The Art of the Short Story.

May 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was naive. I confused the brevity of the short story – its ‘shortness’ – with ease and effortlessness.

True, I could create a world in three thousand words in the space of an afternoon or two. Though, more often than not, those worlds, upon closer inspection and a little honesty, would be lacking some or all of those essential things that comprise a whole world:

Depth, dimension, style, a structure, purpose and perspective. A point, or what some people call meaning.

In short (and because I don’t want to confess all of my failures) there is an art to the short story and I was missing so many colours in my palette.

I thought I was better than some books. I thought if  I was a real writer, with real ability, then I should know it all naturally, intuitively. Some things I do, I think, but sometimes you need a book and The Art of the Short Story is one of the books I really really needed.

The third part of the book covers the elements of short fiction – plot, characterization, point-of-view – as well as critical approaches to literature. It’s the second section you should linger on, though. Fifty-two amazing authors are presented with a biography, a sample of their greatest work, and their personal perspective on some aspect of the short story. It’s a trove of wisdom and, more importantly, example. I can’t recommend it enough.

Kafka discusses The Metamorphosis and Nathaniel Hawthorne talks about the public failure of his early stories. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes about his general literary aims while Charlotte Perkins Gilman is more specific, telling us why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. We have Sherwood Anderson assert that words, not plot, give form to the short story while Eudora Welty emphasizes plot and its projection of character:

Plot can be made so beautifully to reveal character, reveal atmosphere and the breathing of it, reveal the secrets of hidden, inner (that is “real”) life, that its very unfolding is a joy. It is a subtle satisfaction – that comes from where? Probably it comes from a deep-seated perception we all carry in us of the beauty of organization – of that less strictly definable thing, of form. 

Who’s right – words or plot, Sherwood or Eudora – is not the point. In fact, the point, the lesson,  in this collection is the difference, the debate, the discussion. There is no single way to greatness and saying it best – only nudges in the general direction by those who have trod the path before us.

And, every so often, more than a nudge: a jolt and a plain old kick up the ass. Just yesterday, as I walked in the forest with my husband, planning and chatting about our travels in September, a part of me secretly worried that being on the road would prevent me from writing. Not so! says Mr. John Cheever:

…the short story is the literature of the nomad…  

No excuses, then, and that’s what I want from a book like this: every excuse and “but…” anticipated and rejected, leaving me with nowhere to hide, before the blank page, asking “Now all is read and done, what are you going to do with it?” Nothing less than breaking the frozen sea. Eventually.

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