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


“How The Short Story?” Gerard Woodward says “…it starts with memory”

Gerard Woodward has an instinct for the kind of brimmingly charged image that short stories depend on…” says The Guardian. As part of our ongoing Conversation Among Writers, Gerard takes on the question: “How The Short Story?”

Gerard: I think it starts with memory. In fact, I think everything starts with memory, even the present moment, even the future. When you think about it, there just isn’t anything else. The present moment is so infinitely small that it flashes by too quickly to comprehend, and we are left with the aftershock. We trail in the wake of the present moment, enjoying its ripples and savouring its breeze, while it hurries on ahead, always slightly out of reach. That’s how I feel about it, but perhaps I’m just slow-witted. Situated as I presently am, on the top of a skyscraper with a wonderful panorama of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan visible through all-surrounding windows, I can feel wonderfully immersed in the present moment, but really it is just a blur of light and colour too vast to take in. If I do a drawing to try and capture it, by the time my pencil touches the paper, it is a memory. A very recent memory, but a memory all the same. What I’m trying to draw is not what is in front of my eyes, but what my mind has made of what is in front of my eyes. And the resulting drawing will be of a memory. Even more so, if I tried to write a poem or story about it.

So memory is where it starts. Recent or distant, something that happened just now, or something that happened forty seven years ago, (which is just about as far as my memory will stretch, on a good day). But that is only the beginning.

I should say that there are probably two other points of origin for stories, which are still memory-based, but at one step removed. That is – things we have been told, and things we have read. In a sense, the things we’ve been told, (and I include the deliberate tellings alongside the accidental tellings – that is, things we’ve overheard), are memories just as much as things we’ve experienced, but they belong in a category that could be called extended memory – the shared collective memory of people you know – friends and family, as well as strangers whose path you’ve crossed. Similarly, the things we’ve read (and I mean ‘read’ loosely to include everything kind of reading from ‘reading’ a painting or a movie, to listening to a song, along with the more conventional reading of newspapers, journals and – yes – short stories), are also things we remember, but perhaps belong in another slightly different category, you could call it archival memory – another form of extended memory that includes all the bits and pieces of things you’ve read and the other cultural jottings that you might, for instance, gather together in a notebook.

The notebook is important. Memory and extended memory offer a bewilderingly, near infinitely vast amount of potential subject matter. There can never be any excuse for not having anything to write about – writers’ block is just a kind of narcolepsy brought on by an inability to deal with the vastness of one’s extended memory, either through fatigue, lethargy or depression. It is vital to have a way of sifting and sorting and capturing the material that is floating around in the extended memory. Relying on ‘mental notes’ is not enough. I know that, no matter how good an idea occurs to me, if I don’t jot it down within ten minutes, it’ll almost certainly be lost for ever. It may come to the surface again in ten years time, but on that occasion I might not notice its story potential. Its qualities might no longer resonate with the self in the way it did ten years ago. There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes an idea will present itself so strongly that I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to, and stays at the top of my thoughts for days on end, and in fact won’t go away until I’ve written it down somewhere. Then one has a wonderful feeling, that in a notebook somewhere (as long as I can find it) is an idea so strong that, when I go back to it, I’ll be taken over and be in the grip of a narrative so potent that it will almost ‘write itself’ as they say. (It’s an annoying term, because stories definitely never write themselves).

So I’ve said where I think ideas come from, but the other question is what makes those ideas special – what sort of memories make their way into the notebook as potential stories?

Often the starting point is a dilemma or problem. What would happen if someone fired arrows at you in the open street? What would happen if someone stole your caravan while you were alseep inside? What would happen if your ex-partner set fire to themselves in your front garden? I would then start building characters around this idea, then places for it to happen, and so on. The story then would take this central problem and play with it – I very rarely have any idea, when I start writing, of where it will go or what the ending will be. Sometimes it will go nowhere, no matter how hard I push it or how many different turns I take. In which case it is put aside (never thrown away) to puzzle over later, or maybe never to see the light of day again. But with practise I think you develop a way of identifying ideas that could be good stories – and that ability to identify is one of the crucial skills – similar to the stereotypical idea of the journalist having a good nose for a news story. And it’s a very personal thing. Something in the dilemma or problem interests you for personal reasons, they resonate with you, you feel all sorts of other experiences and memories pinging off one another when you think about it.

Finally, the idea of whether you are using the story or the story is using you, is an interesting one. The thing about memory is you have very limited control over it. You do not choose what to remember, and you do not choose what to forget. Sadly, we tend to forget pleasant experiences while bad experiences stay fixed in the mind. I suppose if the opposite were true then all the world’s problems would end instantly. Though probably not – there are good evolutionary reasons for remembering the bad (it reminds us not to repeat mistakes, it helps us readjust our concept of ourselves and perhaps be nicer to people). If humanity could only remember good things it would soon die out (from forgetting that fire was dangerous, for instance). However, this lack of choice in what stays in our minds is crucial when we think about what subjects drive us to write about them. Some subjects do choose themselves – or that’s what it feels like anyway. We might resist (for various reasons – perhaps because we just don’t want to go there, or because we might write about things that will offend or upset people we love), but should we? I’d say no. As long as you are not setting out to deliberately hurt, insult or defame (in which case you probably deserve to be under some sort of restraining order), you should follow the subject wherever it takes you, and bear the consequences with gritted teeth.

But this is just the very beginning of the process, before one even puts pen to paper (or finger to key). What happens after that is rather more complicated, and perhaps should be left for another time.

→More responses to come from Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and me, as well as the results from the Favorite Short Story Survey. Yeah, I know I said that I would have published those results by now, but I keep getting new answers from very smart readers. Soon, I promise…←

Just a Taste

Elephant Rock Books just put a little taste of The Temple of Air on the books page of their website. Read a bit of “Something Like Faith.” Why not? You are already on the internet; you are already reading stuff. Try this. Go ahead.

Gina Frangello on “The Curious Alchemy of Writing”

Once he had answered “Why The Short Story?” Dennis McFadden asked us, his fellow writer-conversationalists, “How The Short Story?” (Sorry, Delp.) Gina Frangello, author of the collection Slut Lullabies, wasted no time in providing an answer.

Gina: How the short story? Dennis has posed this question to the group: Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? This is, simply put, one of my favorite questions in the world. It’s the essential mystery of “being a writer,” isn’t it? After all, every human being alive has a story. From domestic to political, from day-in-the-life to epic, we all lead lives worthy of story, and meet other story-worthy individuals every day. Some writers craft stories almost precisely out of real experiences, whereas others are inspired (as Toni Morrison famously claimed of her novel, Beloved) by newspaper articles, or by stories told to them by friends, by a snippet of dialogue on the bus. Some writers run off to join revolutions and live grand adventures, while others toil away in the proverbial solitary attic —there is no special life one must live in order to write. There is no secret handshake involved when it comes to having “material” that could be turned into story.

Every writer has met somebody who tells him or her, “Wow, do I have a story for you—you should write this down!” or, “I’m going to write a novel someday, I’ve really had a crazy life.” And all but the most painfully introverted among us have orally told stories to our friends. In other words, again: we all have material, and we are all to some degree conscious of it, and we all employ “story” in our daily lives.

Why, then, do some people become writers, whereas the vast majority of the human race does not?

This question fascinates me. It is no more fascinating, of course, than why some young children compose music, or why some people are driven to drizzle paint on a canvas in a brand new way. The impulse to create art is profoundly human, even among those who are not “artists” per se. We knit sweaters, we tend gardens, we decorate our homes, we keep diaries, we sing in our showers. Yet most people engage in these pursuits within the perimeters of their larger lives without ever crossing that invisible threshold—that crazy, heady, at times masochistic threshold—of devoting their lives to their art.

Writing (most art, for that matter) pays poorly. It requires the ability to seriously delay gratification: some novels or stories take years to write; one could build a house from the ground up in less time. It is one of the few professions (again, along with other arts) for which you can go to graduate school and even obtain a PhD with little to no certainty that you will ever be able to earn a living or even get a job in your chosen field. One of the most commonly given piece of advice to so-called aspiring writers is this: If you can do anything else, do it. This is a shitty bet. If you can imagine your life without this in it, then be glad and go home.

Do we write the story or does the story write us?

As I see it, there is the practical answer to this question (Ah, yes, of course the writer writes the story!) and then there is the answer I have lived.

The writer’s stories are no different than anyone else’s stories, in terms of a life lived. But the writer is, quite simply, one obsessed. The story demands to be poured out, to get itself onto the page. It will not rest. Characters speak to us in our cars. We turn on the radio and songs remind us of them—of these people who do not even exist! We go into a store and see a saleswoman who looks like our protagonist’s estranged sister; we browse through a rack of dresses and see the exact dress our heroine was wearing to a party that never took place. We want to call our pretend people on the phone; sometimes we want to have sex with them. Lines recur in our brains, not letting us rest until we write them down. Images haunt us. Here is one: two tall, thin men who were at one time antagonists to one another, embrace in the dimly lit hospital corridor, as seen from the half-open door of one of the hospital rooms . . .

Who are these men? Why are they holding one another that way when they never liked each other before? Who is watching them? Why does the hospital not look like any hospital I’ve been inside, like it belongs in another country? The image keeps playing in my head until I begin to work it out. Perhaps I already “know” the characters involved, and simply didn’t know I knew them. Maybe one has already been in a novel of mine, and another is in a novel I mean to write but haven’t started yet, and the third is a mystery. Perhaps this scene takes place at the very end of a novel that will be 400 pages long, and the image will become the goal I am writing towards. At a certain point, it will become clear that the hospital is in Morocco, though my characters do not live there. And then—the curious alchemy of writing being what it is—when we all arrive together, my characters and I, surprise: one of the men will have changed. He will be another character entirely than the one I thought he would be. How has he gotten here? How did he become more important, more crucial to this scene, this ending, the woman in the hospital bed who watches the embrace, than the man I thought would be in his place?

Writers are not the only people who have ever been in a hospital. We are not the only people who have lost friends and family; we are not the only travelers. We are—in fact—not the only ones who make up invented scenarios in our heads. All children play make-believe; all adults spend sleepless nights ruminating on what they “should have said” and play scenarios out in their heads.

We are the ones who write things down. Why would we do such a thing? Well. We write them down because we must.

There is no story without its writer, hence to say a story “writes itself” would be a literal fallacy, even if it rings emotionally true to many of us. But likewise “to write” is, for the serious writer, often not a rational, practical or well-thought-out choice.

Ah, but I am supposed to be talking about the Short Story. I realize more and more as I move through these questions that the length of the piece is less looming for me than it is for some writers. I feel I am falling down on the task of defining “how the short story” as opposed to “how the novel.” If this is so, however, I think it is only because the hows are not radically different for me. Both begin with a similar kernel of obsession. Both must be able to sustain that obsession to be more than a fragment or a whim, but to become complete.

What, though, are the differences in the forms and how I write them?

Well, for starters, short fiction is a trickier paradox. The writing is even more “channeled” through the writer—even more intuitive, obsessive and raw because it remains fresh, is not stretched out over years but rather over a few days or weeks—and yet because of the length the writer is permitted fewer digressions, fewer missteps, wherein every word must be crucial and resonant. This would seem hard to swing when the story is writing you! But perhaps the reverse is true. All work—novels or stories—will be revised and edited by the writer once the first draft is complete, and I’ve often found that the stories that simply pour out in one or two sittings require surprisingly less editing than those that I really pondered meticulously over a long stretch of time.

Short stories write themselves far more than novels can. Many of my published stories (including “How to Marry a WASP,” which was mentioned in Vanessa’s earlier post, and which is more than 30 pages long) have been written in a single sitting. Often they begin with a single idea, image, character, line, and I simply write from there until they are “done.” By the end, I am absurdly, probably comically, wrecked. My short stories seldom involve any outline or pre-writing. My novels, on the other hand, are far more crafted. The ideas or characters that inspire them may take months to germinate, and often I write sample scenes before really sitting down to formally begin. By the end of a novel, I invariably have an “outline” I’m working from, based on ideas I’ve already have that I am now writing towards, and while the outline is flexible and often changes, I have never had an outline at play in crafting any short fiction.

And so if one were to make the case—as I seem to be doing—that stories are written because they demand to be, and that something in the writer’s psyche or brain (as opposed to in his/her life) is wired differently than that of non-writers, then this may be even more true of the short story than of novels. Short stories are even more intuitive, more subconscious or id-based in terms of the imaginative realm. This may be one reason they are so damn hard to write, in addition to the fact that they don’t allow for many missteps before the reader tosses them aside. Written short stories, one might say, require a certain type of brain as their conduit in order to emerge.

This may be why, even though they only take a week or so to write, most writers don’t write nearly as many of them as such a timeline would seem to imply. If I write 6 new stories in a year, that’s a productive year without question. Yet it seldom takes me more than a week to write one. Wouldn’t this indicate that I should be writing 30 or 40 annually? (Or at least that I should have done before I had kids and two editing jobs?) Yet the thought seems impossible! To be the conduit for a short story requires the writer to deeply enter a space highly specific to that story. Whereas in a novel, we may inhabit that space for four or five years—learn to live “around” it so as to go on with our real daily lives—with short fiction we inhabit it all at once, intensely, fully, before exiting confused and (often) a little bereft . . . already missing it before even having realized we were there.