How The Short Story? “…hours of drudgery…” says Dennis McFadden

Dennis McFadden answers his own question “How The Short Story?” with thoughts on creativity and hard work, pimple-faced student teachers, Dennis Lehane, artists, and craftsmen. “Diamond Alley,” a gorgeously written and deeply affecting story of the murder of a popular local girl (from McFadden’s collection Hart’s Grove) has just been chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.

Dennis: How the short story, did someone say?

I wish I’d asked an easier question. Or at least a less embarrassing one.

In that earlier post I mentioned the English teacher who spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise, the guy with the literary name of MacBeth (somewhat compromised by his given name of Bruce). Well, that same year, my senior year in high school, Mr. Bruce MacBeth had a student teacher from nearby Clarion University, who, as you might surmise, was only three or four years older than me, and who, I can only surmise, wasn’t the least bit impressed by that so-called talent, and was undoubtedly sick of hearing it touted (and was undoubtedly not the only one). I remember him as a pimple-faced, wise-mouthed dude with horn-rimmed glasses, and probably several other hyphenated traits that don’t jump immediately to mind.

The semester he was there, we endured one of those standardized tests schools love to inflict upon their students, and one of the areas it allegedly tested was Creativity. My score in that particular area was among the lowest in the class, a fact that Mr. Student Teacher (I’ve forgotten his name; were I more creative, I’d make one up) pointed out with buckets of glee to all who would listen.

Now I don’t put much stock in standardized tests (at least not since then), although I do remember my buddy bemoaning his low SAT score with these ill-chosen words: “I ain’t no good in verbal.” I would, however, like to point out to Mr. Smart-Aleck (there’s another one) Student Teacher, if he’s listening, that I, low creativity score and all, have had a short story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.

And I can hear his rejoinder now: Oh, yeah? Well, I’ve had spaghetti at my house three times this month.

Trouble is, the more I think about it…he’s probably right. Does writing a “successful” story have anything at all to do with creativity? I think not. Creativity does, however, have everything to do with how the short story.

What exactly is this thing called “creativity”?

When Gina mentioned writing some of her stories in a single sitting, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Dennis Lehane a few years back (yeah, me and ol’ Den try to chat every day). He was telling me and a few other people about writing his story “Until Gwen,” which subsequently appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2005. That was also a one-sitting affair, written outside on his porch (we were in his living room at the time) one summer day as he sheltered behind creeping vines, a thunderstorm raging all around. It was, he said, the most amazing creative experience of his life.

Ah, a creative experience. So that’s what they look like. As for me, I’m lucky if I can clear my throat in one sitting, thunderstorm or no. “Diamond Alley,” the story selected for Best Mystery Stories, took me over thirty years to write.

What exactly is this thing called “creativity”?

Damned if I know, but isn’t it the answer to how the short story? When we wonder does the author decide to write the story or does the story decide to be written, is the story willed into existence or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion, doesn’t the answer depend upon just how creative that particular author is?

The concept of creativity speaks to the alchemy in the writing process that both Vanessa and Gina alluded to—I suspect this alchemy visits the creative soul much more frequently and freely than it calls upon the rest of us. When Gina asked, “Why, then, do some people become writers, whereas the vast majority of the human race does not?” my guess is it’s simply that some people are creative, whereas most are not. And when she makes the case “that something in the writer’s psyche or brain is wired differently than that of non-writers,” I would suggest that that something is that very mysterious quality of creativity. Those writers who possess it are the chosen for whom the conception of a story is pretty much a matter of spontaneous combustion, and it did not surprise me to learn that I’m engaged in conversation with several of them even as we speak.

Look, I have a vague idea what it’s like. I didn’t say I scored zero in Creativity, just low. Sure, my characters eventually get their act together and start talking to one another on their own, visiting me in my dreams, waking me up with this newly minted characteristic or that, surprising me by doing this or that. But only after I’ve already put in hours of drudgery trying to attain lift-off.

That’s the difference between the truly creative and the rest of us. That’s the difference in how the short story. I have to work for my inspiration; some people get it handed to them for free. I’m a craftsman. They’re the artists.

So, do I owe Mr. Wise-Ass Student Teacher an apology?

Naw. Screw him.


→ Soon, the secrets to how to be a better writer will be revealed. Right here. On this page. No shit. —PMc


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