Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Clark Blaise on the Steep Climb His Characters Face

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Clark Blaise, author of The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis), discusses the difficult cultural adaptation Indian immigrants to Americaand successive generationsmust make.

For the Indian immigrant characters in The Meagre Tarmac, material "success" in this country has been the easy part. After all, they were programmed to study hard, invest wisely, and live frugally. But that other Constitutional promise, "happiness," has been elusive. They were born and grew up in cultures that were warm and embracing but suspicious of personal initiative and prudish in matters sexual. Marriages were arranged between families with the hope (but not the promise) that love would eventually follow.

But this is the generation that came alone to America as graduate students, where, predictably, they learned and prospered, but—at least for my characters—love didn't follow. And so, these appealing men and women, so competent in so many areas, so esteemed, so charming, so poised, suffer from gaping holes in their souls. There's no training-school for dating, for wooing, for negotiating the snakes and ladders of courtship, for dealing with the demands and expectations of the native population of women (even America-born Indian women). Learning to expect—even to demand—personal and sexual happiness may seem natural to the America-born, but it's a steep climb for many Asia-born immigrants.

India has survived thousands of years by holding firm to its inherent value-system. But can a traditional culture stand up to liberal, individualist, secularism? This is a theoretical framing of the same question, and a fair-enough summary of the contents of this book.

That's the core conflict in this collection of linked stories. The Waldekars, Gangulys, da Cunhas, Chutneywalas, Nilingappas, Dasguptas, and their friends have earned earned everything they wanted but learned too late what they really needed. In India, as in most traditional cultures, family is everything, and roles within it are sharply defined. Remove any part, such as a child refusing a marriage arrangement, or a mother leaving the home and finding a job, or a husband abandoning his family and his responsibilities to it, and everything is torn down. I have been married to India (her name is Bharati Mukherjee) for 48 years, so I've been involved as husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle and cousin and friend to three generations of immigrants, Indo-Americans, and finally, just plain Americans who've finally negotiated the claims of duty to parents and culture, and the call of their inner child.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Caitlin Horrocks' "Very Edifying Form of Procrastination"

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books), talks about the challenges of writing a story with a very unconventional structure and other aspects of her work.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
The answer to both of these is the story “Zolaria,” and its long time period was one of the reasons for the many, many drafts.

The “present moment” of the story is the summer the narrator is ten years old, the last summer she spends with her childhood best friend. Other points in time—middle school, her marriage, her own motherhood, happen in the future tense. There are a few moments of past tense. The story covers over 20 years, told out of chronological order. I was committed to that structure early on, and I felt confident that the story could work that way, but I also knew that I was asking a lot of the reader, to hang on and keep up with the leaps in time. I’m not afraid to challenge a reader, but I try to be very conscious of being a good guide; if I’m asking extra work of someone, it should come with equal rewards. In earlier drafts, there were even more time jumps than in the published version, and there was an entire character, the narrator’s grandmother, who didn’t make the final cut. Some of those cuts were literal: At one point I was crawling around on the floor with scissors, tape, and a sheaf of disembodied paragraphs, trying to figure out what the progression of the story should be. Writing something that wasn’t chronological was a great excuse to think about other ways to order a story, about where else its rhythm or movement might come from.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
I’m constantly researching. I’m one of those people who will use any excuse to toggle away from a manuscript to search for a certain type of flower, or the recipe for a specific mixed drink. I’ve contacted people for translation help. I’ve done archival research and read biographies and history books, although for projects other than This Is Not Your City. Much of the research in TINYC was of the Googling variety, which is admittedly shallow but sometimes just what I needed. It’s easy (for me, anyway) to become paralyzed by too much information. Or just paralyzed by how interesting I can find almost anything. I like research too much. It becomes a very edifying form of procrastination, and hours later I’ve learned a lot about Ludger Sylbaris and written zero words.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
I wish. I’ve heard other writers refer to certain stories as “gifts,” and others as slogs. I understand that—some stories have certainly come more easily for me than others—but nothing has ever come so easily that I felt satisfied with it on the first pass through. Or perhaps that says more about a lack of self-assurance than the work itself. I’ve certainly tinkered with a piece and then reverted to an earlier version. But revision is always a part of my writing process, even if just by confirming that I had something right the first time.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I’ve dabbled in music (piano and choirs) and crafts (quilting), but I think I’ve done them as acts of interpretation rather than self-expression. That’s probably a false distinction, but I never composed music, I just played the notes in front of me. When I make a quilt, I follow a pattern that someone else created. I love those other forms of expression partly for the ways in which they are, for me, unlike writing stories, where I have to invent new worlds and people every 20 pages. Writing is probably the one mode of expression that I actually use to express something wholly my own, that makes other modes a little more restful.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tiphanie Yanique and Elizabeth Nunez at The Center for Fiction

By Phedra Deonarine

Tiphanie Yanique at The Center for Fiction, June 15, 2011
I recently went to The Center for Fiction’s conversation between Elizabeth Nunez and Tiphanie Yanique. The Center for Fiction is located on East 47th Street and has a wonderful bookstore full of new and used books. The discussion was held in a cozy room, which afforded a more intimate atmosphere between the audience and the two writers.

Yanique started the evening off by acknowledging the work that The Center for Fiction does for writers as “the only non-profit in the U.S. dedicated to celebrating fiction.” She read from the title story in her collection How to Escape from a Leper Colony. She then sat down to speak with Nunez, award-winning author of seven novels and fellow Caribbean writer.

Yanique’s first book spans the Caribbean, but Nunez pointed out a shared connection between the two writers: Both wrote about the Leper Colony located on the island of Chacachacare off the coast of Trinidad. It was interesting to hear these two writers speak of Chacachacare because even though I lived in Trinidad for eighteen years, I’ve never actually been to the island. Listening to Yanique describe the file cabinets located on that island made me think that perhaps I should visit one day.

Nunez requested that Yanique read a story that involved the beating of a young child. Both writers then discussed child abuse in the Caribbean and the role of the author in dealing with this charged issue. Nunez was also interested in Yanique’s choice of including a Caribbean jail cell in her story because the jails in the Caribbean are located near the sea and have the special torment of offering spectacular seaside views to the inmates.

Prompted by an audience member, Nunez discussed the seduction of writing in first person and the distance that writing in third person allows. Fielding a question from the audience, Yanique spoke on the burden placed on Caribbean writers to explain perceived strangeness in their stories. She used “calalloo” as an example and stated that if a reader was genuinely curious about calalloo they would research it. She went on to say that explaining such a dish would harm the authenticity of her characters who would never describe something so well known to them. This was a highly gratifying answer for me because I’m often confronted with the burden of explaining minor details in my own creative work.

Both writers also responded to audience questions on the benefits of MFA programs and the business of writing. The evening concluded, and I was able to ask Elizabeth Nunez to sign my copy of Grace, newly purchased from the Center for Fiction’s bookstore located on the ground floor.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: Love of Story, Then and Now

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jay Neugeboren, author of You Are My Heart (Two Dollar Radio) discusses what makes the short story such an enduring form.

By the time I wrote my first short story, at the age of 23, I had written five unpublished novels. What I couldn’t figure out until then was how to complete a story in fewer than several hundred pages, for once I began making things up, one thing led to another—one set of events, or characters, led to more events, more characters—up one path and down another: to detours and dead ends and turnabouts, and to characters and incidents that, when I started out, had not, as far as I (consciously) knew, existed. A novel gave me the sheer space I needed to be able to tell a story.

Now, a half-century later, when a fourth collection of my stories, You Are My Heart, is being published, I notice that the stories I’ve written generally take up more space in time—often a half dozen decades of its characters’ lives—than my novels, which usually occupy only a few days or weeks.

During the years I taught writing to undergraduate and graduate students, most writers, I found, worked in an opposite direction: they began by writing stories, and worked their way toward novels; it was as if they believed that in order to write novels they had first to serve apprenticeships in shorter fictional forms. Not at all, I’d suggest, for the short story is as different from the novel as, say, an oil painting is from a marble sculpture. Just as some artists excel and/or are more at home in one form of visual art than another, so too with writers: some notions simply arrive as stories, and some as novels. Many wonderful writers—Isaac Babel, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, among others—never wrote a novel, and the most exceptional work by writers who have worked in both forms (e.g., John Cheever, Henry James, Jim Shepard,William Trevor) has often been the short story.

When I started out writing stories, in addition to literary quarterlies and the annual Best American and O. Henry anthologies, there were many large-circulation magazines that regularly published fiction: The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Playboy, Esquire, Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Collier’s, McCall’s,Vanity Fair, Yankee, Mademoiselle, etc. Now, of our large-circulation magazines, only The New Yorker publishes a story in every issue. Most Americans are still brought up, through elementary school, high school, and college, on short stories, however, so that one wonders where, once they are done with formal schooling, unless they subscribe to literary quarterlies or to The New Yorker, they will ever again, in any regular way, come across short fiction. 

Some promising answers: new online sources of short stories (Narrative, Guernica), magazines that are publishing stories for the first time (Commonweal, Columbia University Alumni Magazine), new and adventurous venues for stories (One Story, Tin House, Black Clock), and an abundance of new, often annual short story anthologies (New Stories from the South, The Year’s Best Science Fiction , The New Granta Book of the American Short Story). My own sense—faith?—is that though literary forms change—some fade, others thrive—the love of story remains.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Helen Phillips: My Own Private Bob Dylan

In the third in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Helen Phillips, author of And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press), reveals how a cassette tape captured her imagination and, eventually, inspired her book.

My Own Private Bob Dylan: Why I Spent Years of My Life Writing a Book So Bob Dylan Might Someday Read It

In the early nineties, when my parents installed a CD player, I absconded to my bedroom with the family tape deck, escaping the chaos of a home that contained four children between the ages of five and twelve, one of them (my older sister Katherine) severely handicapped due to the neurological disorder Rett Syndrome. I needed my own small empire amid the mayhem.

I brought with me a tape with the mystifying title Blood on the Tracks. Inside the beat-up plastic case, the profile of a shadowy, sad figure in sunglasses. I was a decade old and just beginning to sometimes feel a weird sort of shadowy sadness.

The tape was old and ratty when I rescued it from upstairs, and it got older and rattier with every listen. A buzzing, muddy sound ran beneath each song. Each time I listened might be the last before it snapped; who knew if I’d ever hear these urgent songs again?

It never occurred to me that this Bob Dylan was famous. I’d grabbed the tape from the family collection, just another of my parents’ random singer-songwriters, many of whom would never make the leap from cassette to CD.


Blood on the Tracks is a parade of women, and I assumed I’d someday identify with each—the vagabond divorcee, the millionaire’s widow, all the elusive girls.

But it was the flower-adorned goddess of “Shelter from the Storm” whom I knew he loved most. I harbored the fantasy that someday I would serve as shelter from the storm for Bob Dylan, that he would show up on my doorstep after searching fruitlessly for all his lost women in Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula.

At ten, eleven, twelve years old I was already touched by that sense of inevitable loss. When I was ten, I started losing my hair. By the time I was eleven, I was bald and had been diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder alopecia universalis.

There’s a notable emphasis on hair in Blood on the Tracks, and on red hair in particular. All these magical women with their entrancing hair! And here I was, completely bald, a hopeless little monster. When I did get a wig, it was auburn.

Dylan’s proclamations about the unkindness of the world started to ring true: the boy in lunch-line asking if I was a skinhead, the stares and smirks. I entered adolescence feeling hunted by crocodiles, ravaged in the corn. But: I wasn’t the only one.


As a writer, I’ve stolen from Dylan, or tried to. The confidence with which he tosses us into his alternate universe, the conviction with which he delivers his haunted visions. The bizarre yet resonant leaps he makes from one world to another, from neon signs to diamond mines, from cold cityscape to fraught fairy tale. It’s a courageous (and generous) thing to do, to open that door into your private world in all its peculiar particularity.

And it’s as a writer that I’ve gotten as close as I can to my naïve-yet-enduring desire to offer Bob Dylan shelter from the storm. In And Yet They Were Happy, Bob Dylan is at my side. He’s dancing (grudgingly, but still) with me as the old family farm starts to flood. He accompanies me to the emergency room, and to the farmers’ market.

It’s not an insincere wish, the wish expressed in And Yet They Were Happy: “I want this to be published so Bob Dylan might read it before he dies.” He is my ideal reader. Or my ideal of him is my ideal reader.


It would annoy me greatly to see an essay titled “My Own Private Bob Dylan.” I’d consider not even reading it. But I would, as you did. And perhaps, like you, I’d have made it this far.

Because there are so very many of us who know that he has, all this while, been singing just to us. His world is so idiosyncratic, yet I get it, we each think. It matches my idiosyncrasies.

I know I’m not alone in my twin feelings of joy and despair when I hear Blood on the Tracks playing in Starbucks or a clothing store—glad because I am always glad to hear it, sad because shouldn’t it just be me and the worn-out tape of some guy named Bob Dylan?

That said, imagine my relief when the tape finally snapped and my parents explained to me that it would not be hard to replace it, not hard at all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Edith Pearlman Plays with Time

In the second in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Edith Pearlman, recent winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and author of Binocular Vision (Lookout Press), discusses stories she has written that range in time from twenty minutes to a lifetime and some unconventional time structures she has used.

What is the shortest narrative time period you have ever contained in a short story? The longest?
The action in “Eighteen Questions” (Alaska Quarterly Review; not yet collected) takes about twenty minutes. The setting is equally restricted: a queen-sized bed. A married couple is engaging in post-coital game of twenty questions. The questions and answers, narrowing in focus and mounting in intensity, reveal a recent tragedy in their lives.
“South Market” (Pakn Treger, not yet collected) follows its hero from grade school to nursing home. He suffers from unrequited love throughout his life. Meanwhile he rises socially and financially and becomes an active citizen in the small city that is the story’s setting. The reader learns the man’s history, and also the history of the city’s sociology and architecture and ethnic groups.
In “Eighteen Questions” the strict rules of the parlor game – like the demands of an acrostic poem or a sonnet’s rhyme scheme – set up constraints that the story then seeps heartbreakingly out of. The tale could not have borne a longer narrative time period or another page.  “South Market,” padded and stretched and deepened, could probably have been turned into a novel.  However (see below), I don’t write novels; my imaginary, irritable reader wouldn’t stand for such a thing.
In two stories collected in Binocular Vision, I’ve used narrative time in a less straightforward way:

“The Ministry of Restraint” relates a series of events in the lives of a man and a woman. They meet as strangers on a train, and together endure its wreck. Then follow silent and accidental encounters, each separated by ten years or so. They yearn for each other, but they do not speak or touch. Some details of their individual lives separate the description of the encounters. In the final meeting one sentence is spoken.  But the story is not yet finished; in its last paragraphs time reverts to the day the two met, all those decades earlier, and tells what happened immediately after the wreck. The reader, plunged again into the beginning of their history, solves the puzzle of the two lovers’ lifetime restraint.

“Lineage,” a few pages long, takes place now, during a half hour in a hospital room. Three doctors stand beside a bed in which lies a very old woman. The woman relates an occurrence that was told to her forty years earlier, an occurrence that itself took place fifty years earlier than that. The old woman urgently describes the ninety year old incident. Then the story returns to the hospital and the present. Circular time here runs counter to circular time in “Ministry”.

The challenge in each work was to convey the urgency of the tale inscribed in its circle – the restlessness of the old woman’s confession, the strength of the lovers’ mysteriously unfulfilled desire. I think that this sense of urgency must exist somewhere in every successful tale what ever its time schema; the sense that this story is begging to be told. As an author I become a small and nearly invisible girl pulling at the coat sleeve of a large and busy man; a man who has no time for novels; a man, say, on his way to the airport. “There is something I must tell you, Sir; please give me your attention for a just little while.” And because I have promised to be brief, I must exercise all my powers of compression and economy while allowing emotion intensely to flow. If I go on too long – if I become slack, if I am profligate with words -- my overcoated listener will shake me off, and you will find me weeping on the curbstone.

The narrative time of the story may encompass twenty minutes or half a century. The writing of it may have lasted a month. The reading of it (or listening to it) may take a quarter-hour. But let that quarter-hour be headlong and unstoppable -- for my busy man has a plane to catch.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to Eudora Welty?

by Patrick Thomas Henry

Recently, I posted a status update on my Facebook wall and asked if anybody near New York would be interested in tagging along to a June 10, 2011 panel at The New School, moderated by Granta assistant editor Patrick Ryan.  The event, entitled “Truly Yours,” offered perspectives on Eudora Welty from writers she has influenced. An acquaintance from high school responded to my status:  “Does anybody know to whom you are referencing?” In short:  I was flummoxed.(1) Who doesn’t know of Eudora Welty?

Apparently, far too many readers. Ryan opened the panel by saying that he recently had similar experiences, one with an intelligent college English major and another with a voracious, older, lifelong reader.

“Truly Yours” wasn’t exactly a Eudora Welty/new readers matchmaking session; the panel spoke to Welty lovers, not folks like my high school chum.  But the panel’s participants—critic Maud Newton and novelist Sheri Holman—joined Ryan in explicating Welty’s unique importance to American fiction. Dramatic readings of some Welty excerpts, performed by actress Rhonda Keyser, punctuated their discussion.

 “More than any writer I can think of,” Newton said, “Welty captures how people speak and the humor of situations.” Holman agreed, saying that “her dialogue is some of the funniest and truest you’ll ever read.” According to the panel, Welty’s interest in the inner, private life places her alongside Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Holman said that Welty’s concern for characters’ interior lives—their private dreams and desires—moves us “in and out of minds in so many ways.”

We need Welty, the panel argued, because she’s a regional writer whose pitch perfect sense of the human voice eclipses the limits of place. Her control of dialects and everyday language illustrates something essential about our behaviors. Ryan shared Welty’s description of Anton Chekhov’s plays, which describes Welty’s thoughts on conversations:

You know, in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic.(2)

People talking and talking yet never really listening to each other—this is why today’s readers need Welty’s fiction. Smart phones seem to be surgically attached to people’s ears, and the lot of social media—MySpace, Facebook, Twitter—generate channels of emptiness, great voids into which we can shout while choosing to ignore the calls of others, the echoes of our own voices.(3)

Talking-across-purposes muddles relationships in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” even as the reader witnesses how the characters keep missing each other.(4) Voice works, here, in two key ways. First, we hear the snark-fueled appraisal of family life from the first-person narrator—the postmistress. Her Southern dialect rings honest, never farcical.(5) So, we want to trust her—even as we don’t know the others’ take on Stella-Rondo’s failed relationship with Mr. Whitaker. Second, the narrator is posturing herself against the rest of the family as her recently returned sister turns the entire clan against her.  Really:  the narrator and her family put the “fun” in “dysfunction.”

As Holman pointed out to the audience, “Everybody’s about power and position, and who has what on whom.” The whispered insults and misconceptions in “Why I Live at the P.O.” are simply how the narrator and Stella-Rondo keep lunging in front of each other. Yet, we need to be aware of these plays, especially in a twenty-first century where everything orbits around poignancy in 140 characters or less:  “Powerlessness,” as Holman elaborated, “attunes you to what others are saying.” Welty’s characters, in their little power parades, perform the gamut of emotions and beliefs.

Not realizing this results in disaster. Nowhere in Welty’s short fiction is this truer than “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”—Welty’s only overtly political story.(6)  Here, Welty inhabits the voice of a white man who assassinated an NAACP leader, a narrative arc lifted from the 1963 hate killing of Medgar Evers by Byron de la Beckwith. Welty slides deftly into this perspective, at once uncovering the terror of this racist crime while showing us how such a person justify that act. The story’s power stems from precisely this: Welty knows where that voice is coming from—a well of racism and hatred.  And she’s brave enough to confront that attitude, in a way few short story writers can.

Where should new readers meet Welty? Newton directed the audience toward Welty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), while Holman guided readers toward Welty’s second short story collection—The Wide Net (1943).  Holman promoted The Wide Net because of Welty’s flexibility; the collection was written during the World War II years, and Holman asserted that few other books handle the consequences of shifting realities as powerfully as The Wide Net. Regardless, Welty offers today’s readers a guide to how we should communicate—so readers should unplug for a moment and hear what her stories relate.

(1) I somehow found it within myself to not deride his highfalutin diction.
(2)  The complete interview is available online at The Paris Review Web site.
(3)  My iPod, Kindle, Macbook, and Wii betray this much:  I’m no enemy to our technological overlords.  It’s just far too easy to get sucked into the virtual world they offer.
(4)  The proof, the cliché goes, is in the pudding, and this story backs up Holman’s assertion on Welty:  “Why I Live at the P.O.” goes down sweet, and when I read this story I can hear the syrupy dialect.
(5)  Listen to Welty reading from “Why I Live at the P.O.”
(6)  This story was first published in The New Yorker on July 6, 1963. An online subscription is required to read this digital version.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

New Assistants Phedra and Patrick Extend the Reach of The Story Prize

We're pleased to introduce two writing students from the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, Phedra Deonarine and Patrick Thomas Henry, have just joined The Story Prize as assistants:

Phedra Deonarine lived in Trinidad for eighteen years. She then moved to Vancouver where she earned a B.A. in English from the University of British Columbia. Her short story "Pelau" was long-listed for the 2010 CBC Literary Awards. She is currently the Truman Capote Fellow in the Creative Writing M.F.A. Program at Rutgers University-Newark.

Patrick Thomas Henry is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and has also earned an MA in English literature at Bucknell University. Currently, he attends the MFA program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark.  His fiction is forthcoming in Revolution House and The Writing Disorder; he has published review essays in the journal Modern Language Studies, and he is the author of the critical head notes in On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. He blogs about literature and related topics at The Penguin in the Machine.

Sarah Bridgins, who is now a literary agent with the Francis Goldin Agency, served as an assistant for several years, and Brett Duquette, now working as an editor for Sterling Publishing, helped out more recently.

One of the main jobs of our assistants is to contact publishers about short story collections we're interested in reading to make them aware of our deadlines. They also provide another perspective on some of the collections we receive.

This time around, however, we're doing something different: Phedra and Patrick will also be attending literary events in New York City and elsewhere and reporting on them for this blog. Other sites, such as Electric Literature's The Outlet have been doing this for some time. It seems like a good way to broaden our focus on short fiction and to support bookstores, institutions, reading series, and literary magazines that are essential to the short story.

If you'd like TSP to cover your event, please feel free to contact us at (a week before the event, if possible). 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ed Falco and the Quest of a Lifetime

As we did last year, The Story Prize is once again inviting the authors of the story collections we receive to contribute to this blog. In 2010, 71 writers availed themselves of this opportunity.

In the first in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ed Falco, author of Burning Man (Southern Methodist University Press), elaborates on his reasons for writing short stories.

Why do I write short stories when as a rule there is no money to be made or fame to be gained as a short story writer in America?

“The Country Husband,” “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “Cutting Edge,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Guests of The Nation,” “A Hunger Artist,” “The Babysitter,” “Chopin in Winter,” “The Magic Barrel,” “Some Other, Better Otto,” “Araby,” “Sugar Among the Chickens,” “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” “The Open Boat,” “Cathedral,” “The Management of Grief,” “I Want to Live!,” “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Tell Me a Riddle,” “Bullet in the Brain,” “Bartelby, the Scrivener,” and “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.”

If you’re a short story writer or reader, you know all or most of the stories above, by, in order, Cheever, Tolstoy, Purdy, Hawthorne, Frank O’Connor, Kafka, Coover, Malamud, Eisenberg, Joyce, Lewis Nordan, Flannery O’Connor, Crane, Carver, Dybek, Mukherjee, Thom Jones, Chekhov, Tillie Olsen, Tobias Wolff, Melville, and Sherman Alexie.  These are all short stories that have become a part of my life, that is, they have dramatically influenced both the way I see the world and the way I live in the world. I don’t think it’s too much to say that a few of these stories changed my life. I read “The Death of Ivan Illych” when I was still in my teens, and from the moment I put the story down I started looking at the world through different eyes. The harrowing death scene that ends the story, the innocuous “bump” that begins Ivan’s decline, the futility and foolishness of living one’s life “decorously”––all of these elements of the story worked their way into my consciousness immediately through Tolstoy’s skill as a storyteller and thereafter took up residence in my internal life, guiding my thinking and my behavior. To larger or lesser degrees, the same is true for all the stories I’ve listed. They have influenced my life.  In some cases they have changed my life. And they’ve done so in an instant, in the brief time it took to move from the first word to the last.

Not many short stories will have this kind of impact on me. I read lots of stories that give me pleasure, that are terrific stories, but nonetheless don’t have such a powerful effect. Some of my favorite short story writers are not represented on that list. I couldn’t imagine it any differently since surely for a story to have this kind of influence a whole set of circumstances has to converge, many of which have as much to do with the reader as with the story itself.  Still, I always start reading a story with the hope that it will hold this kind of power.

I write short stories because the act of writing one engages me like almost nothing else. Once I have a story going, I spend my days thinking through its possibilities. I go to bed thinking about it, and I wake up in the morning excited about getting to work. I’ve been writing for a long time now and the excitement has never gone away. There’s a rush I feel at the completion of a short story that “works,” that feels right, that is unlike any other writing experience. In a good short story, all the elements come together, they click into place with a sense of finality. In the process of writing a story, I never know whether or not I’ll get there.  Sometimes everything is moving along just fine, but the ending won’t click. Sometimes I’ll spend days on the opening paragraphs before I realize I don’t have a story at all. Sometimes I’ve got a good beginning, but no place to go. Sometimes I have to settle. I have to accept that I’ve written a story that is clearly not one of my best, but for one reason or another––usually because it explores a question that remains important to me––I settle for it.  I say to myself something like, “Okay, it’s not one of your best, but it’s still part of the family.”

And sometimes everything works, everything clicks, and then the aforementioned rush follows.

As for why I get excited about the possibility of writing a good short story, I refer you again to my original answer to the question that opens this post. I get excited because the quest to write a story that’s as good as any of those listed is a challenge that can occupy a lifetime. The hope of doing so is thrilling.