Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Same Old Short Story

Fond as you are of novels and, indeed, eager as you are to finish work on a nonfiction work in progress in order to get at a novel that has essentially been filing habeas corpus petitions in its desire to get attention, a visitor to your residence would have a difficulty getting a read on your tastes.  

 That would change when the visitor came to the south south eastern corner, where a dedicated shelf, a reading chair, and the nearby eastern wall betray you.

The closest you've come to hearing from a person inside your small studio living quarters, "You sure have a lot of books," came when a FedEx driver, after your signature, surveyed the arrangement, then observed, "You get in a lot of reading, I see."

Relative to the overall space and arrangement of your living quarters and the ongoing invitations of books to take up residence, you have a noticeable amount of books but not the overwhelming number you had before moving here, thinking to take only a hundred of your favorites.  Nor are you likely to have any guests who are themselves not readers.  Nor do you have that many books in electronic format, lurking on your computers or tablets.

With the possible exception of the kitchen, most of the things of any interest are under stacks of books or surrounded by them, and the kitchen is not by any means innocent of books:  Two shelves are packed to overflow, and the south wall has a badly improvised stack, teetering to the level of the windows.

Nothing to be said about the stairway leading to the main room, its western wall close to becoming a hazard.  Also noting except this scant sentence about the books among the linen shelves in the bathroom.  Thus your adopted and adoptive family, titles you've acquired in the three-and-a-half years of your residence at 409 E. Sola Street.  

You might slip in a sentence or two about books in or about the patio table and, of course, scattered about your car, for what is a car to you without a book or two, just in case you find yourself somewhere with time enough on your hand for a paragraph or two or perhaps even a page.

The bookshelf of your betrayal, which is what this essay is about, is your collection of short story collections, most of them single-author as opposed to anthologies.  But the west wall of previous mention has a number of those.  This is the domain of books filled with your favored reading material, the short story.

The beginnings of research for a course you will teach, featuring the short stories of D.H. Lawrence, got you to thinking about your preferences and your association with your preferences and the times you were caught out in rain storms.  You do not merely think about D. H. Lawrence in the sense of, oh, yes, he wrote poetry and novel and essays and some short stories.  Some is putting it in mild terms.  Some! is better.  At least two thick volumes of them, which you remove from the shelves, where they reside between Ursula K. LeGuinn and Ella Leffland.

In and about this shelf are many of the stories and writers who comprise as much of what you've wished to be from time to time as you could let yourself recognize.  Many of the volumes are inscribed to you by the authors, and one of them, a collection of William Maxwell, could have been, if you'd have trusted the book review editor to follow through on his promise of getting the book autographed.

Looking at the range of authors in these shelves is like discovering aunts and uncles who not only wished you well, they shared the deepest recess of their memories and fantasies and talents with you.  Of course you knew they were not writing for or speaking directly to you, but as you read them, you believed they did, and what is more, you wished to learn their secrets and techniques so that you could write that way, yourself.

Right there between Ron Hansen and Ernest Hemingway is Nathaniel Hawthorne's collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, containing a story you first read at age nineteen.  The story made up for "The Minister's Black Veil," which got you into the trouble of your expressing your views that the story was meant to be funny, reminding you of The Lone Ranger, who was to come.  High school teachers do not favor students thinking a minister who wears a black veil over his face is in any way like The Lone Ranger.

"Ah,Lowenkopf again,"  Mr. Aigner, Boy's Vice Principal, said.  "Why are you here this time?" 

"The Intelligence Office" in effect gave you your own A-Ticket to the Transcendentalist Movement among American writers.  This story is in its way a forerunner of a type of science fiction story where lines of imagination, metaphor, fable, and existentialism intersect.  The story opens with a grave figure, wearing a pair of mysterious spectacles, sits at a simple desk in a small, simple office in "the corner of a metropolitan office."

A number of individuals visit the office, bringing questions to this grave figure providing them answers.  The inquirer who caught your attention for keeps was a man who came in with this memorable quote:  "I want my place!--my own place!--my true place in the world!--my proper sphere!--my thing to do, which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought, all my lifetime! Whether it be a footman's duty, or a king's, is of little consequence, so it be naturally mine. Can you help me here?"

Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne turn you to your awareness that you, too, wished your own place in the world, and indeed felt that Nature had somehow fashioned you awry.  From this story, you learned that you had to find your way and, in effect, your own identity.  Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne in a sense become the paternal grandfather you lost to the influenza epidemic before you were born.  He nudged you into thinking about lead characters in short stories wishing to find a place, a true place, a heroic journey of self-discovery, a quest of some sort.

At one time, you believed writing a novel was beyond you, although you did not reach this conclusion without trying.  Later, you found the short stories you'd written to be excellent building blocks.  You threw yourself at the novel with great ├ęclat, telling yourself you would learn your craft not by revising but by writing new ones.

Easy to see you were stalled in the murk or pure, unbridled energy rather than the lessons to be had from focus and asking a great many questions along the way.

The collections of short stories in your south south east wall are simultaneously your questions about craft and your unending fondness for the short form.  There is a relevant story about your encounters with each of the authors in the shelf.

P. S.  Still looking, Nathaniel.  

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