Keeping It Short–Not So Easy To Do

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to go to an RMFW lecture on writing the short story.  This is a departure from most of RMFW’s topics, in that our writing group focuses on novel-length fiction for the most part.

But I enjoyed the session tremendously.  RMFW will be publishing a short story anthology this fall and they are looking for short story writers to fit in with their theme, “Crossing Colfax.”  I do so want to be a part of this project!  Couple of problems:

  • I know almost nothing about Colfax, either the street or the man (apparently he was Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant)
  • I am not versant in the art of writing of a short story

Wait. Did I say I couldn’t write a short story?

Short Story BooksThat’s right.  Yes, I can put words together, even chop an essay to fit into a word-length requirement, but as Mark Twain (among others) was once quoted as saying, “I was meaning to write a short letter, but I didn’t have time, so here’s a long one instead.”

Yes, I have read several short stories, often gems of humor, satire, and wit.  The work of Alice Munro, is something I’m just starting to explore, but she exemplifies the short story I aspire to.  In her Dimensions, I was tooling along enjoying a story of an abused woman’s escape from, then conscious return to, her abusive husband, when all of a sudden, bam! An accident happens and the woman doesn’t go back to the prison where hubby resides. Then the story ends.

As often happens, I had to re-read the ending a couple of times, before it began to sink in. The story behind the story. The layers of meaning. John Steinbeck’s Chrysanthemums has the same “don’t you get it?” quality.  And I know a short story is not just a condensed novel but a special art form.  It’s not as visceral as poetry, but not as fully developed as a novel.  There are fewer characters, and even less dialog, but as a reader, I feel compelled to keep going just the same.  What is the magnetism of a short story?

I read Women’s World magazine, and the short stories there are fun, but without the societal comment of a Flannery O’Connor or Edgar Allen Poe.  Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines have wonderful short stories, but their twists at the end follow a logic that is almost, almost formulaic.

To me, the true short story leaves you, the reader changed, if only because it forces you to wake up some sleeping brain cells, and ask yourself what happened?

In my search for help in writing a short story, I’ve turned to several books.  This is my modus operandi so to speak.  But the other day in talking with my daughter, she pointed out a friend’s post on FaceBook.  The post was a picture of a book titled iPod for Seniors. Apparently this was quite funny, but I missed the joke.

“Mom,” said my daughter, with the tone of a patient parent to her unspeakably stupid child, “that’s just it.  Older people (did she say “like you?”) turn to manuals for everything.  These days, you’re just supposed to commit to a few hours of pushing buttons, trying things out, and learning by doing. You don’t read about it.”

Hmm…don’t read, just do. I’ll have to try that–when I’m finished reading Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness.


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