short fiction

writing exercise | exercise your writing

When I taught creative writing I would often bring my box of clippings into class. Little newspaper stories that caught my eye because of their wider potential. If you go to the old weblog and search, you’ll find some examples (probably the story about the woman who left all her money to Charles Bronson was the most memorable, if you want to look for that one).

Then the class would brainstorm ideas. Was this the beginning of a story, or the end? Who were the main characters, and which main characters were off-stage? What were the possible underlying conflicts and motivations?

Those were also the most lively class discussions, because they really engaged the imagination.

Paperback Writer put something similar on her weblog yesterday, a post about an experience she had when she was waiting in line to mail a lot of packages. It’s a short account of her interaction with an elderly farmer, and how that encounter stayed with her while she tried to come up with a context (a backstory, if you will) that would make her feel more comfortable about what had happened. She lists some of these, many of them quite inventive and excellent material for a short story or a scene in a novel.

Her post is the on-line version of what I used to do in class. I haven’t read the replies, because I want to think about the story on my own terms for a while.

But I will give you one of my clippings, to see what you make of it:

At the border between United States and Canada, an irate father slugged a customs officer who was trying to pry excess Beanie Babies from his daughter. The Economist 12/5/98

Of course the Beanie Babies date this story, but it could be updated with any currently hot toy. It’s such a short story, but it evokes a hundred questions. Was there a history between the border guard and the father? Did they go to high school together? Does the border guard simply remind the father of his ex-wife — who ran off with the pimply poetry loving clerk at Kinko’s, leaving him to care for a sullen, desperately unhappy kid? Or is the border guard the main character? What is going through his head when he sees a nine year old girl clutching a bag of Beanie Babies that makes him lose it?

Maybe (just consider this possibility) he just got a package from his own father, a farmer in Florida. A package that breaks about a dozen laws, because it’s filled with the only present his father has ever given him: mutant grapefruit, the size of cantelopes.

Jeanette's turn

On the first round Jeanette picked:

The Magician’s Assistant
Stephen King’s Short Stories

And Elisabeth* picked

A Thread of Grace
Welcome to Temptation

So once Jeanette picks two of the four left, we’re done. Books should go into the mail as soon as I have postal addresses.

Jeanette

ElisabethElisabeth
Jeanette

In which I am pleased and shocked

[asa book]0375502688[/asa] There’s an interview with Amy Bloom on Critical Mass (the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors). Amy Bloom, as in the person who wrote Love Invents Us and Come to Me and one of my all time favorite short stories “The Story” (The Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E. L. Doctorow, Houghton Mifflin 2000) and many other things.

Amy Bloom has a virtual bookshelf on her website. I did not know this. I also did not know that my Homestead is on that bookshelf, in very high falutin company.* In the interview she says about the books on her bookshelf (including Homestead): “These are all great writers, lovers of the word, lyrical even when stripped down, clean and tight, even when they are blossoming. Their sentences please me as a reader, and illuminate the craft for me as a writer.”

[asa book]039592686[/asa] So now I’m all aflutter.

I should say that I’ve met Amy, but then Amy has met lots of people and many of them writers, but Homestead is on her bookself.

Ha!

Now I should say in the spirit of complete disclosure that I’m pretty sure Amy is not a big fan of the Wilderness novels, and that she probably wouldn’t much like Tied to the Tracks either. Not her kinda books. But you know what?

Homestead is on her bookshelf.

*Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; Pat Barker, The Regeneration Trilogy; Rebecca Brown, The Gifts of the Body; Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy; John Derbyshire, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream; Rosina Lippi, Homestead; Margot Livesey, Criminals; Colum McCann, Everything in This Country Must; Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception; Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle; Reynolds Price, Kate Vaiden

the ultimate first person narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person.

A few exceptions: first, novels that are written in alternating first person narration often work quite well. The most recent novel I can remember reading that really pulled this off was Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. Each person in a family terribly disrupted by the serious illness of one of the kids takes a turn, and with every turn the reader’s understanding of the story evolves.

There’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

The way to think about this, or at least a way that worked for me when I was teaching this stuff, is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you, but to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure. You’re listening to somebody spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in getting their side of the story across. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the pokey might start:

It took you long enough to get here. Surely you must realize there’s been a mistake. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not denying that I did just that — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that man live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot her neighbor, the one who grew prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

You can think of a lot of scenarios where the narrator is going to be unreliable. Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Speak, says Joan. And it better be good.

And the speak. Oh boy, do they.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to protect herself that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.

Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty’s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

Any unreliable narrators you’re especially fond of?