Thursday, June 13, 2013

The short story, pure and simple

The short story as not only a format but rather your format has been much on your mind of late, prompted by the forthcoming publication of a collection of yours, later on in the year, enhanced by numerous digressions in classroom and workshop conversations, and in its way nailed further into place by a conversation at lunch today with a writer you much admire.

In another world, the world of your emergence into accepting the inevitability of your wish to be a storyteller, your embarking on a study of the form, and the soul-wrenching realization that you were lacking at least two qualities necessary to be a writer of short stories, you launched the most unfloatable craft into the gushing stream of narrative.  For some years, perhaps ten or twelve, you persisted at learning via reading and trying your own hand, aiming for some result that would in any way float.

You originally met Thomas McGuane through your great pal, Barnaby Conrad.  Lunch today was filled with reminiscences and fish stories and your happening to have triggered a recollection of a favored story by John Cheever, whom McGuane greatly admired. Then came McGuane's expressed regret that the short story was being pushed to the side by publishers' and agents' demands for novels (from which each stood to make some income).

Thus you launch into a story related to you by Barnaby Conrad in which Irwin Shaw, highly successful with his stories and novels, constantly sought to champion Cheever, thus McGuane is off and running on a series of writers of that (and his) generation.

Such exchanges, especially with someone who knew and was friends with some of your favorites (Bernard Malamud, for instance) and who shares your regard for John Updike, cause the short form to blaze in the smithy of your enthusiasm, reminding you of personal battles won, which is to say realizations that there was a short story you could and did write, that there are short stories you can still write, that there are in fact new and contemporary short story writers you can (and do) read and admire and learn from in ways that expand the landscape of the you short stories, that in fact pay off on the efforts you extended when you earlier attempted to launch those unwieldy ventures.

Your summer is before you, a gaping, wide sea of time and opportunity and potential.  Your obligations and projects are before you, and now, as of the energy from this long leisurely lunch discussion, the siren call of short stories.  Wide and gaping as the summer before you is, it is not so wide nor gaping as to allow you to get in all the obligations and projects.  In many ways, the best you can hope for is that among the course proposals you sent to the dean, Writing the Modern Short Story is among the two chosen for the Fall quarter.

Now, for the moment, what you have to contend with is a recurrent theme that began during your first semester as an undergraduate at UCLA, where, at final exam time, you were either presented as a cosmic gift an idea for a short story that crosscut your studies or you found the short story as a means of being lured away from studying for your finals.  Either way, the short story won.

Short story for you is a person wanting something he or she knows to be an equivalent of the Sirens, luring Odysseus's sailors from their appointed task.  A short story is the consequences of the wanting; it is a headlong rush to some kind of engagement with some aspect of the cosmos, which is to say the known reality, demonstrating to the characters and you the vast expanse of unknown reality and the potential for discovery within it.

You could not have articulated this before, nor could you have expressed the philosophy that a scene is two or more individuals stepping into an arena or crucible, each believing he is right.  You could not have known how much you valued the short stories of Lee K. Abbott or Deborah Eisenberg because you'd not yet reached the point of reading them and the consequences of being yanked by the scruff of the neck into their narrative reality, where characters do things that bring blush to their cheeks and fire to your emotions and empathy.

True enough, you have made remarkable discoveries while writing novels, in particular discoveries arising from not knowing how to write novels.  But on balance, you've learned more about writing, discovery, and the short story from not knowing how to write short stories.

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