THE SHORT STORY I
An Introduction and a Useful Formula
When I started my MFA at Cornell I truly didn’t know shit – not about grad school, not about publishing, not about writing. I was one of the few students in my class who wasn’t from a select college and in spite of the best efforts of my undergraduate professors I was woefully unprepared for a place like Cornell. Maybe I should have hit the books harder on the run-up (or at least glanced at Writer’s Market) but it’s always hard to grok, in a vacuum, what you don’t know.
Once the workshop started, didn’t take long for the extent of my ignorance to hit me right between the eyes.
To say I was out of my depth is to put it mildly. My workshop peers, many of them from Ivy League schools, referenced authors who I’d never heard of, stories that I’d never read, used specialized vocabulary in our discussions, quoted the sage advice of their internationally famous writing professors, could discern shit in the submitted stories that I had not even considered. Their crits were ridiculously good, but their writing was better. One of the students had recently published a story in The Atlantic and had other stories submitted at all the top magazines. As for my work at the time, the less said about it, the better.
To quote a friend back home, my workshop peers were writing chess -- I was writing checkers.
I know they say to compare is to despair, but in this situation, how could you not? I compared and yes, I despaired because the gap separating me from my peers was not small. What became clear in those opening weeks of my MFA was that my fiction peers seemed to understand my chosen form, the short story, in all its improbable variations, with a subtlety that I could not match. Like they had gotten a secret formula that I had somehow missed, a formula that I was very keen to acquire for myself.
What was also clear was that unless I addressed the gap, unless I acquired that formula, pronto, nothing was going to change; in the delta-v of workshop learning, me and my work were going to be left planetside.
In those days the internet barely existed and it sure as hell wasn’t overflowing with oceans of creative writing advice like we have now. There weren’t even many craft books. There was John Gardner’s book, which I read and didn’t enjoy, and Forsters lectures on the novel which I didn’t know about -- and it was too early for Delany’s About Writing or Stephen King’s On Writing or Le Guin’s Steering the Craft or Lamott’s Bird By Bird.
Perhaps, had I had a healthier sense of entitlement, I would have thrown myself at the feet of my professors and begged them for help. But I always assumed folks had better things to do than to help me.
All I had was my Rutgers professor’s simple advice, echoed by thousands of writers before and thousands of writers after –if you want to write, you read.
And if you want to become skilled at a form, read that form and read it a lot.
Fortunately (and in spite of all my despair and all the disparity), I did want to write – short stories, mostly. I had fallen in love with the form at Rutgers (thank you Sandra Cisneros, thank you James Joyce, thank you T.E. Holt) and felt called to it, for reasons I could not at the time articulate but that years later I finally began to spell out in an introduction I wrote.
So with no other options, I did the only thing I could: I read.
Nearly every single day -- storm, rain, wind, snow, hail or shine -- I walked up to the Olin Library and parking myself at one of the ground floor tables where I read at least half a collection. Some days, if the writing appealed, I’d read the whole book. There really wasn’t much of an order or a direction – I just read. Sure, I sought out the writers my peers talked about in workshop and writers who I felt I needed for my work, but in truth I read anything that jumped out at me. The library had short fiction grouped in the PS3500 range and those were the shelves I haunted. I had only one rule – once I started a collection of stories I finished it, no matter how I felt about the writing.
(I figured an athlete doesn’t become an athlete because they only train in what they like and therefore the same had to be true of writers.)
That was my craft book, my how-to guide. Short stories, day in, day out, for two years straight.
To be fair, reading was easier in those days. The internet and social media didn’t steal time or keep our emotional systems in a state of perpetual partisan panic.
That reading gave me so much, an abundance I cannot hope to encompass in so brief a piece, but there are a few key points I would like to highlight.
—My haphazard reading introduced me to a plethora of novels and writers that have held me in good stead all these years. And unlike the reading that arises out of our network—the people and institutions that surround us—which will inevitably reproduce all the tendencies of our networks, this was reading that had more contact to it, in a Samuel R. Delany sense1 and I was the better writer for it.
—My haphazard reading exposed to me a diversity of short story forms, ways of writing short stories—which was what I was hoping for.
—My haphazard reading helped strengthen and refine the strange double consciousness all writers depend on. All writers, after all, write both as writers and as readers. The writer concerns themselves with all sorts of things that don’t much matter to the reader ultimately and the reverse is all true, but we need both sides if we’re going to get things done and get them done well.
—Another huge plus: voluntarily reading all that work I didn’t like, work that didn’t particularly speak to me, helped create internal models for the reader who I wasn’t. Most writers don’t voluntarily read enough work that they dislike and therefore their vision of a reader is correspondingly narrow, but if you read a ton of books for readers outside of your taste profile you begin to glimpse other types of readers. To be able to write in a way that recognized these other readers or better still, to engage these readers in conversation, was another double consciousness that helped transform my art.
—All that reading made me realize that the best definition of the short story will always be: every story that you’ve ever read and all the stories you haven’t read that exist in the stories you have read. These Atteberyan fuzzy sets is the best we will ever do, and the only way to fit Donald Barthelme into the same box as Alice Walker. Which means that your definition of the short story will always be different from mine and vice versa … though given the gravitational pull of canon and imperial reading there will be familiar overlaps and tendencies.
This was the formula I was so desperate to acquire. Had someone told me this at the beginning of my search I would have been pissed and rejected the formulation – convinced that there was a secret that was being withheld -- but by the time it dawned on me that this simple insight was what I was looking for I was like Taran staring at his own reflection in the Mirror of Llunet2. I understood and was at peace.
But within that simple Taran Wanderer epiphany was something else – the realization that even if the short story form is too complex, too carnivalesquely heterogeneous for any single definition other than the one above, that didn’t meant that I couldn’t cobble together a deciduous formula that would allow me to isolate the important interdependent elements of the short story and learn them. Stories, like the form they comprise, are often too complex to understand unless you isolate their movements the way dancers will. Forster is clear on this:
“When we isolate the story like this and hold it out on the forceps–wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time–it presents an aspect both unlovely and dull. But we have much to learn from it.”3
(Even if you’re going the Barthelme route and have no huge interest in the traditional pleasures of the traditional short story it’s not a bad idea to learn all the elements before you dump them. Maybe it’s just me: I prefer to decline a tool out of knowledge than from ignorance.)
So here’s my deciduous definition of a story: a short emplaced narrative in which a sympathetic character is forced by a disruptive conflict to make a consequential choice.
Or expressed algebraically: Narrative + Sympathetic Character + Place ÷ Conflict = Choice
(Each of these elements are not what they appear at first glance and will need their own discussion.)
To be clear: I’m not saying that all short stories fit this formula – not by a long shot. Mine isn’t meant to be a functional definition for the short story – it’s just a learning formula – a heuristic.
But it was this formula, and all the reading that produced it, that helped my young writer self close that gap between me and my MFA peers and write my first real stories.