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.←

Breaking News: “The Book is The Highest Delight,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson

Story Week A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face.  It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.  ~Edward P. Morgan

Unbelievable. The Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago is about to launch into its 15th Anniversary Story Week Festival of Writers. 15 years! Celebrating all things writing, publishing, reading, and literary. A remarkable accomplishment, if you ask me, in a time when certain factions of funding bodies and political affiliations are facing tough economical times and leaning toward de-funding the arts and programs such as Story Week. As though the public doesn’t need to read, doesn’t need to have its ideas, aesthetics, and values challenged and stimulated by arts education and cultural pursuits. As though it isn’t important for communities to enter into a common discourse about what it means to be an artist today, a writer, and a consumer of arts and books. As though these things, this understanding of the world through great literature and art, through risky content and commentary, through entertainment and delight—as though the questions these things raise, the answers they provide, the escape they can afford, the call to active (and sometimes civic) engagement they make are all unnecessary to the well-being of society.

We know differently, don’t we? Who reading this now has not been changed, saved, awakened by reading a book? Hearing a song? Staring at a painting or statue? And it is this, this salvation, this awakening, that Story Week Festival of Writers continues to celebrate, year after year. This year the festival brings us new and different authors, editors, publishers, agents, (Regina Taylor, Jennifer Egan, Tanya Saracho, Scott Miller, Katie Dublinski to name just a few,) and old friends like Irvine Welsh, Johnny Temple, Donna Seaman, Sam Weller, Gina Frangello, Audrey Niffenegger, and John McNally. Over six days, dozens of writers (from new writing students to decades-published authors) and storytellers (including performing artists, curators, visual artists, filmmakers) will cross the various stages around the city, sharing their art, their words, their ideas, their questions. You, too, can be part of this dialogue. Each event is free and open to the public (some age restrictions apply at Martyrs’ and Metro) and most provide the opportunity for audience to enter into the conversation. Reading and writing, the organizers of this event recognize, were interactive long before interactive was a buzzword that has come to mean something technological. So come along and interact!

Randy Albers, Chair of the Fiction Writing Department, is the founding producer of this literary extravaganza, and this year’s Artistic Director is the Ray Bradbury expert and fine writing teacher Sam Weller. The festival is a spin-off of a visiting writers’ series started in the Fiction Writing Department by Betty Shiflett. I—like Sam Weller and Ann Hemenway and Joe Meno and Eric May, my colleagues from Columbia—had the opportunity to serve as Artistic Director for the festival. My first year in that role, my first husband and I divorced (he moved out the night before the first event.)  My second year, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My third year (this was the best) I was preparing for my second wedding. My fourth year, the festival was opening on the eve of the Iraq War. These are the memories of Story Week I have, the ones that intermingle with others from the events themselves. The standing ovation received by Hubert Selby, Jr., at our first Literary Rock and Roll night at the Metro; the standing ovation for John SchultzJohn Schultz when he read a moving anti-war essay told from his Korean War Veteran perspective. An entertaining reading of Bradbury short story excerpts by professors from Columbia’s Theatre Department (including Paul Amande and Tom Mula, also Fiction Writing students.) The pride I felt when my colleagues, Don De Grazia, Shawn Shiflett, Alexis Pride, and Joe Meno got to read from their new novels on-stage at the Metro, while hundreds of people in the audiences turned their faces upwards to receive the words. Betty ShifflettBetty Shiflett and her bubbles, allowing the department’s full-time faculty to play and show off a little before they read to an audience primarily of their own students. Driving Richard Price to O’Hare after the festival, trying to keep the conversation going with a man who could be remarkably shy in the company of a stranger, my feeling grateful when he asked if I’d mind if he just took a nap instead of talking. Enjoying the work of my own past students Aaron Golding, James Vickery, Geoff Hyatt, Megan Stielstra, Lott Hill, Viki Julian Gonia, Lisa Redmond, John Lowry, Chris De Guire (the part-time faculty director of this year’s event) and oh too many to remember.

Have I forgotten to mention that Story Week Festival is fun? Damn fun. If for no other reason, you should come so you can have fun. We need a little fun, don’t we? It is the fun part of this that made it easier for me to face the challenges in my own life (divorce, illness, international war) and perhaps, as the world seems to get a little harder each day, Story Week can offer a bit of respite to you, as well.  “We read to know we are not alone,” C. S. Lewis said. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight. He who has once known its satisfactions is provided with a resource against calamity.”

The 15th Anniversary Story Week starts Sunday, March 13, 2011. Writing workshops lead the whole thing off, followed in the evening by a 2nd Story reading at Martyrs’ on Lincoln in Chicago. (Full disclosure, I will be reading, as will my friends, Eric May, Lott Hill, and April Newman.) Why don’t you join us is this gathering of resources against calamity, in this pursuit of the highest delight? You’re gonna dig it. I promise.

Limited Copies of The Temple of Air Available at Story Week Festival of Writers

So one of the groovy things about working with a small, independent press like Elephant Rock Books is that you get a lot of hands-on experience. Here my hands are on a few advance copies of The Temple of Air. I got to pick up the order of event copies for Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department’s Story Week Festival of Writers to ensure that they arrived in time for the festival. And then I had to drink a glass of fermented beverage with my dear husband, the wonderful Philip Hartigan, in a congratulatory toast.

It’s real friends. Real. Cool.

Oh, and here’s me toasting the girl on the cover. And no, my male friends, I do not know who she is. Funny how whenever I show the cover to a man, they say “Who’s the babe?” And when I show it to a woman, they say, “Great cover!” (It is, by the way. Thanks Melissa C. Lucar. Thanks, too, Lee Nagan. You know why.)

So there it is. My book. I don’t know what else to say. Oh, wait, I do. Read it if you can. I’d appreciate it. So would my publisher. Especially if you bought a copy.

Okay, I’ll stop writing now. (Not forever, just for this blog post.)

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.

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?

Bath Spa and Tessa Hadley

In the fall term of 2008, I had the remarkable opportunity to be a visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University in their very impressive Creative Writing program. This was part of our on-going exchange between Columbia College Chicago, where I direct the undergraduate programs in Fiction Writing, and Bath Spa University. It is a good match, CCC and BSU, two schools who each find the teaching of creative writing an important thing to do, not just to educate artists and writers, but to teach these same students how to use these skills in the working world. Creative problem solving, effective communication, analytical thinking, a willingness to listen: these are just a few of the things that Columbia and Bath help their students learn and practice before turning them loose on the world.

There were many things that were exciting about my time at Bath. A morning run on the River Avon where a pair of swans swooped and settled in the water nearby. Living in a Georgian-period building made into a modern apartment block, on a road that Jane Austen herself walked (unhappily.) My desk in a re-purposed centuries-old stable on the castle grounds where BSU’s main campus is situated. Students who were being given their first real chance to have their writing taken seriously (far fewer creative writing programs at the high school level than here.) Talented and interesting colleagues, among them Tim Middleton and Steve May, administrators who are teachers, researchers and writers themselves; Mimi Thebo; Carrie Etter; Lucy English; Annie McGann; Julia Greene; Nic Jeune; Michael Johnson, poets, novelists, young adult writers, and filmmakers. The list goes on and on and includes Gerard Woodward, who is currently writer-in-residence here in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia and whose ideas on the short story you’ll find on another page of this blog, and Tessa Hadley, who was just featured in the Guardian in this fine profile.

You can see that Tessa takes her work very seriously, even as she writes with delightful humo(u)r. You can see, too, if you follow a link or two here, that Bath Spa University is a fine place to study and to teach creative writing, and that we at Columbia College Chicago are lucky to be partners with such a place.

“Respect the Storyness.” Gerard Woodward answers “Why The Short Story?”

Gerard Woodward was recently long-listed for The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award with a prize of £30,000 (nearly $50,000 in today’s currency market—holy sheepskin!) for his single short story, “The Family Whistle.” (Who says there’s no value in the short story?) Gerard is also author of an acclaimed trilogy comprising August (shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award), I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize), and A Curious Earth. His most recent short story collection is Caravan Thieves. He was born in London in 1961, and published several prize-winning collections of poetry before turning to fiction. His latest collection of poetry, We Were Pedestrians, was shortlisted for the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize. His most recent novel, Nourishment, was released in the fall of 2010. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and writer-in-residence this year in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago.

This man of many prizes and many lists has graciously joined in on our conversation “Why The Short Story?” and provided us with his take below:

Gerard: Why The Short Story?

Well, I suppose the answer has to be – because it can do something that no other literary form can. If it didn’t, then there would be no need for it. But what is that special thing it can do? That’s a bit harder to define. It can help by comparing the short story to other forms, like the novel and the poem.

I struggled with short stories for many years without much success. I had novels and books of poetry published long before I managed to write a publishable short story, even though I’d been trying since about the age of ten. One reason for this, I think, is that I didn’t properly appreciate the form. I didn’t take on board precisely what it is that a short story does so well – that is, deliver a powerfully engaging narrative in a restricted amount of space. Too often I was treating the short story as a kind of overblown poem in prose (but not a prose poem, which is something quite different), or else they were fragments of novels masquerading as complete, self-contained pieces. I began to see that one couldn’t approach the short story with the same imaginative gear of a poet or novelist, you had to have the unique, special, short story head. Without this apparatus you were unable to see either the potential for short stories in the world around you, or to write them.

At the same time, the short story incorporates elements of both the poem and the novel. In a short story every sentence matters, every word matters, to a far higher degree than in a novel. Every word needs to justify its place, as in a poem. In such a small space there is nowhere to hide your sloppy writing or your sloppy characters. You are exposed. Every metaphor and observation needs to work, because they are making up for the extra three hundred pages you get in a novel. The short story also needs to tell a story. Sounds obvious, but short stories that don’t do this, that try to have the same narrative absence that is possible in a poem, say, usually fail as pieces of writing. So you have to appreciate and respect the form – respect the shortness, respect the storyness. Get a short story head.

You acquire this ‘short story head’ in the same way that you acquire a novel or poetry head, by reading lots of good short stories. For me, Raymond Carver was a revelation. In fact, an exposure to American writing generally has been fundamental to me both in short story and novel writing. Carver’s use of the telling detail, of dialogue that is so perfect it almost sounds artificial but isn’t, and his ability to wring gallons of drama from the driest and most mundane of materials, is a very enabling thing to witness. He is a great permission-giver.

It has been particularly interesting for me since I’ve been in the States and re-immersing myself, as much as I can, in the writing over here, to see how much more prominently the short story figures in the literary culture, compared to back home. In Britain, the short story has never really taken off as a form, it has never held the kind of central position it seems to in North America, where the short story, and in particular the linked collection of short stories (Anderson, Cheever, Steinbeck et al,) seems so defining. Strange, really, that given such a big landscape, such a diversity of peoples and histories, it should find expression through such a compressed and condensed form. But maybe that is the key. The vastness of American culture is perhaps best addressed through the small lens. I know people over here write big novels as well, but as has been so well articulated in the critical narrative of the last few decades, it seems scarcely possible to write a novel that will do the whole American thing.

I know, from reading these debates on line and elsewhere, that commercial publishing in America is as wary of the form as it is in Britain, and that there seems to be an odd reluctance on the part of readers to engage with the short narrative, preferring the immersive experience of the novel instead. But in America the short story does seem to be taken more seriously.

But then there are good signs on the horizon. As I said in a comment to an earlier post, there does seem to be the beginnings of a revival in Britain, with two high profile competitions which are getting lots of national media coverage. My own publisher, Picador, has just brought out a collection by an unknown writer (Stuart Evers – 10 Stories about Smoking). Perhaps this will at last transform into a genuine popularisation of the form. In a world of short attention spans it would seem ideal – but then who are we to presume attention spans are shortening? Perhaps the next generation will actually have better concentration skills. You never know.

→Next up: results from our favorite short story survey. And then Dennis McFadden, the IRA, and good practice.←