Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label craft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label craft. Show all posts

05 May, 2017

Katherine Mansfield, "Miss Brill"

This 1920 story by Katherine Mansfield shows an elderly woman going to the public gardens somewhere in France every Sunday. She eavesdrops and decides that all the people, including herself, are actors in a play. It's like they are on stage and everyone watches everyone else. Actually, she watches the others. It's her life. She's lonely and her fur necklet is a type of protection as well as an inanimate friend. The previous Sunday Miss Brill was annoyed that a woman complained so about needing eyeglasses. That an entire paragraph is given to this I think it alludes to Miss Brill not seeing herself as she really is. Her life consists of reading to an old man who is practically dead in his chair and teaching English to students to whom she doesn't want to tell that she goes to the park every Sunday. All is fine and well until a young couple in love are harsh and cruel about Miss Brill. "Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?" She goes home without stopping for her treat of honey cake. She puts her fur necklet away and imagines that she hears it crying. 

The story is only five pages long and was first published in 1920 in Athenaeum. The POV is a very close third-person or some call it third-person limited omniscient. The entire story is from Miss Brill's viewpoint but so close that we know what she is thinking. 

I pulled this story from my shelf because of a quote Charles E. May put on his blog about this story. Katherine Mansfield said, “It’s a queer thing how craft comes into writing.  For example in ‘Miss Brill’ I choose not only the length of every sentence but even the sound of every sentence.  I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that very moment.  After I’d written it I read it aloud—numbers of times—just as one would play over a musical composition—trying to get it nearer and nearer to the expression of Miss Brill—until it fitted her.”

It is a short story masterpiece! 

21 September, 2016

David Chang, "The Unified Theory of Deliciousness"

There is a wonderful essay about food in the 24.08 issue of Wired. And yes, for me, it applies to short stories. David Chang has hit on an idea for the base pattern of the tastiness of food, across cultures, across recipes. A continuous loop that is pleasing at a subliminal level for human beings, " a set of base patterns that people inherently respond to." I think this type of pattern works in literature as well.

This statement of his reminds me of Charles Baxter's "Lush Life" essay.  "When you hit a strange loop like this, it shifts your point of view: Suddenly you aren't just thinking about what's happening inside the picture; you're thinking about the system it represents and your response to it."

"When you eat something amazing, you don't just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported back to another moment in your life." Isn't this what we try to do in short stories? Writers try to evoke something, anything, in the reader, that connects them. And, often it is something insignificant and small that brings on a rush of emotions for the reader, but in this way the reader becomes part of the story and essentially completes the story. And, that why good stories with a poetic aspect are never completely consumed, the story is not static, nor is the reader.

I'm also reminded of the idea of the way physicists look at waves and particles. The looking creates it as either a wave or a particle. Your looking, or tasting, something makes it what you're seeking. Chang gives an example of saltiness. "When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time." Furthermore, "You'll think that it's too bland, but as soon as you form that thought, you'll suddenly find it tastes too salty."

18 September, 2016

Christian Lorentzen, "Is It Story That Makes Us Read?" Boris Kachta, "Every Plot, Ever"

In the Culture Pages of the August 8-21, 2016 issue of New York is an article about plot in fiction, specifically novels.

Favorite Passages:
"The Formalists Vladimir Propp and Victor Shklovsky held that every work of fiction has a fabula and a syuzhet. The fabula is the set of fictional events related within or implied by the work; the syuzhet is the manner in which the fictional information of the fabula is conveyed to the reader. Together they constitute the plot."

"An episodic structure tends to do away with any causal link between the episodes. It's a string of plots where all the conditions are reset between episodes, and each character returns to his or her mean. Of course, seriality is something else: an episodic structure nested within larger plot arcs--more a linked chain than a string of beads."

Here are a few from the list of Every Plot, Ever by Boris Kachka
Adultery / Coming of Age / The Con / Descent Into Madness / Discovery of a Lie / Domesticity Meltdown / Family Saga / Me Against the World / Metamorphosis, Internal / Rashomon / Stalker /

26 August, 2016

Deborah Eisenberg, "Mermaids" and Maud Casey, "It's a Wooden Leg First"

Deborah Eisenberg writes of young girls' burgeoning pubescence and the complex way in which adults assert their powers and what they assume is covert, but is not, to fulfill their own physical desires. Casey writes, "Yet she, too, relies on the visible to create mystery." The essay, "It's a Wooden Leg First," is about the way physical objects convey meaning and mystery, a turned off television "becomes the nexus of menace," in the story "Mermaids."

I was inspired to pull this story from my shelf because of Maud Casey's essay in A Kite in the Wind. She also discusses the way Eisenberg portrays time. "Though we are aligned with Kyla, the story manages to keep time by two different clocks simultaneously--the second-hand swiftness of adulthood and the dragging hour hand of childhood." Of course, Casey makes many other points, but this one stood out for me.

24 August, 2016

Frederick Reiken, "The Author-Narrator-Character Merge"

An excellent essay opens the book, A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft, by Frederick Reiken. One of the most helpful sections follows:

"Most third-person narratives proceed with constant modulation of the psychic distance, moving like a camera eye between long-range establishing shots and very limited, close-range character point of view, and then back out to longer-range shots again. But in a case in which the author has not fully imagined the point-of-view character--often because the author has not yet truly conceived the character as a bona fide other--the ANC relationship gets structured so that there is little or no psychic distance between narrator and character, no way for us to see the character moving through a setting or situation, and hence, though unintentionally, what I am calling a merged effect." ... "That is, the most we get is a sense of being inside the character's head, but we can never actually see him."

ANC=author, narrator, character

"Underlying every Chekhov story is an implicit separation of author, narrator, and character, such that Chekhov was fully able to write entertaining stories about boring characters, sympathetic stories about flawed characters, and so on."

The essay, in total nearly twenty pages, has about six pages of "How to Unmerge."

Excellent, excellent.

22 August, 2016

Charles Baxter, "Lush Life" essay

Baxter's essay published in the 2011 book, A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft  talks about lushness in writing. I bought my copy at Deep Vellum in Deep Ellum. I encourage anyone in the DFW area to patronize them.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes.

Lushness is "typically vetoed or sneered at." page 289

Postmodernism encourages "understatement, irony, toughness, and skepticism." page 289

Lushness "can also seem manipulative." page 289-290

"If you want to be cool, however, you can't be lush. You can be one or the other but not both." page 290

"a lush style has, because of its large gestures, a component of unstable self-dramatization. But most importantly, lushness has a particular sense of time: lushness refuses to give up the past and instead tries to superimpose the past on the present." page 290

"The problem with cool styles is that they can cool into emotional frigidity, prideful stoicism, a kind of zombie-ism." page 293

"But many great writers have been intrigued by the possibility of sidestepping flashbacks and using superimposed temporal planes." page 294

"If the past lies somewhere dormant within the present, as the modernists thought it did, the writer's task is to do his or her best to express that simultaneity--and it is here, in the effort to combine time frames, that lush styles come to our rescue." page 294

"Lushness here also allows itself a considerable degree of freedom, a transfiguration out of the here-and-now." page 298

"hypothetical reverie" page 298

"Lushness, though it can be destructive, can also be demanding, in the best sense. The past begins to live in the present, and the self moves into a realm of thought and belief and love that the sentences have created for it." page 299

"Why do we now distrust lush styles? Partly because we are all being lied to, all the time, by politicians and commercial interests. People on TV lie just out of habit. We have been lied to so often, under so many circumstances, that skepticism seems to be the only survival mechanism in a trashy, duplicitous culture." page 301

22 July, 2016

Alice LaPlante, The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing

Some of my favorite lines from Alice LaPlante's book, The Making of a Story. 

Chapter 2, page 58
"Rather, one of the first difficult lessons any writer must learn is how to trust his or her own personal insight and unique skills of observation, even when these conflict with accepted wisdom and the mass-produced images that bombard all of us daily."

page 59
"The concrete details anchor us in the specific moment at the same time that the images evoke deep, visceral, and--arguably--universal emotion."

page 65-66
LaPlante discusses Richard Hugo's idea of "triggering" and "real" subjects. It's a great explanation about what can trigger a poem or story and through the writing and discovering phases the real subject surfaces. "Because it is the writer's imagination that is choosing the next topic, because there must be some connection in the writer's brain (conscious or unconscious) that leads from one subject to another, then the sequence must be meaningful."

04 July, 2016

Colm Tóibín and Hannah Tinti

A wonderful discussion between Hannah Tinti and Colm Tóibín about short stories and novels via Symphony Space, Selected Shorts. Colm has a lot of ideas about what a short story is. He quotes Henry James and talks about the "reverse side of the picture."A fiction writer is not a journalist and that the writer needs to "look and look and look." So if you are looking at a press photograph, the fiction writer should look at the person at the edge of the picture and not necessarily take on the story head on but from the side. He gives a great deal of thought to point of view to find that person whose story has not already been told.

Tóibín's website
link to Soundcloud, Selected Shorts

21 May, 2016

Richard Logsdon, introduction to issue 25 of Red Rock Review, 2010

I pulled the 2010, issue twenty-five, of Red Rock Review from my shelf and re-read the editor's introduction, "Of Holmes, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky: Or, Gone to the Dogs," and decide it is as relevant today, 2016. And, that's not a good thing. The topic is ennui, "an intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic sluggishness that, as a byproduct of materialism, blunts one's ability to grasp the higher truths expressed by great literature."

"Baudelaire was onto something. The pathological boredom know as ennui manifests itself in our own society's fascination with Twitter, text-messaging, and the like." Logsdon goes on to talk about the movie Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Silence of the Lambs. I don't think I've experienced, during my lifetime, an atmosphere or desire for spectacle more than now.

19 December, 2015

Shirley Jackson, "How I Write"

In the newly published Shirley Jackson book, Let Me Tell You, includes several essays about writing. Here are a few of my favorite lines from this essay. The first line, "I find it very difficult to distinguish between life and fiction." I'm intrigued and happy right away. Then later she states, "I tell myself stories all day long..." I thought maybe I was crazy. Happy to know I'm not alone. She also talks about how she came to write her most famous story, "The Lottery." Later she says, "I believe that a story can be made out of any such small combination of circumstances, set up to best advantage and decorated with some use of the imagination." Not everyone has to travel the world and live in a quonset hut to find a story. She also discusses writing and preparing for The Haunting of Hill House.

The New Yorker article by Jackson, "Memory and Delusion"

15 November, 2015

Joan Wickersham, "A Conversation with Joan Wickersham" by Vivian Dorsel

There's a great interview with Joan Wickersham in the 11th edition, 2015, of Upstreet. She discusses her ideas about writing. She's disciplined but in her own way. Once she's at work, she's focused but doesn't set any numeric demands or goals.

In writing, she looks for precision of words, beauty of the sentences and that the "consequences of the things you set in motion" are shown. I'm particularly interested in Wickersham's responses because she is not an M.F.A. person and she's as accomplished and talented as anyone else. Well, and I just like her writing a lot.

08 November, 2015

Sven Birkerts, "Double Take," editor's note in Agni 82

There's a great editor's note in the current issue of Agni journal. He brings to light through his new experiences with his new smart phone camera the way we notice things and pay attention to anomalies while going about our days. He reminds us about Proust, Barthes, and Sontag's philosophies about perceptions and interpretations.

He moves from the idea of looking at something long enough until it becomes interesting to the idea that going about your life and when something is highlighted for you through one of your senses that grabs you and then you give your attention to it, pay heed to that detail that will ultimately be revealing of a truth or truths. Birkert states, "And this made me consider yet again--it's a long-standing preoccupation of mine--that the instincts, the peripheral reflexes, are quicker and more reactive than the daily navigation system."

Agni online
Sven Birkerts
essay at New York Times
link to subscribe to hard copy of Agni

07 September, 2015

Joan Wickersham, "The Program"

An interesting story with a food addiction program as its subject matter and a theme about language and its usage and how word usage and choice alters and controls one's thoughts. And, in this case, actions, i.e., eating. "I think she's eating." The program becomes an active participant in the lives of its members, "The program nodded. The program understood."

"The Program" is written in second person point of view that reads like first person. Quoting from Alice LaPlante's book, The Making of a Story, "The 'you' is actually an inverted form of first person. That is, it is a first person narrator referring to himself or herself as 'you'--usually because they are dissociating themselves from distasteful thoughts, actions, or memories." Second person works well with this story and I can't imagine "The Program" written any other way. This story fulfills the Harvard Review's desire to publish works that exhibit, "...not experience itself in the end but the translation of experience into art."

In the editor's editorial in the Harvard Review, number 47, Christina Thompson, states about Wickersham's story, "'The Program' is narrated in an uncommon--and rather difficult--mode, which I was delighted to see her pull off." I agree. It's a fabulous work of art.

Harvard Review
Joan Wickersham

25 June, 2015

David Jauss, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Abstraction?: Modes of Conveying Emotion

Another great essay of 13 pages and 89 footnotes, in which Jauss discusses ways to convey emotions for the best possible outcome in fiction writing. It's a helpful article and he doesn't mind telling it like he sees or reads it. His section headings are in bold.

I. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. He talks about some of those pieces of advice, i.e., do not use abstractions, that one must not necessarily take wholeheartedly.

II. The Misuse of Abstractions. Sensory Bypasses. He shares some examples from his writing students where they've used shortcut abstractions instead of sensorial descriptions. He also shows where many very well known writers are guilty of this type of laziness. No one is immune. Then he discusses "Glosses" which may allude to body language but then interprets it for the reader.

III. Let's Get Physical: Body Language. Action is Eloquence. Most communication is through body language including "physiological and physio-chemical reactions."

Body Language and Individuation. "The best body language is not only revelatory but individuating..."

Mixing Body Language and Abstraction. This can be effective.

IV. Getting Physical Through Metaphor. Mixing Metaphor and Body Language. Mixing Metaphor and Abstraction. Metaphor and Particularization.

V. Conjoined Abstractions. Jauss gives some helpful examples here as well.

VI. Some Caveats.  "...abstractions can play a valid, and valuable, role in conveying emotion."

VII. Conclusion. "For scary though they be, abstractions can complement body language and metaphor and, sometimes, even take their place in ways that enrich the emotional experience of our readers."

This article was published in the May/Summer 2012 issue of The Writer's Chronicle.

26 March, 2015

Lydia Davis, "The Art of Fiction No. 227"

Interview with Lydia Davis, Johanne Fronth-Nygren and Andrea Aguilar. Stories specifically mentioned: "The Cows," "The Old Dictionary," "Glenn Gould," "Writing," "The Letter to the Foundation," "The Two Davises and the Rug," "Wife One in Country," "New Year's Resolution," "The Meeting," "Cornmeal," "Lord Royston's Tour," and "Head, Heart."

Her discussion about translating, particularly Proust's Swann's Way, and the Germanic and Latinate vocabulary in the English language is revelatory. I'd never thought about word choices in just that way. undersea/submarine, underground/subterranean, all-powerful/omnipotent

Some of the most helpful, for me, statements by Lydia Davis in the interview.

"As soon as you select the material from your life, and arrange it and write it in a stylized manner, it's no longer really identical to that life and that person."

"If I avoid metaphor, and if I have to think of a reason why, it may be that I don't want to distract from the one thing that I'm concentrating on, and a metaphor immediately does that."

"No, I don't think symbolically at all."

"Then comes this vital comma. It just shows you how important a little punctuation mark is, how much power it has."

Published in issue 212, Spring 2015, of The Paris Review.

09 October, 2014

Heather Sappenfield, "More Scope & Kindness & Power in My Books: An Interview with George Saunders"

A few of my favorite statements from the interview published in the October/November 2014 issue of Writer's Chronicle.

"Just so in a story: we make this artificial construct so we can observe human behavior in an exaggerated presentation. And mostly we do that because it is pleasurable to do so, for mysterious reasons."

"I think the best humor comes from being truthful at a time when we would normally be politely dishonest."

"We seem to take comfort in the idea that we can have thoughts and theories about art--and of course we can--but the relation between our thoughts/theories and the actual production of good writing is nebulous, alas. I see thinking and theorizing as support activities, the purpose of which is to get us to the main activity--which is instantaneous and intuitive and irreducible."

08 October, 2014

Eileen Pollack, "The World of the Story"

There's a great essay in the current issue of the Writer's Chronicle, "The World of the Story," by Eileen Pollack. Following are my favorite phrases that explain why setting is integral to a story and the many ways in which characters belong to and move between worlds.

"One of the greatest markers of who does or doesn't belong to a given world is speech."

"The same middle-school girls who delight in grossing each other out with a farting contest at a sleepover party might be horrified if they let out a burp at a co-ed dance."

"Setting will always be fundamental to fiction. What is childhood if not the world that determines who we are? What is family if not the world whose eccentric rituals, ways of speaking, eating, loving, and inflicting pain, create in each of us the most primal sense of belonging or separation?"

"But the idea that a story can be set in motion by bringing together lovers who have been shaped by different worlds will be obsolete only when every family on the planet comes to observe the same rituals and share the same values as every other, at which point fiction as we know it will have ceased to exist."

19 January, 2014

Benjamin Percy, "The Indelible Image: Moments Make Movies, Moments Make Stories"

In this month's issue of Writer's Chronicle there is a great essay about scenes and moments and images. Percy includes excerpts by himself, Tobias Wolff and Cormac McCarthy to illustrate his points.

These lines struck me in particular.

"Be specific when something is interesting. When something is interesting, you look at it longer. You prolong and amplify."

"Save the attention to detail for the scenes that matter most."

"…reap the images and then divorce them from life, find a construct that feels more truthful and compelling than reality."

The entire essay is compelling and a great read, very helpful.

17 November, 2013

Stephanie Coyne DeGhett, "Icons of the Everyday: Postcard Sleight of Hand and the Short Story"

Postcards, one-sided narratives or "open-faced narratives," have been used in short fiction pieces by many writers and in this essay, Stephanie Coyne DeGhett discusses six authors and stories: Hempel's "The New Lodger," Kaplan's "Love, Your Only Mother," Paley's "A Woman, Young and Old," Munro's "Postcard," Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," and Millhauser's "The Sepia Postcard."

My favorite point that DeGhett makes is that,

"Of its readers, it (a postcard) demands an ability to write the story you are reading yourself, to fill in the gaps between the frame story and the small disclosures of the postcard, to see the disjunctions of meaning and layers of intention."

To me that is what a short story does and so a postcard is a short story of a short story, so to speak. This is an interesting article and one to hang on to for re-reading. There are many thoughts about short fiction that I want to revisit.

"…the postcard serves economy in the fiction that appropriates it by virtue of the associations it carries with it--travel, separation, impermanence--and its potential to subvert those associations…"

"Cryptic but not uncommunicative, the story shares a good deal in common with the nature of the picture postcard."

DeGhett's essay is in the December 2013 issue of The Writer's Chronicle.

18 October, 2013

Richard Jackson, "Re(In)fusing Heaven"

There is an interesting article in the September 2013 issue of The Writer's Chronicle.

"What literature, what poetry, asks forgiveness for is its inability to say what is unsayable." page 43

"So the question becomes how to get back a sense of whatever force is beyond us. To get that force back, to return to a sense of mystery, the poet, as Tomaž Šalamun says in an interview, must become 'a hunter, not an expresser. You express what you already have. The inexpressible is like the beast in the woods that the hunter always knows only by its tracks.'" page 44

 For Šalamun, the poet today understands the impossibility of the task he is nevertheless drawn to: 'Basically, what I am drawn to is--with a word or phrase--to catch the sacred seed of everything, what is at the center of the fruit, and open it up.'" page 44

"The way one must live is the way one must write, to be receptive to those hidden depths that seem always out of sight and reach." page 47.

This is the approach I try to take with my writing and photography and tried to take with my painting. I want to capture the essence of everything in one and one in everything. The wave and the particle simultaneously, if you will. Of course, it is impossible but the need is there nevertheless.