On Short Stories; Randomly Pulling Thoughts From the Air

But no, short stories aren’t scooped out of the air in nets. More often, they’re a flash of an idea that flies by so quickly we grab at them and have to run to catch up. Sometimes we have to walk backwards over the same ground to find them again. And again. And again.

What’s random here are my thoughts.

I’m perplexed when readers—smart readers who love literature—tell me they don’t read short fiction because …. The reasons are too many and too weird to list. I will strive to be respectful and not criticize. This is part of my resolve to cease judging other people.

What I know for sure, is that telling stories is innate in human beings. From ancient to contemporary times our lives are made up of stories strung like beads on a string.

Some of us write those stories, and the ones we steal from other people’s lives, and the ones that start with life but with which we play fast and loose.  Some people prefer to listen, to read, to be reminded that no matter how far away the story’s world, stories are universal. The stories we remember are the ones that strike a chord, resonate, make us catch our breath – all those clichés.

Just a few of the stories that I can’t forget, a few that immediately fly out of the books on the shelves behind me: “Hills Like White Elephants,” –Hemingway; “Why I Live at the Post Office,”- Eudora Welty; “The Lady With the Dog,”- Chekhov; “Dance of the Happy Shades,”- Alice Munro. And so many more.

There are novels I can’t forget, but the memories are different in the way they cling to my brain. A short story isn’t simply a short novel, nor a novel a short story that got carried away with itself.

I know writers who sell their first books—that collection of stories it’s taken years to gather and polish to a high shine—but the contract is conditional on the author producing a novel within a particular period of time. The two book deal.

So do we graduate from poetry (my apologies poets!), to short story, and finally produce the novel? I’m reminded of a story from my husband’s early years in retail pharmacy. An elderly woman, whenever she came into the store would look at the pharmacist on duty, shake her head, and say, “It’s too bad you didn’t make it.” Finally someone gently asked for a translation. She believed that if one started out with the dream of being a physician but didn’t make it through, then they became a dentist, and if that too was beyond their capabilities, they sighed and went to work as pharmacists.

Where did all this begin? With my daughter’s freezer and a pot of borscht. With a friend remembering one of my short stories, “Leftovers,” that began with a freezer. Although, where it really began was with an anecdote a friend told me about a young mom who was terminally ill and spent the last months of her life cooking and freezing enough meals for her family to eat one of her dinners once a week for the entire year after her death. My immediate reaction: who could eat those meals?

I loved writing that story, as I’ve loved writing every other one that’s reached the finish line. Novels? If a story is like training a rambunctious puppy, a novel is like wrestling down a woolly mammoth. The satisfaction when it “works”, the sheer relief at reaching the end, the rewards that no matter how small are always greater than they were for the collection of stories, is affirmation that the six years of wrestling the beast were worth it.

When the drunken muse in my soul finally sobers up and gives me permission to write again, story is where I will go. The short form. The novel? Though I know brilliant authors who if they live to be 100 will take a pen along to the grave, I can’t help hearing the tick-tock. It helps that I think short fiction—thousands upon thousands of stories written every year—gives us a gift box overflowing with jewels.

So long to get to the promo? Not really. But it seems fitting to end with an excerpt from the beginning of “Leftovers.” Perhaps you’ll look for A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008), the collection where this story, after a good life in magazines and on radio, finally came to rest. Perhaps, you’ll reach for the book of stories you have closest at hand and re-read a favourite. Christmas is coming. The wish list if anyone insists that you provide one, should dangle to the floor with the titles of collections of short fiction. Toss in a novel or two if you must.

 

 

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Leftovers

Before she died, Margaret Murray cooked, packaged, labelled, and froze enough food to nourish her husband for a whole year. She also planned her funeral and gave away her clothes, but it was the meals that astonished anyone who heard the story. “Who could eat that food?” they asked. Frank Murray just shrugged. To ignore or dispose of the frozen labour of love would be to turn his back on Margaret, and he had decided twenty years before that he would never do that again.
Margaret’s grandmother, mother, and sister all died of breast cancer, and she announced at her sister’s funeral that she too would die before her fifty-fifth birthday. Pessimism typical of a Capricorn, her friend Sandra had said. Margaret was fast approaching fifty-four
On the December day that Margaret heard the results of the critical mammogram, Frank was so sure all would be well that he stopped to buy chocolates on his way home from work. Four hand-dipped Belgian truffles in a gold foil box.
He expected as he came through the door, to hear Margaret call out as usual from the kitchen, “In here, Frank! Supper in half an hour.” She was sitting in the living room in her wicker rocking chair. When he took the cup from her slack fingers, cold tea sloshed over the rim and across his knuckles. He reached toward the lamp but Margaret grabbed his hand, her face a solemn white moon.
“There is a lump.” She stared down at the front of her sweater. “How can it be that we didn’t feel it? Neither of us. I was so sure I’d find the lump myself. I thought I’d worry over it and feel it there and then gone and then back again for at least a week before I made an appointment. That’s how I thought it would be.” She stood up, grabbed his hand and slid it under her sweater, peeling away the cup of her bra so that the weight of her breast rested in his palm. She pressed his middle finger into soft flesh. “There,” she said. “Right there about four o’clock from the nipple, is what the x-ray showed. Can you feel it?”
Her skin was reassuringly warm and pliant. Frank shook his head. “No,” he said. He wanted to pull his hand away, but to do so he would have to wrench free of Margaret. And now, even though he didn’t feel a lump, there was something. A needle of heat radiating from deep inside his wife’s breast.

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