Why The Short Story?

Like so many writers, I loved to read when I was a child. I remember SRA books—do you remember those? You’d have to be of a certain age, and maybe of a certain region of the world. Anyway, SRA was a reading comprehension program for grade schoolers where you could read at your own pace, answer questions on a little quiz, and move onto the next book, the next level, and so on. They were stories, really, not books. Small pamphlets of one short story each. There were at least two educational premises going at once here with this program: 1.) independent learning; and 2.) speed reading for comprehension. Now I have to say that while I loved these little stories (I wish I could remember some of them, but we are talking decades ago and probably not the highest caliber of literature) I was not very good at advancing up through the ranks of readership. (Colors, there were colors. The pamphlets bore a certain band of color on their edges as did their question cards. A new rank, a new color. Like karate belts. Like national safety travel advisories at the airport. Only the colors on the SRA stories were not boring old white, black, brown, orange and red, but lovely, as I recall, fuchsia and teal and turquoise—is this true or just the fondness of the memory?—colors that little kids in the 60s would be attracted to, would strive for.) Still, it would take me a long time to move from fuchsia to teal, not because I wasn’t a good or avid reader, but because I was a slow reader. A careful reader. A savor-er. (Here I will insert that even today, in my fifth decade, I eat my ice cream with a tiny spoon, a kid’s-sized utensil. I want to enjoy every little bite.) I make no apologies for being a slow reader. Just last night while I was reading about the work of an orderly and a doctor (Enos) in the title story of Melanie Rae Thon’s collection First, Body, I found myself reading over and over again these sentences: “These exchanges became the sacrament, transubstantiated in the bodies of startled men and weary children. Sometimes the innocent died and the faithless lived. Sometimes the blind began to see. Enos said, ‘We save bodies, not souls.’” I read them with my lips moving, something they tried to teach us—as we plowed through our SRA stories—would slow our reading down. As though reading faster was reading better.

I was also a student of the phonics. We’ve all seen these commercials in which the little kids are reading something very difficult from an encyclopedia, with words like transubstantiated and sacrament, and while they pronounce everything very well, it is clear that they have absolutely no understanding of what they are saying. Perhaps because my teachers gave us things to read that made sense to us, stories we could relate to and understand, learning how to read a word out loud by using sounds was instrumental in my educational process. I can still remember reading the word “perhaps” for the first time. “Per,” I sounded out, and then “haps.” It might have been one of the first two-syllable words that I could read on the page; I was very young, and I was so excited by the feat. It became my favorite word for a while. One that I had heard and used often before this, but it found a way just about everything I said. My standard answer to most questions.

“Want to come over and play after school?”

“Perhaps.”

“Can I have a bite of your sandwich?”

“Perhaps.”

“Did you finish your homework?”

“Perhaps.”

“Will you have your parents sign your report card?”

“Perhaps.”

Mostly, though, what brought me to reading—and later, writing—was STORY. I loved stories. I loved reading them, telling them, hearing them, writing them. My father, Wilbur McNair (1919-1974,) was great at telling stories. Tall tales. Tales of bullfighting and solo flying and conferring with presidents and kings. (He did none of these things. I knew that, and yet, I was enchanted by his tales. What little girl wouldn’t be?) Sometimes I’d tell him stories, too, often drawn from the ones I’d read myself, taking on the leading role, the part of the main character.

In my early adulthood, though, reading became less important to me. Why was that? Too many late nights at the clubs, too many hangovers, too many friends who didn’t read at all, maybe. Dancing. Now that was important. Flirtation. But then, in the early 1980s, I found this little book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I know you know it. Raymond Carver. And regardless what you think about Carver or that literary generation’s minimalism or Gordon Lish or any of these things, I am not afraid to admit that these stories opened up a world to me. They were manageable (some no longer than those tiny stories in my SRA books long ago) and moving. They were brutal and they were fearless. I didn’t know that stories could do that. I didn’t know you could tell these things, say them out loud. And since they were so short, they helped me build my reading muscles up again. Like running a mile on your way to a marathon. I’d enrolled in my first writing class at Columbia College Chicago and was assigned Black Boy by Richard Wright, and this, too, drew me back into the magical world of the printed page.

But the short story, yes the short story. “Palm Wine,” by Reginald McKnight. “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, “Araby,” by James Joyce. “The Lesson,” by Toni Cade Bambara. “Rape,” by Gerard Woodward. “Morgan,” by John Schultz. “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. “The Vomitorium,” by John McNally. “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek. “A Temporary Matter,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. “A&P,” by John Updike. “Diamond Alley,” by Dennis McFadden. “Letters from Kilburn,” by Vanessa Gebbie. “How To Marry a Wasp,” by Gina Frangello. I have far too many favorites to name them all. Is there anything better than reading these? Why do publishers, agents, editors say we can’t sell short story collections? How wonderful they are, moments of life and imagination gathered together in a few pages. They can be like the three-minute pop song that gets it just right in three verses and a chorus. They can be bigger than that, a series of narrative lines that curve and braid and lead the reader to connections she considers for the first time. They have the capacity for grace and for resonance. They can be consumed on-line at the bank (does anyone stand in line at the bank anymore?) or on the subway ride to work or after you’ve turned off the television but before you turn off the light. Nowadays they can live on your cell phone (that’s your mobile, my British friends, check out www.cellstories.net) and in the pages of clothing catalogues and are spoken over the radio.

I love the short story. I love writing them. I love reading them. And I know that I am not alone.

Over the next few weeks, I will be engaged in a virtual conversation with four award-winning short story writers, Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies,) Vanessa Gebbie (Storm Warning,) Dennis McFadden (Hart’s Grove) about various writerly, readerly and other things. We will pose questions to one another, and as I gather the answers, I will post them on my blog. Feel free to join in the conversation yourself, if you would like. Comments are always welcome.

My first question, then, is inspired by my ramblings above: Why the short story?

For Saint Valentine’s Day

All right, I’ll admit it. I am a fan of the whole love thing. So in honor of the day that honors it:

THE GOOD-MORROW

by John Donne
I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not wean’d till then?
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown;
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

Sincere and Deep Gratitude

You know, when you get your first book published—or when you publish any book, I suppose—you are faced with the very important task of sharing thanks with all those who helped you get there. Many folks do this in a smart and lengthy acknowledgements page; sometimes these are witty, sometimes they are moving, always they are heartfelt.

On the acknowledgements page of my upcoming book, The Temple of Air, I thanked the magazines, anthologies, and journals that published these stories originally, and also the various institutions that supported me through the process of writing the collection. When it came to naming individuals, I did not do that. Two reasons: one, there are SO MANY people who were part of this very long creative endeavor; and two, I wanted to dedicate the book solely to my mother, Sylvia McNair, who died in 2002 and who (a writer herself) was my absolute biggest fan and supporter. It hurts me more than a little that she won’t get to see this book in print, and so I dedicate it to her memory.

That said, I do want to give credit where credit is due. So here on this blog page, I will try to express the enormous gratitude that I feel to so many who helped give this book life.

First, I must thank Betty Shiflett who was my thesis advisor at Columbia College Chicago, who was patient and demanding, who has a fine ear for story, and a love of language that spills over onto her students. John Schultz, the founder of the Fiction Writing Department at CCC and the developer of the Story Workshop® approach to the teaching of writing is such a good writer and reader, it is impossible to not learn from him. My many teachers at Columbia inspired me in various ways: Shawn Shiflett said “Just say it,” an incredibly valuable thing for me to hear at the time; Andy Allegretti laughed at my first stabs at writing humor and let me cry in his office; Randy Albers has been a mentor to me in so many ways, it would fill pages if I started to list them all. Ask me over a beer about any of these folks, and I will weep while I tell you what they mean to me.

I am grateful to have my colleagues Nicole Chakalis, Don De Grazia, Ann Hemenway, Gary Johnson, Eric May, Joe Meno, Linda Naslund, Devon Polderman, Alexis Pride, Deborah Roberts, Lisa Schlesinger, Sam Weller, and the recently arrived Nami Mun and Audrey Niffenegger in my corner. Their friendship and wisdom make all the things (teaching, play, life in general) that surround the writing good. At Columbia I share the offices with some forty or more adjunct faculty as well, and each of them means something to me. A few have actually been part of this work-in-progress one way or another: Lott Hill ran a workshop where the first story in the book was attempted; Megan Stielstra was a fellow student in another workshop and commented wisely on my work; Chris De Guire shares ideas and stories with me almost daily; Polly Mills was one of my earliest colleagues and fellow students, and her fine work pushed me to up the ante on my own; Tom Popp, editor of F Magazine, published work of mine early on and talks smartly about the role of fiction; Gina Frangello saw something in one of my stories and not only published it when she edited Other Voices, but also submitted it for an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award (which it won!) There are others among the faculty I know I should thank, and I reserve the right to mention them now and again as time moves forward.

My teachers, colleagues, and writing friends outside of Columbia need a nod as well: Lee Hope from the Solstice Low Residency MFA program gave me teaching and public reading opportunities away from my home comfort zone; Michael Steinberg pushed me into things I otherwise might not have attempted; Dorothy Allison, A. Manette Ansay, Dianne Benedict, Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Colin Channer, Michael Delp, Jack Driscoll, Cristina Garcia, David Huddle, Elinor Lipman, Joe Mackall, Dinty W. Moore, Steve May, John McNally, Dennis McFadden, Tim Middleton, Michael White, and Valerie Wilson Wesley, have been role models and pals.  Anne-Marie Oomen showed me how to do it—look up and take in the world, then put your head down and get it on the page.

Would it even be possible to name all of the past and present students (many of them friends now) who inspired me with their own good work? Jana Dawson, Aaron Golding, Katie Corboy, Stephanie Kuehnert, Geoff Hyatt, Gail Wallace Bozzano, are just a few who come to mind. But I’ve been teaching for more than two decades now, so there are others, I am certain. Thanks to all of you.

And family. I am the only girl (and the baby) among a swarm of boys, but our ranks are shrinking. Roger, my brother who died just a few months ago, carried me over so many roads in my life that the person I have become is so much his doing. Don and Allen wanted a baby sister and they got one, and I am lucky to have them. My surviving half-brothers, Paul and Wesley, are writers, too, so we share ideas and work when we can. Wesley gave me the title for this collection (I wonder if he remembers that?) and read some of the earliest stories with his poet’s eye. Thanks for that. The children (and their children) of my brothers are like a little mutual fan club: Dan and his wife Anna, Ben and Sean; John and Shelly and Sheila and David; the writer and editor Shanna McNair; my sister-niece Kim McNair Lawless. And let me not forget to say thanks to my mother-in-law, the voracious reader and lovely woman Maggie Hartigan.

Are there more people I should thank? Certainly there are. Jotham Burrello and ERP who made this possible. My gratitude is immeasurable. Dan Prazer, editor and friend. The parents of my ex, Joan and John Lewis. I still call them or write when something big happens, because I know they will cheer in the most satisfying ways. (I should thank my ex as well, who supported me early on in this endeavor—thanks Michael.) Anna Idol and Michael Sugano. Dolores Nathanson.

But most of all, I am grateful to Philip Hartigan, the best husband and partner a woman could have. Seriously. Could I do any of this on my own? Perhaps. Would it be as fun and meaningful to me? Absolutely not. We have a bottle of champagne in the fridge we’ve been saving. We will pop the cork when the book is in our hands. We’ve been waiting a long time. We will celebrate a long time.

Thank you all.

Blizzards, Brothers, and What’s in a Name?

Snow-ly Cow! The Blizzaster! The storm to beat all storms! History in the making!

I’m sitting on the couch under a blanket with a cat at my side looking out at the whiteness that the Chicago sky is becoming. They say this will be a winter storm unlike any other. Harumph. Like many of my writing and reading friends, I was supposed to be on a flight to Washington, DC, tomorrow (Wednesday) to participate in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (awpwriter.org) annual conference.

Alas. United has cancelled all flights out of O’Hare through Thursday morning. I will miss the first panel I was scheduled to be on—Trading Stories with the Enemy: Navigating the Cuban/American Literary Landscape. (Ever notice how all academic panels have to have a colon somewhere in the middle of the title?) I’m hoping my co-presenters Achy Obejas and Kristin Dykstra will make it on time though. Noon on Thursday. If you are there at AWP-DC, go give them support.

I hate snow. I mean, I really, really hate snow. And today I am reminded of why. I can remember the 67 blizzard here in Chicago (gives you an idea of how really old I am.) My brothers and I were home alone for a while because our folks could not get back from their jobs. Was it a night? Two nights? Were we afraid? I don’t remember that, but I do remember a snow drift that swept up the side of our house nearly to the second story window. I didn’t know quite enough to hate hate snow just yet, and I thought that—a house-high drift—was pretty cool. Thought maybe I could slide down it. Lucky for me my older, wiser brothers probably knew that wasn’t such a good idea.

The first car accident I was ever in was because of that storm. We (Dad driving, Mom shotgun, me in the backseat with at least one brother) got snow-stuck backing out of our driveway in the path of an on-coming car. No real damage, but scary for a little girl who saw the other car coming and coming, unable to stop on the slick road before it plowed into the rear panel of our sedan. But cars were made of stronger stuff back then, so the panel concaved and that was it. I don’t remember that we were even bumped around much.

This would be the sort of anecdote that my brother Roger would say I got all wrong. Two years older than me, he was always certain his memory was better than mine. Maybe it was. He died five months ago—too soon, too soon—and I miss him greatly. He was a cab driver, and this would be the sort of day when he would either make bundles of money, or would call me from one of his dozen or so cell phones to complain about no one being out, no fares to be had. He was a remarkable snow driver. No fear.

My mother (Sylvia McNair, 1924 – 2002) would have remembered MY FIRST ACCIDENT differently than I do, too, no doubt. “That’s not how it happened,” she’d say. Still, when it came to my stories, I had no greater supporter. She gave me writing assignments when I was a little girl, gave me a prompt on her way out the door when she left for work: write about a cat with blue ears, a boy who loved dandelions. “You have to write that,” she’d say whenever I told her something. She even chose my full name, Patricia Ann McNair, by imagining it on the cover of a book.

It’s there now, Mom, on the cover of my story collection, The Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair.

I have a box-load of postcards with the book cover on them, ready to hand out to every person I see at AWP. You, friendly blog reader, can have one, two if you want. If only I can get there.

On All That Goes Into It + an Interview Excerpt

Who would have thought that when one works with a small, conscientious, and very professional independent press on a book release that there would be so much for a writer to be part of along the way? I am stunned by how much it takes to make a book, and even more stunned by how much my publisher and editor and book designer, et al, continue to do to make this debut come to life. Each day something new has to be undertaken, accomplished, sent off, put to bed, etc. And I am lucky to be able to be part of so many of the decisions. I can’t help but think of those authors I know who talk about how they weren’t happy with this decision their publishers made, or that image on the cover, or how they weren’t consulted along the way. Not so in the case of The Temple of Air. I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to be working with Elephant Rock Books under the thoughtful direction of Jotham Burrello.

For instance, Dan Prazer, book editor for ERB, came to my office (HE came to MY office!) and spent a good long time asking questions and follow-up questions about the book, my process, etc. This he did for the Reader’s Guide included in the collection. Below is a small sampling of what we talked about:

Q: What was your starting point for The Temple of Air?

A: I wanted to write about this place, a place that became New Hope. It’s a loose composite of Mount Vernon, Iowa, where I went to school, and Solon, Iowa, where I lived for a while, and Mount Carroll, Illinois, which is a small town where I have a house now, and upper northern Michigan. All of these places, to me, are very much Midwestern, but at the same time, very rolling and very woody. A lot of people think of the Midwest as Nebraska, flat plains, and I wanted to challenge that perception somewhat.

I also very much wanted to write about faith, religion, magic, superstition. What can we believe? What matters to us? What is at the helm? I mean for a number of these stories to be, for lack of a better word, spiritual, full of faith, but not blinded by it.

The story “The Temple of Air” came to me when I was watching a bad cable show about magicians and this one guy, this hip new magician actually floated. He lifted himself up a few feet in the air on a New York city street. There was a girl in the show who was watching him, and she totally freaked out. She started shaking and squealing and said something like, “It’s my birthday, and I saw a man float.” Something about that combination of words stuck with me. I also happen to be a bit of a birthday baby, so these things, observation and emotion, came together for me. In the story there’s a girl who sees something (or perhaps doesn’t see something) similar on her own birthday.

There’s a relationship mentioned between a couple of characters, Michael and Sky, toward the end of that story. As I was writing that story, I knew—in that way writers seem to know things about their characters—that they’d been friends a long time ago, but aren’t friends anymore. It took me about a year to figure out what their friendship was a long time ago and how they had separated. And that’s when the first story, “Something Like Faith,” came to me.

“Something Like Faith” was inspired from something I witnessed while riding on the big Navy Pier Ferris Wheel in Chicago. These parents were just letting their kid run around the gondola as we were going in this huge circle high above Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. It made me queasy to even watch. It made the ride so incredibly unpleasant for me, and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head — what would happen if this kid fell?  I had to write it out to find out what would happen, and how this tragic event might affect its witnesses.

Once I finished SLF, I had the first story and the last of the collection.

Q: Is that useful to you as a writer, to know the bookends in order to fill in the middle?

A: I think once I figured out that this was the inciting chapter, for lack of a better word, and that the other was the ending chapter, then the rest began to fall into place. So it became useful to me the more I wrote and explored.  Only it took me a while; I didn’t immediately recognize it as a place to start putting together the collection.  I am not certain I knew I was working on a collection in the beginning. I was just writing stories that pulled at me.

I think we write a lot of things by accident. In the story “The Way It Really Went,” there is a section where the couple is in bed and the husband starts to have these dreams and the wife cuddles up to him. That was just an exploration in a journal, and I was sitting in on a class with (Fiction Writing Department Chair) Randy Albers just to keep the writing going in my first semester of teaching full-time at Columbia College Chicago. And I read the journal entry out loud but said, “This is just an exploration. This isn’t going to be part of the piece,” and somebody in that class, who is now also a faculty member, said, “What the hell are you talking about? It’s got to be in the piece.” I don’t know that I would have figured that out without somebody telling me. Maybe I would have, but it probably would have taken me longer.

I use my journal a lot to discover various parts of story, and it has happened more than once that I’ve written something then forgotten about it, only to fine it later and put it to good use.  Sort of like when you drop your jigsaw puzzle pieces on the floor, and try to put it all together but there’s still this hole. In frustration you start searching, turning over cushions and looking under things. Then you move the couch, and there it is, the piece that had gone missing. And now you can fill the hole. (from “Interview with Patricia Ann McNair,” by Dan Prazer, Reader’s Guide, The Temple of Air)

—I’ll add more interviews and the like as we move forward with this project, but just wanted to take a minute to marvel over—and express gratitude for—what we have accomplished so far.

Thanks Dan.  Thanks ERB.