“The Words, When They Come Right, Are Mine…” Vanessa Gebbie on “How the Short Story?”

Words from a Glass BubbleOur partner in conversation, Vanessa Gebbie, just returned from holiday. Well-deserved her time off, I think. She’s been scribbling madly for our blog, as well as continuing on with her own, adding new bits and pieces almost daily. Among the news on Vanessa’s website is mention of her book Words From A Glass Bubble having been listed by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers.” Congratulations, Vanessa!

Below you will find Vanessa’s response to Dennis’s original questions and comments on “HOW the short story?” You’ll find, too, Dennis’s words in bold, Vanessa’s answers and ruminations in italics.

Dennis: The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.

Vanessa: I have to bow here. Talk about concision – yes, the goosebumps do have it. And, if you are so disposed, the tears have it. Or whatever – but the final sentences of several of my stories have had me, the writer, in tears, and I can’t ‘perform’ them at spoken events even now, without apologising for my lack of control. And it is a funny thing – those are the stories that have done the best for me. How does that happen? I write in a state  of ‘knowingness’ – ‘awareness’ – but I do not plot. When I get towards the end of the first draft, I can ‘see’ the ending, with little detail. A blur. As I write it, the tears come. And in revisions – the ending is not touched. How does that happen? Well, actually, in a way, I do not want to know. I am just grateful.

Dennis: Now I’m curious as to how the short story. We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? …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? …What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?

Vanessa: There are a lot of questions up there, and too many to be answered in one blog post, but I will try. For a start, I wonder if the decision process in a creator is quite as simple as ‘deciding’ to make something (leaving aside commissions…) or whether there is a pressure that builds up, some alchemy between the writer’s obsessions and a seed – a setting/character combination perhaps, or a phrase overheard, anything – that begins to grow despite the writer. The writer’s mind becomes the medium for that seed’s growth – not necessarily consciously – think Nietsche’s ‘active forgetting’…until there is no option but to release the pressure by committing something to screen or paper.

The only discernable method or pattern for this writer is the knowledge, gained after so many false starts, that to grab at the idea/feeling too early, ruins the piece. The product takes on a stilted, forced quality as I flounder about with a voice that seems clever, as opposed to the right voice for this piece. Or the characters refuse to become anything but puppets as I take decisions on their behalf and shift them from here to there, doing MY bidding. Not their own.

I know the words, when they come right, are mine, the product of a lifetime of experiences married to my value system  – but I do know that the ancients, with their belief that genius was something external, working with the creator, and for whose visits the creator gave thanks, were much wiser than we are today… I have learned to wait for and welcome those precious moments when the alchemy works, the words flow, and characters do what they must and speak in the voices they must.  And in that sense, yes, ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is, is using me, as much as I am using the seeds of inspiration.

I do get a bit tired of hearing that the short story is a ‘training ground’ for the novel?  Is it? My own view (having written The Coward’s Tale’ over the last four years, at the same time as writing two collections of shorts..) would be quite complex, but might include these sentences:

“I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, I also wonder if they might write a better novel, when they finally do, than they would if they were not.”

Patty: So fellow conversationalists, Dennis, Gerard, and Gina, do you think the short story is “training ground for the novel?” I know what I think, and my answer will be posted, too.

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


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?

Why The Short Story? Lawrence Sargent Hall Reads “The Ledge”

I’ve been surveying my friends (Facebook and otherwise) to find out what short stories they have found important, influential, inspiring, or just plain entertaining. The list is long and varied and still grows even as I write this; I’m excited to have a whole slew of new stories to read. Soon, I will compile the stats for us all to see what the favorites are, and what our fellow writers, readers, and friends are reading these days.

An early front runner is “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall. Want to see how to use point-of-view? Few better examples than this story. Suspense? Here it is. Pathos? Uh-huh. In 2009, on the fiftieth anniversary of this story’s publication (the story was born the same year as I was!), Bowdoin College celebrated this work by one of their own. Here then is the link to the webpage that commemorates that celebration, complete with a lovely audio file of Mr. Hall himself reading from the story. So cool.


And the conversation keeps on going. I am thrilled to tell you that Gerard Woodward (Caravan Thieves, Nourishment, and others) will join in on the discussion soon. Dennis McFadden, author of the very new Hart’s Grove, has some really interesting things to say about writing and raising funds for the IRA. So come back again. And feel free to add your own two cents.