Secrets Revealed, the Code is Cracked: How the Short Story

I have this friend Michael Delp, a writer from Northern Michigan. His latest book is a loving, funny, and sometimes disturbing collection of short stories called As If We Were Prey, published by the scrappy and very fine Wayne State University Press. Delp is a bit of a hermit, preferring fish and water to people and conversation, so it is sort of remarkable that he is such a hero to his students (he teaches at Interlochen Arts Academy.) Or maybe it isn’t remarkable. Maybe because he doesn’t have any real interest in saying a whole lot, the words he does parcel out while he teaches are that much more precious to those who are listening.

One of the things that Michael hates—hates—is the whole “process of writing” discourse. You may have seen a comment he left on an earlier blog post here about how the “why” of writing was more interesting to him than the “how.” I’ve seen him in the audience during conversations with authors, and when that question gets asked—Can you tell us about your process?—the one that I think may have overtaken that other one—Is this a true story? (perhaps the same question when you think it about it)—Delp tsks and shakes his head, rolls his eyes like his sixteen-year-old students do, and almost always leaves the room.

And in this disdain for the process question, Delp, I think, is not alone. For a while it bugged me some; a while, that is, after I stopped asking it myself at just about every opportunity I had. I remember sitting in a small balcony overlooking the main room of the Stone House, the location of University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Writers’ Conference, and watching as all heads leaned in to hear how Richard Ford would answer the same question. Pens poised above notebooks, the crowd (gaggle? bevy? flock? murder?) of aspiring writers listened closely to the answer. I can’t remember the answer myself now; maybe it was something akin to those writers who have answered this question before him: pen instead of computer, at a podium, in a bathtub, blue ink on the first draft, on the back of a wheelbarrow over nine days, on a continuous scroll of paper fed through a manual typewriter. Does it matter? It is intriguing, interesting, delightful even when we discover these little rituals of writers we love (Dennis McFadden told a grad student of mine that he can only write wearing his red thong; I think he may have been kidding, but who am I to judge?) but sometimes I wonder if there is something else behind our desire to know this stuff. Like maybe if we listen hard enough, try things out as successful others have before us, we, too, will become famous, loved, well-received authors. Like we are looking for a way to crack the code. As though writing were like hitting a golf ball or kicking a soccer (foot) ball: all we need to do is find the sweet spot, follow through on the swing, be one with the ball, and GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL!

It’s really not the same, though, is it? And yet, I think that in some cases, those writers who totally dis the process question (we all know these guys, right? the ones who say “I don’t have a process,” as though the writing is done on its own without any input from the one at the desk) want to believe that process is not nearly as important as muse or magic. As though talent were all anyone needs to write something and write it well. As though work, process, pushing and pulling and massaging the words onto the page weren’t part of what it means to be a writer.

Another tangent here. Another kind of writer: the one you all know, the incredibly talented one who calls himself a writer, despite not having written for months, maybe years. You knew this guy in grad school, right? Or maybe she was your student. These folks are more frustrating to me than those who are so prolific you wonder if they don’t have the muse on intravenous feed directly to their writing hand. Because those of us who also call ourselves writers, you know, the ones who are actually, well, writing, are often badgered or even judged by these other (non)writers who seem to want to know our recipes, our secrets, our ten steps to better writing. As though these bits of information are all they will need to start their own writing, as though those ten months, two years, decade and a half were just brief recesses from the work at hand.

And there it is. The real key to unlocking the secret code: work.  Dennis said it already, and the others did as well in one way or another. Work. That’s the HOW of the short story. The HOW of writing. Take those students, writer friends, or friends who want to (think they can) be writers who say “It’s all up here,” and point to their noggins, “I just need to write it down.” Yes.  You do. Because until you write it down, it ain’t writing. In his book “Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy,” Mark Kingwell says (writes), “…only by writing it down will you know the precise contours of the idea, as opposed to its vague outline.”

And there, too, it is: “the precise contours of the idea.” Let’s call this process, yeah? The other stuff—the human, practical stuff like bathtub writing and a page a day and arranging notecards like a quilt on a bed and counting lines and using only number two pencils and reading to the dog—is less process than ritual, perhaps. Moving from memory (my babysitting a young girl with Down’s Syndrome when I was a teenager like in my story “When is a Door Not a Door?” or hitting a deer on a country road and my fiancé at the time thinking an Xacto knife might be enough to kill the severely wounded animal as in “Deer Story” and so on) to published story is process. The way we hold these moments (or they hold us) until we need to commit them to the page, either highly fictionalized or in some other form, is part of process. In fact, holding these memories until we are ready to tell them to the page is (pardon the psychobabble) a form of processing, yes? And putting it on the page, choosing where to put the commas, the dashes, the mixing of diction, the fully realized images, the fragments and expansions, all of this is part of the HOW.

So let’s not be too quick to turn from the “HOW” of the short story, okay, Delp? Let’s talk about it. Why did you decide to name the daughter character in one of your stories the same name as your own daughter? HOW does that affect the way the story was conceived, written? HOW did the idea of a man sitting in the back of a truck answering every possible question from a local audience move from a seen image to a short story? What was the process? I’ll tell you about the time I shared a car on a carnival ride with a couple who let their infant crawl all over the place while the wheel turned hundreds of feet in the air, HOW I couldn’t help but worry the kid was going to fall, HOW I knew I would be forever changed if I witnessed that, HOW it would affect my ideas about God and faith and all that goes with that; and HOW I couldn’t stop thinking about that, what would happen if…, until I wrote it down. I’ll tell you HOW I listen to the stories I am told by others, scan them for possibilities for my own writing, use what I can; ruthlessly and selfishly sometimes. So much so that one friend would always say “This is my story, you can’t have it,” because she knew I was prone to stealing. And that would frustrate me because those stories never made it to print, she didn’t write them, and it always seemed to me like some form of betrayal, like a loss to readers everywhere not to be able to have access to these stories she wouldn’t let me take.

Short answer then: HOW the short story? WRITE the short story. Then REWRITE the short story. And WRITE it again. James Thurber said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” I’ll second that and raise him: “Don’t get it right, just get it written, and THEN get it right.” That’s HOW.

For more on the HOW of Writing, join us at Columbia College Chicago for the Fiction Writing Department’s Story Week Festival of Writers. March 13-18, 2011. Up close and personal with writers, editors, publishers, and other writerly folk. Free and open to the public. Tonight, Sunday, I’ll be reading with Eric May, Lott Hill, and April Newman at 2nd Story, Martyrs’ on Lincoln in Chicago, the festival’s launch event.←

5 Replies to “Secrets Revealed, the Code is Cracked: How the Short Story”

  1. Patty I marvel at your knowledge output intelligence writing and all manner of other things and my question is ‘when do you have time to sleep?’

  2. Here’s the deal on this process stuff for me. I don’t have a process……only kidding. An image starts a story for me…in the case of “Traveling Einstein” it was seeing, literally, an old pickup truck in N Michigan with no bed, but a back end ringed with fence wire and inside was an overstuffed chair. I thought to myself…..’some guy was sitting having his morning coffee, and had the sudden urge to blast the bed off his pickup, line it with fence wire and put an overstuffed chair in it.’ The image went into my tiny head and stayed there, festered all by itself, I’d like to think and like metal fragments to a magnet, the story came into being, almost without my conscious intent. It rolled around for a few months, and when it came time to write the story, I merely felt myself as typist….I sat down with a stack of Trivia cards for the questions and in about an hour or two the story had emerged, almost whole. I write as fast as I can because I want to go fishing much more than I want to write. As you can probably tell, I hate revision, and hate tinkering with it…. it’s boring, time consuming and my work probably suffers from it to a great deal. The idea of a writer sitting in his hovel for hours on end agonizing over which verb to use paints a picture of a newt in the ground squeezing out a story from one of his pores. He probably hasn’t seen the sun in years and probably doesn’t know one end of a fly rod from the other. More later…..thanks for asking.



    1. Hey, Delp. Beautiful response. Thanks for taking the time away from the water and reading student work. And everyone reading this, please check out Mike’s book, As If We Were Prey. You can tell by the title (because sometimes you can judge a book by its cover) that it has some fine writing in it.

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