Say It In 53 Words

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As some of you might know, I have an odd relationship with the short-short prose structure. I love to read those that are stunning, remarkable, odd, moving, magic, entrancing, curious, and and and. (Think: Vanessa Gebbie here. Meg Pokrass. Tania Hershman. Dinty W. Moore. Carrie Etter. Katey Schultz. Stuart Dybek. Tom Hazuka.) I have written a couple of short-short pieces–in fiction and in nonfiction–myself, and am not unhappy with them.

What bothers me, though, is the idea some writers have that flash fiction and its close relatives (prose poem, sudden prose, short-short, flash nonfiction, etc.) is something easily undertaken, harnessed, mastered, and published. I would posit that it is one of the most difficult forms of writing to do consistently very well; its writers have to avoid the trap of the punchline, the narrowly-told anecdote, the cryptic instance with no resonance. How short-short and flash writers avoid these things is another matter altogether (you who succeed with this genre, please do feel free to enlighten us via the comments section of this page!) But a good piece of the short stuff is remarkably satisfying. Perhaps more closely akin to a beautiful piece of visual art than to the long narrative: it gets to you quickly, takes your breath, and then gives you plenty of time and space to look and look again to see what you missed on the first read.

So imagine my absolute thrill when at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 I found myself the lucky winner of two short-short-short-short story contests sponsored by Press 53. The 53-Word Contest is a weekly call from Press 53 for writers to submit 53-word (no more, no less–titles not included in the count) pieces based on a proposed theme. The guidelines are tight and loose at the same time, allowing for a whole lot of imaginative play within a solid structure. You should try it.

Thanks to the two judges who chose my pieces: Meg Pokrass selected “Things I Wish You Heard,” and Kevin Morgan Watson picked “The Night I Said I Was Leaving.” You can read them each via the links attached to the titles, and you can read the complete Press 53 blog with its information on other contests, new books, interviews, and many things booky and literary here.

As always, thanks for reading. -PMc

A Room of One’s Own, Swedish Meatballs, and a Love Letter ~ View From the Keyboard of Jessie Morrison

Today we get a glimpse of the writing space of Jessie Morrison, a recent MFA graduate from Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department. This woman can write. Her stories are filled with Chicago–her hometown–and the things that make us ache and want. She has had quite a bit of success already in her writing life, among them having been selected for coveted spots in The Chicago Reader’s fiction issues. Jessie was also chosen by Writers’ Digest to pen their “MFA Confidential” blog in 2010-2011–a regular publication about what it is like to be a candidate for a Creative Writing MFA.

I was fortunate to have Jessie in one class during her tenure at Columbia, and I can tell you first had that she brought a sense of purpose and delight to her work. I can still remember a presentation Jessie did on Stuart Dybek, with whom she carried on a brief and (to her) embarrassing email correspondence to gather research for her report. If you read her work in the archives of Writers’ Digest, you will see how much she admires and respects writers and the writing life, and you will likely find a bit of inspiration from her friendly and accessible posts about her own writing life.

And now we get to see where it all happens.

Morrison: My writing space is in the second bedroom of my Old Irving Park apartment.  It’s the quietest room in the house, with only one narrow window, so when I close the door, I really feel like I am imprisoned or, at the very least, solitary.  I used to write at the dining room table, but last winter, my mom, aunt, and I made a pilgrimage to Ikea in Schaumburg.  None of us had ever been there (and by “there,” I mean both Schaumburg and Ikea), so we dressed in comfortable shoes, hooked up the GPS, and loaded the car with a cooler full of snacks.  My aunt, fearing the Christmas crowds and the Scandinavian efficiency, took an anxiety pill.  But it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as we expected, although the Swedish meatballs in the depressing food court were cold and greasy.  We spent all day there, and the desk and chair you see here were one of our purchases, along with a napkin holder, toilet brush, tea candles, and a shoe organizer.

I thought if I bought a desk—if I created a “room of one’s own”, I would write better.  But like many visitors to Ikea, my enthusiasm for my new purchases evaporated when I came home and saw the assembly instructions.  My writing desk languished in its unopened boxes all through the winter, until one day I came home and saw that my fiancée had assembled it for me.  As a way to say thank you, the first thing I ever wrote at this desk was a love letter.

Excerpt from story-in-progress:

By the end of the reception, the bleeding was almost over and Frannie’s back ache was only a small wisp of smoke in her spine. For the last dance, the DJ cut the lights and turned on a strobe that spattered light across the floor and ceiling and gave the sensation that the whole wedding party had been moved underwater, the clear surface of the world undulating above them. The men in their dark suits were shadows, but the women were like bright fish flitting around the sea. On the perimeter of the dance floor, or crowded around the bar for last call, were the bachelorettes: eager and doing their mating dances in bright pinks and purples and blues, shiny satin and spiked heels. Turning around the center, like a perfect pearl in the oyster’s mouth, was the bride, her sequins diamond lovely, sparkling in the swaying light. Then there were the mothers, a little wilted in muted prints, some sitting at empty tables with sleeping children sprawled across their laps, others dancing with dutiful husbands. Frannie sat at a table of half-eaten cake slices and watched them all go by. The problem with being a woman, she thought, was that you were always trying to be one of these things: the maiden, the bride, the mother. There was no room for any other kind of fish.


Thanks to Jessie Morrison for inviting us into her space. Looking forward to more writing to come from this talented, funny, and industrious new writer. As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

You Gotta Read This ~ Celebrating the Short Story Collection and Short Story Month

I know you know this, but it is National Short Story Month here in the US. So I again want to honor the art of short story writing by sharing with you all some short story collections my closest friends (you know, the ones I met on Facebook) are partial to and why.

Behn R:  Girl With Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace. Because so many of the short stories are parodies while others are deeply grounded in pop culture; the collection celebrates so many different voices and narrative styles that each story refreshed my sense of naive curiosity as I was forced to depart from one group of characters and invest myself in another.



Jeff K: I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay










Michael D: The Coast of Chicago…………why? Dybek wrote it.  And it includes “Pet Milk”

Holly W: [Also] The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek is one I keep returning to, perhaps it’s because I read it as a young, eager writer, and paid such close attention. The scenes in those stories are already nostalgic in their conception, and as I read and reread them, they are layered with new resonances. Plus, I just love ‘Pet Milk’ for the way it captures young love/lust, and the newness of the world when one has just left college and is finally on one’s own in the city, drinking King Alfonsos in a restaurant in Pilsen on a hot summer night, after work, with a lover.

John Mc: Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars, a comprehensive series of short stories, each an enthralling read but, taking you to a whole series of differing experiences.

→Looking for summer reading that doesn’t make your head ache and teeth hurt? More story collection titles coming your way, so check back regularly. As always, thanks for reading. -PMc←

Come Home Chicago ~ Matt Martin’s View From the Keyboard

Chicago is full of small and large literary delights, and on the eve of the AWP conference in our fair city, I thought it would be good to introduce you to a guy who had a hand in starting one of the truly great reading series held here, Come Home Chicago. Matt Martin is currently a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Columbia College Chicago who is also working a full-time job, and yet he feels compelled to make the time to help produce a highly entertaining and exceptional quality lit show; last month’s guests included Stuart Dybek, Rick Kogan, Christine Sneed, Don De Grazia (co-founder of Come Home Chicago) and many others.

Oh yeah, and the guy writes, too. And this is where he does it, along with a little taste of his work.

Matt: I live alone in a one bedroom apartment in Andersonville, and since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, this dining room table has turned into a desk. I picked this space because of its excellent view of my neighbor’s blinds, those things need some dusting! I try to spend at least an hour here a day. The books in the middle separate the table in half, because of my book shelf being over crowded. Radioactive Homer sits across from me (his head is chopped off a bit), but if I ever get really stuck, I look to him, and he usually has some pretty pertinent advice! “All right Brain, you don’t like me, and I don’t like you. But let’s just do this, and I can get back to killing you with beer.”

I wrote a piece about my experience with gout at this space  and do a lot of reading here as well. One of my favorite books that people might not be able to see from the photo is Live From New York—a history of Saturday Night Live—so many of my memories of childhood can be found in that book! Also if you look hard—in the middle there—an autographed copy of The Temple Of Air is chillin out!

I co-host and co-founded Come Home Chicago with Don De Grazia and I’d just like to thank everyone who came out for the last one, and whoever comes out for the next one—It’s a party, ya’ll!

An excerpt from work in progress

It’s complicated. It usually is. There are extenuating circumstances that come into play. You’ll have to trust me on that. This was something that external influences caused. I mean, I am partially to blame, don’t get me wrong. I am ready to take the brunt of the criticism. They say somewhere in a 12-step program that acceptance is one of the steps. I’m not sure which one, because the one time I went to a meeting I didn’t really pay attention. I did it for her. To get her off my back.

Now things were getting bad. It was getting out of control. Now I found myself here. In a ground floor room in the same Vegas hotel that O.J. Simpson got arrested in, the Palace Station. The same hotel/casino that offered “Las Vegas’ Largest All Drag Revue.” I tried to open my eyes. A sliver of light had somehow managed to creep through the middle of the crusty shades and land directly on my eye lids. I peeked one eye open. I nearly threw up.

I rolled over and slammed the pillow over my head. I felt something on my cheek. It was sharp. I didn’t really care to move, so I went back to sleep.

I dreamt of things. I dreamt of home. My grandmother. My childhood. I slid down reflective slides. I smiled. I ran around the bases as grown men played 16 in. softball on a diamond at Oriole Park. I ran through the grass and ran up to a hot dog stand and looked up and my uncle was wearing a white paper hat and spinning bright blue cotton candy.

→Matt, thanks for letting us in for a peek. And go Cubs, yeah? – PMc←

And The Winner Is…Pt 3

I know you have just been waiting and waiting and waiting for this list of favorite short stories I’ve promised you for quite sometime now. Thanks again to all of you who put a vote in for your favorite. A few days ago, I posted the first place winner (“Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek) and the 17 others that tied for second, third and fourth place.

Many of you took the time to comment on why you made the choices you did, and I thank you for that. Patrick Salem, MFA candidate in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago said this about “Sonny’s Blues,”The Ledge,” and “Hills Like White Elephants:”

Each time I read Baldwin’s I discover something new on the page, something compelling. Hall’s piece is just so menacing that I still feel a chill just thinking about it. And Hemingway’s subtle ending and vague conversation has me changing my mind about the third to last paragraph again and again.”

Right on, Patrick.

Lex Sonne, a recent graduate of the MFA Program at Columbia College Chicago is a fan of Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love:”

“Humor and poignancy mixed perfectly. The protagonist’s voice reminds me of a friend of mine that lives in Louisville—makes it a little more special for me.”

Thanks, Lex.

Who knows why we make the choices that we do? I imagine something speaks to us at a certain moment in time when we stumble across a particular story, or it might be that we find ourselves turning back to a story again and again. It seems as though many of you (like me) are intrigued with stories that lean toward the dark. “Full of menace,” one person wrote about his choices. “Gorgeous and brutal,” wrote someone else. Kathie Bergquist, Chicago writer and teacher added this to her choices: “I guess I am a sucker for moments of quiet epiphany and memento mori.” Todd Mercer of Michigan Writers wanted to make sure we add the mythic Hemingway six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Other commentary is mixed in here and there with the selections. By the way, if you find some nonfiction titles in here, too, blame it on writer and reader Dakota Sexton who tells us that a good story is just a good story, fiction or non.

One more thing that I think is pretty cool. Two people who sent me titles of their favorite short stories are also among the authors who made it into the list: Gerard Woodward and John McNally.

Okay, so finally, finally, finally a very non-exhaustive list of favorite short stories as selected by a number of my friends and readers (those who were willing to weigh in, that is!) on a particular day at a particular time.

“Compassion,” Dorothy Allison

“Rape Fantasies,” Margaret Atwood

“My First Goose, Isaac Babel

“The Catholic Church in Novgorod,” Isaac Babel [below] (“the Constantine Translations, of course,” Daniel Prazer, ERP Books editor and writer wanted us to know.)

“My Man Bovanne,” Toni Cade Bambara

“Hermit’s Story,” Rick Bass

“The Legend of Pig Eye,” Rick Bass

“Quiet Please,” Aimee Bender

“Big Bad Love,” Larry Brown

“Distance of the Moon,” Italo Calvino

“So Much Water, So Close to Home,” Raymond Carver

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver

“I Demand To Know Where You’re Taking Me,” Dan Chaon

“Misery,” Anton Chekov

“The Open Boat,” Stephen Crane

“The Ursula Cookie,” Sloane Crosley

“Open Winter,” H.L. Davis

“The Sun, The Moon and The Star,” Juno Diaz

“Notes For A Story Of A Man Who Will Not Die Alone,” Dave Eggers

“After I Was Thrown In The River And Before I Drowned,” Dave Eggers

“Shamengwa,” Louise Erdrich

“A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner               

“Barn Burning,” William Faulkner

“Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” Ben Fountain

“Chivalry,” Neil Gaiman

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Jury of Her Peers,” Susan Glaspell

“The Nose,” Nicolai Gogol

“A Clean Well Lighted Place,” Ernest Hemingway

“The Big Two-Hearted River,” Ernest Hemingway

“Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” Amy Hempel

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” Amy Hempel

“Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Denis Johnson

“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson

“Charles,” Shirley Jackson

“Who’s Irish?,” Gish Jen

“Araby,” James Joyce

“The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka

“What, Of This Goldfish Would You Wish?,” Etgar Keret

“The Hitchhiking Game,” Milan Kundera

“A Temporary Matter,” Jhumpa Lahiri

“The Third and Final Continent,” Jhumpa Lahiri

“The Rocking Horse Winner,” D.H. Lawrence (“Always, always, always,” says Katie Corboy)

“Travels with the Snow Queen,” Kelly Link

“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“All Sorts of Impossible Things,” John McGahern (Michael Downs, author of House of Good Hope, says that this story describes this idea of choosing one favorite)

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Royal Beatings,” Alice Munro

“The Thunderstorm,” by Vladimir Nabokov. Ryan Sinon, adjunct faculty member of Columbia College Chicago says: “Nabokov grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me toward what would eventually become my thesis material. It showed me how to have fun; it showed me how to write with one foot on the ground and one foot in the sky.”

“Video,” Mira Nair

“Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor

“The Life you save may be your own,” Flannery O’Connor

“Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor

“The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup,” Susan Orlean

“The Isabel Fish,” Julie Orringer

“Brownies,” ZZ Packer

“Trilobites,” Breece D’J Pancake. “The vast depth of that story makes it a sort of adventure to explore all the things being done on the page,” says MFA candidate Derek Johnson.

“Punch Drunk,” Chuck Palahniuk

“Like a Winding Sheet,” Ann Petry

“The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe

“The End of Firpo in the World,” George Saunders

“Tralala,” Hubert Selby

“The Queen Is Dead,” Hubert Selby

“Johnny Bear,” John Steinbeck

“The Fly Paper,” Elizabeth Taylor

“The Kreutzer Sonata,” Leo Tolstoy

“Of this Time, Of That Place,” Lionel Trilling (one of my favorites, by the way! PMc)

“The Dabba Dabba Tree,” Yasutaka Tsutsui

“A&P,” John Updike                                                                                                     

“The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd,” John Updike

“Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut

“No Place For You, My Love,” Eudora Welty

“Why I Live At The PO,” Eudora Welty

“The Portrait of Mr W. H.,” Oscar Wilde

So that’s the rest of the list of titles. There were a few other suggestions from readers, including “Any of Cortazar’s stories,” and “Anything short by Murakami.”

Perhaps one of the sweetest things, though, was sent by an old boyfriend of mine from a few decades ago: “My favorite short story was written 30 years ago, with no name, no title, no author, no ending.” I think he was talking about us.

But maybe he wasn’t, and I am just full of myself. Hmmm.

This week, “Why the Short Story, A Conversation Among Writers” continues with posts from Gina Frangello, Vanessa Gebbie, and me. Y’all come back now, hear?←

And The Winner Is… Pt 2

All right, you’re right, I promised to tell you these results a lllllooooonnnnngggg time ago, but who knew how hard it would be to compile all of the nominations for your favorite short stories? New titles just kept on coming, and old favorites kept resurfacing. Thanks to all of you who cast a vote via my Facebook page.

The folks who named writers and titles of short stories they admire come from various communities. Some are writers themselves, either published widely or just getting started. Respondents are teachers, waiters, students, actors, librarians, young, old, salespeople, politicians, administrators, and on and on and on. What they have in common is that they are all readers. And, they all read–and in many cases, love–the short story.

Long live the short story.

And speaking of living long, a number of the stories on the list happen to be classics, written generations ago. A number of writers came up more than once: Hemingway, Checkov, Shirley Jackson, our writerly ancestors; but, too, a number of contemporary writers (Lahiri, Hempel, Diaz) were high on the list of favorites. In fact, the most oft-picked short story was “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek. Dybek is a Midwestern (Chicago) native who is still writing and writing and writing.

I’ve discovered other patterns in this list as well, but I’ll hold off on that for a bit. I know you can’t wait to see if your own favorite short story made the top. So below you will find those stories with the most votes, in the top four slots:


Pet Milk, Stuart Dybek 


Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin

A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Flannery O’Connor


A Distant Episode, Paul Bowles

Fiesta, Junot Diaz

The Ledge, Lawrence Sargent Hall

Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway

The Dead, James Joyce

Where are You Going, Where Have you Been, Joyce Carol Oates


Big Me, Dan Chaon

The Lady With The Little Dog, Anton Chekov

We Didn’t, Stuart Dybek

Vomitorium, John McNally

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Pastoralia, George Saunders

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Bullet in the Brain, Tobias Wolff

Rape, Gerard Woodward


And there are more than seventy other stories that were named as well that I will post in a day or so, along with comments made by the readers who sent titles and writers’ names. So get your notebooks and pens ready; I know you will want to write these down so you, too, can find them and enjoy.

What’s that? You didn’t get to vote for your favorite? No worries, add a comment here (add comment button at the top of this post) and we’ll get it in the list!