The Deeper Side of the Short Story (an epic post)

I spent nearly the entire day yesterday immersed in the study of reading and writing. It was an intense day that started a little before 6 a.m., where I wrote about 3,000 words in my daybook about various things; that writing session served no other purpose than as my Morning Pages, epic-style, for those of you who know Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

On most good days, I stop there. But I had the time (I have no idea how this happened) to push through and look for publishing opportunities for the upcoming year. One of the main ideas to emerge from my early-morning writing was to create some real, reachable goals to further my writing career a little more aggressively. So, with very little effort, I found about 25 markets that suited me perfectly. While most of these publications are not paying markets, they would provide me with some necessary big-name clips to make the paying markets give me a second look when I’m pitching a feature idea or submitting a new piece of fiction.

I selected four markets for the upcoming academic year: one fiction, one nonfiction, and two scholarly education publications. Their deadlines range from September to January, so they are spread out nicely over my peak writing season, the fall and early winter.

The piece that is due December 1, the short fiction, has me most concerned. I should have no problem at all with the creative nonfiction piece due in October (the subject is nature), and the two scholarly pieces, due in September and January, are in my field of specialty: metacognition and motivating reluctant writers. It’s that short fiction piece that is generating anxiety. Most of my fiction has been rejected, and I wanted to know why. I thought the writing was good enough for strong consideration, but most places where I submit to disagree. I decided to read a little more about the structure of the short story and see if I could see any glaring weaknesses in my approach.

I was very surprised by what I learned–not necessarily that the information seemed like breaking news to me; rather, that the information seemed like something I should have known (and was probably taught) many years ago. Yet, in all of my conversations with fellow writers and colleagues, the purpose of the short story has never really been discussed. We always spend so much time talking about the stories themselves and not about their greater purpose.

So what does all that mean? Perhaps my colleagues and writer-friends all know this, and they’ve made the awful assumption that I, too, have been writing with such a deeper understanding of the short story. But I confess now, for the entire world to read, that for all these years I have never given the purpose of the short story much thought. Instead, I have focused on the importance of the writing process to tell a good story, a story that entertains. Here’s what I’ve been missing all these years.

I started reading some short stories out of The American Short Story, a collection published in 1994 and edited by Thomas K. Parkes. The book had all the standards by Stephen Crane (“The Open Boat”), James Thurber (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), and Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”), among others. I read through several of them, picking up a few good ideas for openings, writing concise dialogue, and even establishing strong engines to carry the piece to the end. All of these elements of style are essential to keep the individual reader engaged in the story, to keep the pages turning, and to fulfill the writer’s promise to the reader in the end.

They all had something else in common, though, that was eluding me. I decided to read the Introduction to this collection, and it was there that I discovered what I had not known or even thought to understand in all these years of writing.

Let me back up just a moment before I share an excerpt from that Introduction. When I was in graduate school earning my MFA in creative nonfiction, one of my mentors, Tom French of the St. Petersburg Times, used music to convey his ideas about story. Two of the examples he gave as models of concise storytelling were “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The latter became my theme song for working through my thesis at the end of my last semester, but even then I never really grasped the deeper meaning of these two songs.

As some of you who follow my blog regularly may remember, I was on a tear earlier in the year to find a singer/songwriter who spoke to me directly. She was under my nose the entire time. For some reason, Sheryl Crow and her songs just click with me. They mean something more than most of the other music I own. Still, with little understanding why they clicked, I started pulling her lyrics into my classroom, using them as examples for storytelling and writing small. I used her hit, “All I Wanna Do,” with my students, and we focused on the details: the bartender reading the want ads, the happy couple entering the bar being dangerously close to one another, the good people of the world shining their Datsuns and Buicks on their lunch breaks from the phone company and record stores….All good examples of writing small.

But still, there was something I was missing in all of the details, in all of the writing small. I needed to take a few steps back, look at the bigger picture. What was it about these songs, about these short stories that made them stand out above all the rest? What made them different than everything I’ve been writing as well?

Back to the intro to the American Short Story anthology. Here is the last paragraph, the place where everything came together for me.

From its beginnings in the early nineteenth century to the present, the American short story has evolved in theme and form, taking shape and reinventing itself with the nation that has produced so many distinguished practitioners. A varied and flexible genre, the short story over time has explored and questioned the major concerns of American life. One aspect of the genre remains constant, however; whether writers attempt to produce a single effect or illuminate a small corner of human existence, the short story works as a mirror to reflect the constantly changing nature of American society, and both the visionary aspirations and moral uncertainties of the American character.

After I read this, I felt both enlightened and ashamed. Suddenly, it was clear to me that it’s not just about telling a good story, it’s about telling a great story that captures an aspect of our lives right now, a sort of documentation of the life in the early 21st century so the rest of the world can know what we’re all going through, experiencing, living.

I was ashamed because this is the same mantra I use when teaching creative nonfiction. These are stories that should make a difference, reflect solidly on our lives today, serve as documentation that we existed, damn it, and this is what we saw. I never crossed over that magical line between fact and fiction and saw the short story serving the same purpose.

Go back to the classic stories, the life-changing poems, the hard songs that go beyond an emotion. They capture life as it was when they were written, and we relate to them because there’s history between those lines. There’s meaning in the character sketches, the dialogue, the conflict. It’s all there, hitting us as readers, making us understand a moment in time as we could in no other way.

This is where I believe I went wrong with my novel, Cold Rock. I tried to teach the reader something, hit her over the head, help her through a tough time. That’s not my job to do directly. It’s my job to bring this life to life on the page. How my reader, in this generation or in any other, chooses to or needs to perceive it, interact with it, is her own doing. It’s not my place to worry about that.

This leads me to two other topics that continue to brew within me: our role to our audience and the idea of writing small on a grander scale (i.e., the works themselves act as the details of our life chronicling our own history). More on these later.

So, in understanding this, I’m approaching my short fiction piece in a new light. Yes, characters and settings and conflicts–they all matter just as much as they did two days ago. But the story itself is going to come from what matters to me about this life, capture a sentiment or an issue that matters to others. Like Parkes said in his intro to the short story anthology, it makes no difference if I produce “a single effect or illuminate a small corner of human existence,” as long as it mirrors life in this America, in this American town, today, then it will find its place in American history, if nothing more than part of the record of how I experienced life, of how I perceived the motion of this great machine as it swirled around me, around you, around the world.

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