Set Alight by the Short Story

This is what I wanted to do with my own stories: line up the right words, the precise images, as well as the exact and correct punctuation so that the reader got pulled in and involved in the story and wouldn’t be able to turn away his eyes from the text unless the house caught fire.

Raymond Carver, author’s 1991 forward to Where I’m Calling From

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver in 1984 (Photo: Bob Adelman)

I’m not always comfortable writing about writing. For me, it’s sort of like talking about what I want to write instead of actually doing it. However, since May is National Short Story Month, I decided (at the urging of a friend) to jot down a few words about fiction in general and the short story in particular.

There’s talk about short stories being out of favor, short story collections being hard to sell and so on. I’m not too worried about that. The market is both fickle and cyclical. I believe that short fiction will make a comeback any day now. Even if it doesn’t capture the public’s attention the way it once did, the form is significant and merits reading and writing and perpetuating through literary journals.

Stumbling upon Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? ignited my interest in the short story. Before that, I’d viewed short stories and novels as being basically the same except for the length. Then, I was set alight by Chekhov. After that, I fell in love with the landscapes that short stories create, the way that they exalt small, imperceptible moments. I’m still awed by the way that really good writers capture those specks of time, emotion and insight. That’s what’s kept me interested me in the form so completely.

On my first day of grad school years ago, one of the professors, Abby Frucht, asked why I wanted to write. Did I have a love affair with words? Or with plot and storytelling? “I like ideas,” I replied. “I really like teasing out ideas and emotions.” Abby cocked her head and looked at me as if I’d misunderstood her question. Surely I must love words too?

The truth is that words have always given me trouble. I like them and find them useful. Knowing a lot of them certainly helps. But I don’t love them the way that so many other writers do. Nor am I an exceptional grammarian. No, what I love about writing is the same thing that I love about the short story: that an idea—an emotion, an awareness, a loss or regret or joy—can be explored through words to illuminate a moment. Sometimes the idea is so small that it cannot be fully described except by what surrounds it, so subtle that it would be lost or made dull if sustained for 200 pages.

And what is life but a series of moments? Not many of us live novels. Sure, a novel is a great way to escape to another universe, delve into a topic or become enamored with characters. Anna Karenina is not a short story. We need all those pages to plumb Anna’s depths. Short stories offer a different depth: the crystallized moment. And while novels might be expected to leave no loose ends, short stories are allowed to remain ambiguous, something I loved about those Carver stories. Intellectually, I didn’t understand a lick of what I read; viscerally, I knew he was telling the truth—an uncertain, enigmatic truth.

Fortunately, I’ve found what Richard Ford told The Paris Review to be true: “Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.”

Online Editor’s Note: Dan Wickett,  founder of Dzanc Books and Emerging Writers Network, started National Short Story Month in 2007. Commemorating the month last year, NPR posted links to favorite interviews with short story writers together with suggested collections. Some of those would make a nice follow-on to Jen’s piece: 

And just this year, May 16 was declared National Flash Fiction Day in the UK. Submissions were solicited on the official site. Take a quick look at the winning ones.

If you have the time, take a more extensive look at ambiguity, which Jen references. It’s relevant to a range of writing, and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is one of the most widely read and quoted works of literary analysis.

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