Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
Hello readers and thanks for sticking with me as I continue to jam in the rest of the 2018 Reading List into January before taking a different tack with it going forward. Last time I read through a collection it turns out was not recommended to me by my editor as I thought (although she has read some of the same stories): Rock Springs by Richard Ford. As my final collection of this period, I wanted to take a look at who may still be considered one of the greatest American short story writers, JD Salinger and his 1953 anthology, Nine Stories.
I thought this was indeed a collection much stronger than his novel Catcher in the Rye, and while I did have some issues overall with this author I want to envision some of the key lessons from this writer.
Use of dialogue. This is without a doubt Salinger’s ultimate skill, and he weaves it deftly in and out of his prose. I would say the stories in which this works the strongest is “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.” The conversational quality between characters is natural and believable, and he even includes things like writing something twice when a character repeats themselves, as we often do in real life.
Use of character. I would have to say this complements the other lesson, in that Salinger can draw a character with just a few lines of simplicity far better than almost anyone. I found this especially true in the final story, “Teddy” in which he describes the youth’s features in a paragraph and lets his conversation do the rest. And this is obviously the case in “For Esme - with Love and Squalor,” which I must say found to be one of the greatest short stories I have ever read. The way the author captures the highs and lows of emotions resonates off the page, despite the fact that it was written by a fairly creepy guy.
So about that. I kinda came to understand a more dark side of this author as I was reading this collection, and it made me come to think even more about criticism I’ve received about this reading list over the years. Mainly, it concentrates on a lot of dead old white dudes and not enough on contemporary, diverse, or otherwise non-gender-conforming work. Some of this I have tried to fix and I hope to do the same over the course of 2019. And if I’m really being honest I need to reexamine how I approach this matter in my own writing, especially in the manuscript I’ve been working on for the past half-year. I have come to understand that the Reading List will need to endure some changes this year, but will write a separate post on that after I finish the last bit of the 2018 list.
To that end, I’m getting to one other genre/type of work I promised I would last year: the graphic novel. I’m going to take on an author in that realm I’ve admired from afar but read, Craig Thompson and his 2004 masterwork Blankets. (Supposedly the subject matter may hit home with me.) After that, I’ll be back with a post looking back at the last year and looking forward with how the 2019 Reading List is going to evolve. Thanks as always for coming along on this journey.
Hello readers and thank you for hanging in with me as I front-load the remainder of the 2018 Reading List into January. Now that this series is continuous I hope to initiate further changes this year. But more on that later. First we need to take a look at another short story writer, who while maybe not as good as Chekhov definitely holds his own in a certain time and place: Richard Ford and his 1987 debut collection, Rock Springs. This book was initially recommended to me by my editor Libby and centers around small towns in Montana and the fascinating people that populate them. While I had some issues with decisions he made (more on that later), I want to take a look at what Ford gets right in these realist stories.
Use of character. Each of these tales contains at least a few memorable characters, people whom it is quite clear are based off those Ford must have encountered in his life, and situations that seem almost too ridiculous (and sublime) to have been totally made up from whole cloth. I would have to say the story “Winterkill” may be the best example of this, with a main character in a wheelchair snagging a dead deer in a river. This can work the other way too, though, with each story seeming to also contain different versions of the same character (which could also be considered a general running theme, along with…)
Use of place. This Ford uses to his advantage perhaps even better, evoking a parched, dry and dirty landscape in which his seedy characters go about their business conducting affairs in motels, going into the wilderness, or generally living miserable lives in which there are glints of happiness. The final story (“Communist”) is a great example of how to build up to a scene of nature and wildlife and then let it play out around the characters.
Overall I would have to say the main story “Rock Springs” was my overall favorite, a stunning almost thirty pages that shows this guy as a true master of the form. Unfortunately I found some (“Children”) to be downright creepy and one (“Empire”) that could have easily been cut in half, and for some reason contains an additional paragraph after what I thought should have been a masterful closing line. My bellyaching aside, there is more good to be found here than bad and a lot of instructions for those who want to follow in the Raymond Carver tradition of short story.
Up next, I’m still going to take on Salinger’s Nine Stories and then I may take a brief pivot into the one genre/type I didn’t make it to in 2018: the graphic novel. I also have some more ideas (inspired by my wife) for the 2019 Reading List that I hope to be able to share in an upcoming piece looking back on last year and my goals. And for those who do enjoy my fiction writing, I got one back from my “other” editor Anne that I will be posting here again (last time it was called “Flossing” now it’s just “Floss”) to try and deconstruct the process. Happy New Year and let’s have a slightly better 2019!
Hello readers and thank you for bearing with me as we march through this last part of the 2018 Reading List! After getting through a few pairs of books I made my annual “pivot” to short stories, taking on a writer highly admired by Francine Prose, whose book Reading Like a Writer I read two years back. She turned me onto the work of this 19th century Russian but I had no idea of Anton Chekhov’s true legacy until I read his stories. They are are that good. Normally I head into the major lessons to be learned from such a phenomenal writer (and I will) but the best lesson for me was: read Chekhov. You will be hard pressed to find a better short story author at any caliber, at any time period. So now let’s take a quick look at two major factors of why that is:
Use of setting. This is not arguably Chekhov’s strongest suite, but the playwright in him shines through in the introduction of many of these stories (I had Norton Critical Edition collecting his best known). Nature is described quite beautifully and flowing, but is only allowed a few sentences at the beginning of sections. This was all Chekhov considered was necessary in telling a story about human drama. The characters are also set in the stage in this literary way, placed either in favor or against each other, just as the master wants them.
Use of character. This is what critics have spent their entire lives trying to figure out, and I’m hardly going to say it’s the use of one specific description or story that really shows it. It’s in all of them; that’s how amazing every story he wrote was. But for just a few examples - in “Misery” the poor carriage driver is reduced to explaining his daughter’s death to his horse because no one else cares; in “The Teacher of Literature” a man starts out in what he think is a great life only to end up miserable; and in “The Lady with the Dog” two people wind up in love at the worst possible time. These are but three examples of the incomparable control Chekhov exercised over these character’s lives in order to present life just as it is, not as we would like it.
I also tremendously enjoyed “The Bishop,” “The Betrothed,” “Anna on the Neck,” “Sleepy,” the list goes on. I am at a loss to go any further than my first piece of advice regarding this author: read him. He wrote several hundred stories in his lifetime, so it’s possible you may encounter an entirely different collection than I did, and have your own experience. I also must add that in Reading Like a Writer, Prose recommends checking out Chekhov’s letters. In the edition I had there were quite a few excerpts he wrote to his contemporaries about writing that I found enormously interesting and helpful. Which goes back to my major point - if you are studying someone to see how they did what they did, take it all in, not just the stories but the process and how they accomplished it, and their own thoughts about it (if they offered them). Not all authors were good enough to leave such a trove when they passed. I also was lucky enough to read a few literary essays contained in this edition, which helped my understanding of the author and his stories.
So what’s left to close out the year? Readers who have been with me for a while probably recognize that I usually get in a few more novels after “short story” time. Well I have realized that short stories are not something I am going to have the convenience of shoving into a certain part of the year, so they are now going to be worked on all year round. This means more short story collections added to the yearly Reading List, so send me your recommendations. This year, I hope to get through another few collections and get an essay done about them by the end of the year - Rock Springs by Richard Ford (recommended by my editor, Libby) and Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I have also sent a short story to my “other” editor and hope to get a post about that process up here in the coming weeks.
To all my readers: thanks for sticking around while I spent close to two months poring over this legendary author. I still plan on mixing up the Reading List as I did somewhat this year, including adding more stage plays and graphic novels. And as always, thanks for reading and writing!
Hello all and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I covered a few other masters of the short story. For my final entry here in short story land (for 2017 anyhow), I read an author considered a legend in the field: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. After viewing the soaring, Academy Award-winning film Birdman a few years ago, I decided to look into the source material. I found a rich tapestry of human emotion and detail. This guy was an utter genius of the human condition, but before I get to the effusive praise let’s peruse the lessons available in the work:
Know thy subject. There is a reason Carver decided to use this title. This collection is more about damaged, conflicted individuals talking about what they think “love” is rather than a more inclusive account. This makes the characters that much more real and compelling. So why did he pick this title? I think that can be interpreted best by the title story, which was my favorite of the lot. A conversation between two couples that endures for an unknown amount of time as they recount former lovers. One of the characters goes off on a long rant about how when someone dies, the other just picks up the pieces and finds someone else. This passage in particular is an incredibly poignant depiction of some people's’ very realist outlook on the world. I found it very striking as I seem to have found exactly what this character was looking for: love so deep it cannot be replaced. A very interesting rumination in a very fascinating story.
Using dialogue to show people. There are fairly minimal physical descriptions throughout the collection, so Carver chooses to show the characters through dialogue. The way he does this in each story is uniquely brilliant, and possibly the best use of this technique I’ve ever read. Whether it’s internal or external, the words on the page add up to people questioning the very meaning of their lives.
Keep it simple. As Hemingway before him, Carver keeps things short and in their own self-contained universe. Each is a master class at how to keep all the major elements of storytelling and do it well in a few pages.
Some of my other favorites were “Gazebo,” “The Bath,” “After the Denim,” and “So Much Water So Close to Home.” But as I’ve stated, I would fully recommend this collection or any of his others, which I hope to get to in the future.
Well, that about wraps up the short story portion of our trip through AYOF. Thanks to everyone who responded to the stories I posted on the blog! I will continue to submit the stories I wrote this fall to some dead-tree and online lit mags through the end of the year, but mostly will be working on manuscript re-writes of Observe and Detach.
To that end, I’m going to pivot the reading list back toward novels and tackle one that is similar in nature to what I’m crafting now: Then We Came To the End, by Joshua Ferris. Until then, thanks for reading!
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). So far in this tour of short story land I’ve read the works of Neil Gaiman, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. (I have also posted two short stories of my own to the bloggy). For my second update, I took a turn in a fairly opposite direction with two well-known but perhaps not quite as well understood authors. This would be the beloved children’s writer Roald Dahl, who had a second life writing bizarre stories for adults, and Kate Chopin, one of the earliest feminists whose own work ostracized her for decades. Can’t get much different than that, so let’s dig right into the major writing lessons I gained from diving into each collection (The Roald Dahl Omnibus and The Awakening and Selected Short Fiction):
Tell a good story. I can’t stress this enough as the major lesson to pull away from Dahl. While I’d argue I still like his stuff for kids better than these weird tales, they are no doubt memorable and creepy in ways I’m still processing. From a man feeding his small child royal jelly in the hopes of turning it into a bee, to a story about proposed wife-swapping, to one about a landlady who kills her tenants, these stories hook you immediately with a sense of the bizarre and reel you in through ‘til the end. Chopin obviously does this in her own way, using strong characters and interior narrative to drive the story forward.
Using a short story to speak about society. This is a lesson I’ve drawn from many works over the years, and once again Kate Chopin was showing us how to do it before the last century was dawning. The Awakening was by far one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read something that tears at one’s very soul. That might seem a bit dramatic, but Chopin was writing about women’s liberation decades before society even allowed such talk in “polite” company. The fact that she was considered offensive due to the short story ending in the main character’s suicide should bear this out, as Chopin was attempting to put on display the emptiness/ennui that many women of her day felt (and feel today in Trumpistan).
Use of symbolism. Both authors are quite good at this in various ways. The first story I read of Dahl’s involved a parlor bet about wine tasting that quickly gets out of control, portraying family life versus money in a rather harsh light. But Chopin is the true master of this form, deftly weaving feminine insights into her short fiction, telling untold stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, and unbeckoned thoughts that occupy a woman’s mind when she think she might finally be free of her husband. These were all very real problems Chopin chose to grapple with, and we must all be thankful the feminist revolution gave her work the prominence it deserves.
While I will stop short of recommending Dahl as some of his stories put me off, they were all wonderfully written and worth the effort. It also gave me a newfound respect for his children’s work, as my wife and I read the BFG together at night (yes, we are old). And true to the opposite nature of this post, I can do nothing but highly recommend any of Chopin’s work, as it certainly deserves to sit within the American literary canon.
Up next I’m taking a foray into Raymond Carver, finally catching up with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And yes, it was the film Birdman that impelled me to want to read it. I’ll say no more, but please stay tuned until then. And as always, thank you for reading.
Hello all and welcome back to short story corner. While I don't feel any closer to solving the mystery of short narrative, a few people did tell me they enjoyed the previous one I posted, #OccupyTrump.
I decided to give this another go, posting a story I've been working on over the last few months. This one is called "Flossing." I don't think this one is quite ready for submission, so I welcome any thoughts or criticisms you all might have to round it out.
As always, thanks for reading! jA_W
I open the decrepit bathroom mirror. The remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small white box.
She used to make me floss, every night. Said it was good for me. Haven’t touched it since she left. I don’t notice a difference.
My eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought after she moved out. It’s not as good as the stuff she bought me, but I don’t care. Don’t have to anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the bathroom light.
Long cotton swabs representing how often she would clean the disgusting wax from my ears. Peroxide for my little cuts, and bandages for my others.
My eyes roll to the tweezers. She used to pull the hair right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it. Even the pain.
Next I see the soap. Delicate, she said, because of my hands. Don’t have to worry about that either.
She left behind what she didn’t want at her new place. Took all the girly stuff. The makeup, her hair ties. All the pills she took for allergies. And the bottles that made her smell nice. I don’t need to smell like a damn thing. I’m a man, after all. Our species was never supposed to smell like roses. Or meant to clean up after ourselves. Don’t even think about that kitchen right now. Focus.
My eyes arrive back at the tiny white box with the writing on the side. If I’m going to do this, if I'm going to affirm that I’m ready to move on, if I’m using this as my first experiment towards that goal, it’s best to get it over with now while I still can. I don’t notice any difference in my teeth. But maybe I’m not looking hard enough.
I pull the little box toward me. A tiny string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and start on the back. That was always the worst. Where the dentist said the cavity was beginning. That was one year ago. She told me to just take care of it then. I should have.
Damn, that hurts. More than it did before. Shouldn’t have stopped flossing. Shouldn’t have stopped doing a lot of things.
Moving up, along the right side. This hurts worse. Another cavity? I can’t bare to go back to the dentist. Not after last time. She shouldn’t have taken the kids. I lost control over the narrative of the situation. God knows what she is telling them every day about their absent father. About what a jerk, a loser he is. Doesn’t even floss.
Forget about all that. Keep doing it. You are doing this because you want to, not because it was a routine like all the others that only she could keep you doing. Not because it reminds you of the ways she affected your life. Doing this painful exercise because I want to, not for any other reason.
This part doesn’t hurt so much. What it’s supposed to feel like. Nice, clean feeling. Doesn’t that feel better, she’d say. And I’d say grudging: yes, it does. You were right. You were right about a lot of things.
Enough of those thoughts. Time for the other side. This side hurts even worse at the back. I must be developing more cavities. It’s my diet. She used to make me eat the most disgusting yet healthy crap. Vegetables. Cooked vegetables. Can you imagine anything worse? And this was a nightly occurrence. Said it was good for the kids. What’s good for me?
Now I’m going to have to look for a second job to pay for this place. Or I could just find a cheaper one. Not likely to happen. This is all that remains of our life together. This, and the floss.
We used to have all sorts of routines. Get the mail together. Go for a walk, with the dogs, out in the forest. Sitting up by the fire late at night. I don’t even remember the last time we went to the movies. Not since the kids, obviously. They go see their own stuff now, and we never went back. Routines are only held together by commitment. I’m finding that out through this little exercise. I keep telling myself I’m doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I’m doing this because she made me do it, and I can’t not do it. I wanted to be made to do it.
Circulating the miniscule string into the lower regions now. It still hurts, not as bad. I should go to the dentist. You’d want me to do that, even after all this.
But you’re not around anymore. Not since that night. You had your suspicions. The lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker. You never had proof. You had all you needed.
Why was I so stupid? I left the envelope in the open knowing you’d find it. You always tried forcing these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance, you knew I wanted better. For myself.
Rounding home and getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier comes flinging at the mirror.
It’s time to be done. I can’t believe what came of such a simple act.
I take a lingering glance at the cabinet. You knew I’d want to floss again someday.
I close the creaky mirrored door with a shriek of metal. Gotta get that fixed. The kitchen first.
The gums in between my teeth are on bloody fire. I remember you telling me I had to endure pain before I could learn to understand it. To love it. And the worst pain of all I brought upon you. And me, and the kids. Eternally. You were right to take them. I’m unfit. Can’t even take care of my freaking teeth.
I tear open the cabinet with a fury, grab the floss and shove it in the trash. I can’t be bothered to remember to floss.
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Lately I took a gander at the master of comic/gothic stories Neil Gaiman and also posted a story of my own. Now I’ve turned my attention upon two of whom I would consider to be the greats of the form: Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. I dove into both collected stories of theirs (for Hemingway just the “first forty-nine”) and found solid lessons for writers within, much as we all can. Let’s get to those, then I’ll conclude with some of my favorites from each author.
Use of language - This is an obvious strength of both authors, but they use it in quite different ways. Twain is ever the master story-teller, filling his yarns with impeccable illustrations of local dialogue and language, making it abundantly clear how much he understood his own country. Hemingway as I’ve covered before, generally has the opposite quality, but manages to tell an impactful story nonetheless. His characters come to live in equally breathtaking ways, despite the use of such basic structure.
Good first line - Both authors really understood this, and I was quite taken away by how much better a story can be by just having a great opening sentence. “When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.” (“The Light of the World” - Hemingway) - and “Somebody has said that in order to know a community, one must observe the style of its funerals and know what manner of men they bury with most ceremony” (“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” - Twain) were two of my favorites, but many of these memorable tales have a great beginning.
Overall, while I didn’t get to every story in each collection, I felt I took a pretty decent tour through each author’s oeuvre. These two knew exactly how to tell a story for a certain number of pages, and in the introduction to the Twain collection Charles Neider notes that most of Twain’s novels are basically interconnected stories. The Twain collection also included some passages from Roughing It, which I’d never read and enjoyed quite a bit. Some other favorites were: “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,” “The 1,000,000 Bank-Note,” and “Journalism in Tennessee.” For Hemingway it was definitely the greats: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Big Two-Hearted River,” and also “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and “Soldier’s Home.”
But of course, I would be bereft in my writerly duty if I did not recommend these two for anyone looking to hone their short story skills. They were quite possibly the two greatest American short story writers, and they set down the guidelines by which many of us writers tread even today.
And on that note, I’m now going to head in another direction by reading two books I’ve never encountered: Roald Dahl’s bizarre stories for adults, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (and others). I also hope to submit one of the fifteen stories I’ve been working on to a lit journal, send another to an editor, and (if I can summon the courage) post one more on this here blog. I still will get back to the novel re-write by the winter months, but for now I’m content to remain in this “sub-experiment.” Thanks for reading!
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.