Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Short of It

You first came to the short story because, given your youthful energy level and relative lack of a managed approach to tasks, a story was something you could do in one sitting--starting with an opening concept, such as standing in a ticket line to purchase tickets for a musical or a ballet, ending twenty-five or so pages later when the main character reached the ticket seller.  

The ending was a moment you learned about some many years later in a conversation with Bobbie Ann Mason, a writer you came to admire greatly, where endings meant a place where the energy runs out.  Thus your concept for a story was one or more persons gathered to do something, perhaps only to engage in hanging out or some other pursuit of pleasant result, taken to a natural point where they had nothing more to say or,thematically, to do.

About you were collected short stories by Jack London and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.  Through a fortunate accident, you also had the short stories of the Irish writer, Frank O'Connor.  Through an unfortunate sort of accident, most of the writers you knew were screenwriters, who gave you scripts to read and who spoke to you of construction in ways that convinced you how lacking your education.  This drove you to used book stores and anthologies of stories that were constructed in ways that were mysterious to you.  Because the writers you knew seemed always to have enough money not to have to nurse drinks at places where music was played, even enough money to bring with then dangerous-looking women who ate minute steaks, drank red wine, and tapped their heels nervously.  One such writer was Steve Fisher, whose editor you would some day be.  But not yet.  From Fisher you gained a lifelong love of the pulp mystery story, which had a construction you could understand if not duplicate, at least nohting ways the editors of pulp magazines would appreciate.  

You were too young yet to even dream that some day, as regional president of Mystery Writers of America, you would reach a point where you had enough money to bring dangerous-looking women who ate minute steaks, drank not only red wine but red French wine, and tapped their heels nervously, nor was there the slightest hint that Ray Bradbury would call you a son of a bitch or that Irwin Zucker would teach you how to say "No more steaks" to the French waitresses at The Cafe de Paris on Sunset and Highland or at the Belgian restaurant, Frascatti, on Sunset at Crescent Heights.

All that had to come through hundreds of permutations on your basic short story recipe to the point where you were able to throw recipe away and be content to watch men and women engage situations that were more organic, more reflective of them being caught up in individual scenario and more or less looking for ways in or out of events, institutions, consequences.

While you were learning such things, you were still not making enough money that anyone would want to sue you, a fact that became an issue when the noted trial lawyer, Melvin Belli, in the heat of an editorial squabble, told you, "If you had any money, I'd sue you," to which you reflexively replied, "If I had any, I'd let you."  Although you amicably resolved your differences over a round of drinks and the book you were trying to get out of him was finished and published, the damage was done and you knew that you needed to learn more and move on.

In many ways, Fitzgerald still remains a great favorite of yours among short story writers.  So does Alice Munro because she takes the rules of construction into her own fine, Canadian hands and says, often with a little push, "This is where you get out," as though you had mistaken her frankness and honesty for an invitation to greater intimacy, a much more effective way of stopping a story than having your principal character order two orchestra seats to Lost in the Stars.

Lorrie Moore.  Tim O'Brien.  Junot Diaz.  Edna O'Brien.  John Cheever.  Louise Erdrich.  Men and women as pestered as you are, writers who have lost their own vehicles in the metaphorical large parking lot in the shopping mall--all of whom have kept the light on for you.

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