columbia College Chicago and Bath Spa University (that’s Friday.) Tomorrow (St Patty’s Day; I always liked that holiday!) afternoon at 4 join me in conversation with various artists on a multidisciplinary panel called “Story in the Arts” with  Audrey Niffenegger; poet Tony Trigilio; filmmaker and chair of the Film and Video Department at Columbia College Chicago Bruce Sheridan; dancer and choreographer Darrell Jones; director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography Rod Slemmons; and visual artist Philip Hartigan. (There’ll be dancin’, there’ll be filmmin’, there’ll be readin’, there’ll be artin’!)

So if you haven’t yet enjoyed any part of Story Week, there’s still plenty of time and muchos events left. I’m gonna be there. You?