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Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

Beginning a story or a novel, Alice Munro says, is the easy part …

“Endings are another matter.  When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending.  Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft.  Sometimes it stays in place for good.  Sometimes not.  The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers.  It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn’t do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it.  (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them.  I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.  Except that it isn’t the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake.  Out they go.  But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out.  I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

From the Introduction to Selected Stories.

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Fiction writer David Jauss analyzes Chekhov’s endings and explains why they were revolutionary at the time — and what we can learn from them today:

Early in his writing life, Anton Chekhov became convinced that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature.  While writing Ivanov, his first major play, he complained to his publisher about conventional endings—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself”—and concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”  And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories.  Even now, more than a hundred years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up.  Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff — but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth.

Whereas most fiction, past and present, focuses on a character’s climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change.  And even when his characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.  His endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.  Chekhov commented on this fact in one of his letters, saying, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” A great number of Chekhov’s stories end by saying implicitly what one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.”

But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kind of endings favored by previous writers.  They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

In an article forthcoming in 2010 in The Writer’s Chronicle, I discuss a dozen ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings.  Here are three of them:

1) Anti-epilogues

Like Henry James, who complained that epilogues were characterized by “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks,” Chekhov despised such endings.  Many of his stories end by simply denying the very premise of an epilogue: the possibility of knowing what the future might hold.  Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

The fact that these endings leave his characters’ future fates open suggest that, although Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change, he was also aware that sometimes lives change in dramatic and unpredictable ways.  Chekhov makes this point explicitly in “A Story Without an End.”  The narrator of this story—who is not-so-coincidentally a writer of short stories—presents two portraits of his neighbor, the first showing him as he was a year before, after his wife died and he attempted suicide, and the second showing him now, playing the piano and singing and laughing with a group of ladies in the narrator’s drawing-room.  Witnessing this change, which he compares to “the transmutation of substances,” leads the narrator to realize the impossibility of predicting what his neighbor’s future life will be like.  Thus, this story without an end ends with the unanswered question, “How will it end?”

2.  Reverse Epilogues

Instead of ending with a reference to an unknown future, a “reverse epilogue” ends with a reference to the known past. “The Chorus Girl” exemplifies this mode of closure.  In this story, a chorus girl named Pasha is confronted by the wife of a man with whom she’s been sleeping.  While the husband listens in the next room, the wife badgers Pasha into giving her jewelry that she wrongly believes her husband has given Pasha.  After the wife leaves, the husband returns and says, “My God, a decent, proud, pure being like that was even prepared to kneel down before this . . . this whore!  And I brought her to it!  I let it happen!”  He pushes Pasha roughly aside, saying, “Get away from me, you—you trash!”  Pasha starts to sob.

Since the story begins years after this scene, which is presented as an extended flashback, we expect what follows to “resolve” the flashback and inform us how the man’s cruelty affected Pasha’s future.   But instead Chekhov abruptly segues into her past.  The final sentence reads, “She remembered how three years ago, for no rhyme or reason, a merchant had giving her a beating, and sobbed even louder.”  By moving backward in time, Chekhov implies that she has been mistreated by men repeatedly throughout her life and that this pattern has continued after this event and will continue on into the future.

3.  External Climaxes

Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

One way Chekhov creates an external climax is through the use of an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him.  In “The Little Joke,” for example, the narrator recounts a “joke” he played on a woman who loved him, a joke he cannot understand—but we can, and do.  He tells of tobogganing with this woman and how, as they roared down the hill with the wind in their face, he whispered, “I love you” into her ear, then pretended he had said nothing, so she could not be sure if what she heard had been his voice or the wind.  She was terrified of tobogganing, yet kept on doing it—and even once went by herself—to see if she would hear those words.  The story ends: “And now that I am older, I cannot understand why I said those words, why I played that joke on her . . .”  The reader realizes that he actually did love the woman and that, despite his refusal to face the facts of his own emotions, he regrets playing the joke and losing his one chance at love.  And the reader also realizes that the joke was ultimately a big one, not a little one, and that it was on him, not her.

***

Virginia Woolf has described the effects of these inconclusive endings better, perhaps, than anyone.  When we finish a Chekhov story, she says, we feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.”  But, she goes on to say, the more we become accustomed to his work, the more we are able to hear the subtle music of Chekhov’s meaning and the more the traditional conclusions of fiction—“the general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth”—“fade into thin air” and “show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial.”  His endings, she concludes, “never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity,” and therefore, “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.”

David Jauss’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and been reprinted in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; Best Stories from the First 25 Years of the Pushcart Prize; The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002; and elsewhere. The recipient of the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize, a NEA Fellowship, and a James A. Michener Fellowship, among other awards, he served as fiction editor of Crazyhorse for ten years and now teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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… and why we shouldn’t all be writing novels:

Ebenbach.coverWe are frequently told, by the market and also by the novelists that the market promotes, to revere certain forms of writing over others. The publishing industry by necessity emphasizes profits, and novels sell better than collections of short stories, which means there’s pressure on fiction writers; often we start out writing short stories, on our own or in creative writing workshops, but we soon feel pressured to “graduate” to the novel. The short story is generally regarded as inferior, nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet there is no objectively best form of writing – only the form that suits us best.

It’s an old saw in creative-writing classrooms that content dictates form. This means that certain forms of writing are best suited for certain kinds of material, and not as well suited for others. In poetry, for example, a haiku, with its quiet imagery and its sudden leap, is ideal for describing a moment of insight, and lousy for epic storytelling. A Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, is good for developing an idea in three stages and then summing it up, and not as good at conveying obsessively circular thinking. For that kind of thinking, you might need a sestina, a lengthy poem which repeats certain words over and over.

The same content-form truism holds for fiction. A novel is not just a long short story – it’s a whole other animal. Because of its great size, it’s well-suited to handle complicated plot and structure, and in fact you probably need that elaborate plot to keep a reader interested for all those pages. If what you want to do is shed light on a moment in time, you should probably write a short story, too short for a wildly complicated structure but plenty big enough to illuminate something powerfully. And so the short story is no stepping stone – not any more than a haiku is a warm-up for writing a sonnet. A short story is a vehicle for a certain kind of content, content that won’t be able to find a home anywhere if the only things we write and read are novels. Some authors – including Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro and Grace Paley – write for a lifetime without ever needing to “graduate” from short fiction. (And some novelists never feel the need to write a short story.)

This is easy to say, but hard to remember. Several years ago I worked on a manuscript about a new single mother struggling to adjust to parenthood. To make it a novel I intensified this mother’s feelings and embedded them in an elaborate plot, to the point where this woman was behaving in crazy and unrealistic ways. I hadn’t set out to study someone flirting with madness – I had set out to study a person struggling the way many new parents do. But because I felt it had to be a novel, I badly distorted my material.

As soon as I realized my mistake I returned to a more appropriate form; I am now writing short stories about the many diverse experiences of parenthood. Each one is a window on a feeling, a situation, a moment. In writing them as short stories, I am saying what I need to say, how I need to say it.

If we listen to the voices telling us that certain kinds of writing are preferable because they’re more marketable, we may find it impossible to say what we need to say. If we’re going to listen to any voices, I say let’s listen to our own – voices that tell us to find our form and, without apology, make ourselves at home there.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  His short fiction has been published in the Antioch Review, the Greensboro Review, and Crazyhorse, his poetry in Artful Dodge, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote a chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing FictionRecently awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College.  Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

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Writer Mark Trainer talks about what he learned from Pulitzer-prizewinning author Peter Taylor:

peter taylor coverI used to work for the writer Peter Taylor.  Because of a series of strokes, he wasn’t able to type his own manuscripts.  He was barely able to write legibly with a pen.  I had been a fan of his writing since college, and so jumped at the chance to see how he worked.  I learned a lot from him.  Here are two things–a big lesson and a small trick.

First the small trick. The narratives of Peter Taylor’s finished stories had a wonderful way of seemingly straying here and there, as though the narrator were recalling whichever events from the time he was writing about popped into his mind.  By story’s end he always pulled these strands together to powerful effect.

While he was dictating a new story to me, I noticed he kept repeating the same line. It was something like, “And so another person in my life disappeared seemingly without a trace.”  In every day’s work, this line would come up at least once.  I thought maybe he was slipping in his old age, repeating the same line again and again.  But I also didn’t think it was my place to tell him how to write a story.

Then one day he dictated the line again and told me that he sometimes did this in his stories when he was afraid of losing track of a central idea that brought the narrative together–he’d just repeat the central idea again and again to keep from straying too far away from it.  And sure enough, when he handed me back subsequent drafts of the story, each time iterations of the line were struck out.  It seemed to me each appearance of the line was like a piece of scaffolding used for construction and taken away when he no longer needed it.

Now for the big lesson. Like I said, in the years I knew him, toward the end of his life, Peter Taylor couldn’t type.  He could barely read his own handwriting.  Sometimes it took him a long time to find the right words when he spoke.  I was in my mid-twenties with no physical ailments and no responsibilities.  I wrote an hour or two a day but was easily distracted by my social life, my job waiting tables, or maybe an old episode of The Rockford Files.

A few days a week I’d trudge over to Peter Taylor’s house and each day he would have pages of handwritten manuscript he’d worked over painfully, small notes scribbled on pieces of junk mail and napkins.  When he couldn’t sleep at night he’d dictate into a tape recorder.  Sometimes he tried the typing, slowly, slowly.  When he put all this together, his daily output invariably dwarfed my own.  Back then, I wrote like someone with no limits on time and opportunity.  At his age, he knew better.

Mark Trainer is a writer in Washington DC.  His fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, and others.  His nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post. He’s currently working on a collection of stories called Bad Daddies.

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Some words of encouragement from two writers who seem to know exactly what they’re doing:

headlights“In beginning a story I know nothing at all: surely not where I am going, and hardly at all how to get there.” — Cynthia Ozick

“Writing a novel is like driving across country at night.  You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E. L. Doctorow

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Joe Meno's latest novel“For me, almost everything starts off as a short story,” the novelist and short story writer Joe Meno says in the June 30th issue of One Story magazine.  “All of my novels have been built around material that’s been explored or published as short stories, because it forces me to get to the character and action quickly, and helps me figure out what the story is actually about. I usually write a few short stories and realize that they feature similar questions or characters and decide that there’s a novel there somewhere.”

Meno adds, “To write one good short story, you’re probably going to write about nine bad ones. You have to enjoy the mistakes and failures and misfires and realize writing is all about one thing: trial and error.”

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