In Praise of the Short Story

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These pandemic days feel both interminable and brief all at once. Time both drags and flies by. And even us rabid readers find our towering TBRs just keep growing taller. Anxiety and ennui make it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, making it tough to hold a long story in the imagination.

Short story to the rescue.

I mean, who wants to read one more doomsday article or essay. (OK, I read those, too.) But fiction in pandemic times? Yes, please! Anything to distract from the world on fire. But short fiction? As you might imagine, the novel beats out the short story collection in sales, everywhere. Sure, there are popular short story collections. But, as this Guardian article notes: “Most don’t sell many copies (a debut collection from one of the major publishing houses might have a print run of 3,000, with little expectation of a reprint).” Even when sales of short story collections surge, as they did in 2018, they’ll never beat out the novel.

But right about now might be a good time to revisit the short form. For escape, sure, and for craft–for those of us who write fiction–and also, and maybe most importantly right now, for connection with other readers. One of the most delightful virtual connections I’ve made in these pandemic days is with a book club (hosted by jesuit.org if you’re interested) that meets over at FB. The last book we read was, you guessed it, a short story collection, Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade, which I highly recommend.

At the moment, I’m reading short stories before bed (“they” say escapism is better for relaxation than, say, a nonfiction book about the plague). I’m still working through short stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, which are often just a handful of pages long. They “escape” me to far-away Finland with its woods and lakes, its terrain of moss and lichens that feels foreign and inviting and cool. I save novels for daytime reading: right now that’s Jansson’s Fair Play; and Pete Beatty’s debut novel Cuyahoga, which is a Rust Belt novel if I’ve ever met one, and I plan to discuss it here.

Of course, many short stories birth novels. Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” inspired her to build on that world for her debut novel, The Five Wounds, which will launch in 2021.

Then there are the movies that have grown out of short stories: famously, Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s novella (OK, not quite as brief as a short story but he’s adapted a lot of those, too): “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” A little more recently, there was Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” And, then there was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which inspired a movie that released 86 years later–testament to the lasting power of the short story (or, at least, short stories by masters, like Fitzgerald).

I love a good short story. I love their self-contained quietude. I love the kind of short story where nothing really happens, except an all-important shift in perception or understanding. We readers don’t always need the classical story arc in short fiction (that many of us seem to desire in a novel: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). A short story can capture a moment, a day, a year, or many years–and the plot doesn’t need to be tied up with a bow.

Take Raymond Carver’s famous story “Cathedral,” probably the story that cemented in college my love for American fiction and my desire to write it. It’s often-anthologized, often found within the same big American Lit 101 tomes as the classic stories by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, O’Connor and Kate Chopin, and more modern short story masters of the world, like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Hempel. (And it’s totally not how I write, but aspire to.) Let me know what you think of it, if you read it!

Do you read short stories? Write them? What’s your favorite? Need a suggestion for some pandemic escapist short story reading?

Last year, Lit Hub recommended “The 10 Best Short Story Collections of the Decade” and the year before that Esquire recommended some “great literature in small portions” with “15 Short Story Collections Everyone Should Read.”

Thank you to Lorna of Gin & Lemonade, for putting me in a short story frame of mind–and for inspiring this post. Blogging groups are invaluable, for sure.

Happy reading and writing, all–whether short, long, or in between! Want to read a short story of mine? I’ve linked to a few over at my About page.

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices with connections to the American Rust Belt. Let’s connect!

Lit Fest Lowdown: 2020 highlights

Last year’s festival dinner view.

This year has been (among other things) one giant exercise in imagining. Imagine this is a regular writing workshop. Imagine enjoying this poetry reading in an art gallery (instead of in your bathrobe). Imagine actual happy hour. But if we writers are good at anything, it’s imagining.

So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my favorite literary festival, the literary highlight of my year, the 2020 Fall Literary Festival hosted by Lit Youngstown (Ohio), was a great remote success. I was incredibly impressed at the quality of the craft workshops, readings, and community spirit–even from a few hundred miles away.

From the festival description, “This year’s conference [was] centered around the theme In Many Tongues, a conversation bringing together writing and publishing, literary inclusion, translating and translation…and the generational, political, ecological, and experimental elements that add to the wider literary conversation.” Whew!

If only I could have attended each and every session, heard each and every voice. But, there is only one of me, so I picked and chose from the many literary offerings. Here, I’m happy to provide highlights in the hopes I whet your appetite for next year’s festival–or a literary event in one of your favorite places in the world:

Jacqueline Marino, who edited two anthologies focused on the stories of Youngstown, Ohio, titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables, taught a craft workshop, Write Your Rust Belt Story. You know I was there. The journalism professor and writer talked about crafting place in our stories, establishing voice, and finding the moment of connection in a piece. With a little free-writing, I started on a piece about my own Ohio hometown.

David Giffels was this year’s keynote speaker. In his talk, “Thank you Cleveland Good Night: How the reluctant writer becomes a performer,” Giffels shared his own personal story–from a shy, bookish kid to a newspaper columnist to the award-winning author and essayist–and spectacular storyteller–he is today. His latest book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America is an on-the-ground look at Ohio and its people and place in American politics. For the first time, Giffels narrated his own audio book, and he related ideas of (actual) voice and (literary) voice. You write “the way you wish you could talk,” he said. And, as for writing about place, he recommended looking for what’s odd about your spot. Further, explore “a question you know you can’t answer.” (Oh, so many questions.)

Writer Quincy Flowers’ craft talk, On Polyphony: Writing a Novel and Making Meaning in Dialogue with Others discussed incorporating texts, including historical and para-texts, along with documents real and imagined, into our fiction. For this historical fiction writer, Flowers gave me a lot to think about, including, when does historical invention cross the line into untruth… and why haven’t I read more Percival Everett?

Dr. Ken Schneck, an author, editor, and professor of education, led a session called Shameless Self Promotion, which focused on helping us writers market our work–and ourselves–to build our audience for our books, journals, or even (ahem) blogs. Top takeaways: writers need a thing to market (not themselves) and a measurable goal; writers need to know who’s doing the kinds of writing we’re doing (our “comp” writers); and writers need not shy away from self promotion. Most helpful: Schneck’s discussion on the importance of our “elevator pitch.” You know, the succinct, pithy answer to “What do you do?” (I’ll share mine in the comments.) This talk also inspired me to update my About page at this blog–let me know what you think.

Fiction writer, playwright, and teacher Toni Thayer led a session called Finding your Voice in the Voices of Others, in which she urged us participants to carefully consider short pieces by “a diverse range of writers to fuel playful, creative imitation, with the end result of expanding one’s own style.” I studied a poem by Ohio poet Hanif Abdurraqib, in which music dictates the sound and the meaning of the piece–and applied some song to a WIP of my own. Refining your own voice through imitation is such great exercise!

Keynote speaker David Giffels talked shop in Relatively Speaking: Writing about Family in Personal Essays and Memoirs, and I’m happy to share some of the best tips for my writer friends here. What’s tough about writing about family, said Giffels, is we know too much. And also too little. Our own memory of an event is only the beginning. What comes next? Research. Interview family members to get their take; research events on YouTube; refresh your memory through photos and artifacts and by revisiting the place. But the bottom line in how NOT to get in trouble when writing about family, Giffels said: “empathy is everything.”

And there was so much more literary goodness over the 2+ day festival–even a happy hour.

Have you attended a literary festival or conference in this age of Zoom? What was the highlight? Any tips to share? Do you write about family on your blog or elsewhere? How do you avoid the pitfalls while telling your story? Do you have an elevator pitch at the ready, when people ask, what do you write about, what do you blog about?

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices. Let’s connect!