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!

What your reading arc says about you

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Hi, and how are you?

If you’re well, I hope you’re reading. If you’re reading, maybe you want to consider your reading arc. I never really had before. But, a Twitter contact, @MattWeinkam, associate director of Lit Cleveland, proposed a fun exercise for us reader sorts:

Chart your reading arc from childhood to present day in 10 books. After a bit of thinking, here’s mine:

A Very Young Dancer>Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret>Their Eyes Were Watching God>Come to Me: Stories>The Innocent>The Fortunate Pilgrim>Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir>Bel Canto>Magdalene: Poems>The Book of Delights: Essays

Of course, there are so many books I love that I had to leave out. If I had 11 slots, I would have added a craft book: maybe Stephen King’s On Writing, which was probably the first craft book I read; or maybe the classic, Donald M. Murray’s The Craft of Revision, which I return to again and again, of course; or maybe the recent Meander, Spiral, Explode (I talked about that one here) by Jane Alison, which upended so many writing “rules.”

What does my reading arc say about me? A lot you already know.

I was a dancer, myself, and a Catholic, drawn to the story aspects of both, I suppose. At 19, I moved from Ohio to Virginia–I left out my Tom Robbins obsession (remember Jitterbug Perfume?). College days brought courses like African American Autobiography and opened my eyes to stories outside what my mom had on her bookshelves from college in the 60s.

Short stories were my entry into the craft of writing–and Amy Bloom is one of my favorite story writers. (Good story collections are great writing teachers.)

Grad school left little time for pleasure reads, but when I could, I liked early Ian McEwan and books that informed my own writing.

If it’s not dance, song in story is a running theme. And for this writer who managed to get an MFA without writing a poem, I read a lot of poetry these days–and essays and hybrids of all sorts. And I think, you could say, I’m arcing toward joy in my reading habits.

I hope that means I’m arcing toward joy in life. I need it now more than ever.

So, show me your reading arc–in the comments or on your own blog. You might be surprised at what it reveals about your reading and your life.

Let’s read together. Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark

When a journal editor says no more death stories* **

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I submitted “Scooter Kid,” a story about conception (of a couple different kinds)–of creation, chaos, and control. (Spot the nod to Stockard Channing’s character in the 1993 movie, Six Degrees of Separation? Yeah, I’m still a little obsessed.)

Many thanks to Elizabeth Varel, Editor in Chief and Fiction Editor, and all the editors of Parhelion Literary Review for publishing my story in your lovely journal. Alongside my fiction, you’ll find a trove of thought-provoking prose, poetry, and art: right here.

Happy weekend. Happy reading. What’s on tap for you?

Thanks for stopping by!

~Rebecca

*Seriously though, submitting to literary journals? Check those submissions guidelines.

**OK, OK, all stories are death stories.

Little Patuxent Review issue launch

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I’m delighted that my story, “While Our Grown Men Played,” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Little Patuxent Review. I’m also delighted to be reading at the issue launch event. For more information or to purchase the issue–or subscribe to this lovely regional literary magazine–click on through.

There’s truth in every piece of fiction, of course–despite my penchant for writerly distance. But if there’s one story of mine that tells the tale of my mom and me, it’s this one. In it, I got to call my mom a “world-class whiner,” which she was. But she never whined about what mattered: the breasts that failed her when they let cancer in, twice; the chemo and wig; the daughter living 12 hours away by Greyhound bus. She whined about the little things we could share: overdue library book fines, our pear shapes, cold noses in winter.

“While Our Grown Men Played” is a story about being female, sure; but even more so, it’s about being together, despite distance over roads and time–and cosmos, even. As I write, she’s still with me in the way I am, the things I whine about, and in my body: our ballet bearing, my veiny hands that are hers, the accent that won’t leave me.

Maybe most stories don’t take years and great personal loss to write, but this one did. It is a bittersweet thing to let it go, to read from it in front of others, to somehow tie a bow on grief. But it is sweet, and a testament to perseverance in writing and in living. I hope my mom would agree.

So, today I urge against writerly distance. Let’s try it, together. Let’s close the distances between past and present, between the living and the dead, between fact and fiction–and mine for story that heals.

That’s what I’ll be doing anyway.

~ Rebecca

“Sleeping Naked”: the final snippet

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Family in Charm City

Endings are tough, aren’t they? So, as I (sadly) tie a bow around my completed “Thanksmas” holiday with family, I present here the ending to my short story, “Sleeping Naked.”

Yep, the final snippet. Nope, still no nudity.

For those who missed it, the first two snippets of this short story, which appeared in Carve Magazine years ago, are here:

Snippet #1 of “Sleeping Naked”

Snippet #2 of “Sleeping Naked”

And so, for the conclusion to “Sleeping Naked”:

When we last met these characters, the mother–you, in this second-person point of view–has come home to discover that her pre-teen daughter, Cheryl, is missing. Hardly mother of the year, you consider the steps you should take to locate her. You consider what relative might be feeding Cheryl her dinner. You canvas the house again and again.

You are a young mother–still attractive, even sexy. Your daughter can be difficult and makes you feel older than you want to. A night without your daughter is a luxury you feel–after a drink or two–that you almost deserve. Just one night to yourself, you think with relish, as you sink into the middle of your bed and fall asleep…naked.

What kind of woman are you? What if she never comes back?

Around five o’clock, you awake to an upset stomach, make your way to the bathroom and throw up.

Over thirty hours. Gone. You crash on the couch and then drag yourself down the hall. You’re still nauseous.

You stand in the hallway, in your nightie, facing the closed door to Cheryl’s room, like some kind of gatekeeper.

You pace back and forth in front of the door until you hear a rustling sound in the room. Then there’s a slice of light, from the lamp she’s turned on, seeping under the door, and you crouch down on the floor to bathe in it. Then the slice of light is gone, and you bury your mouth and nose into the carpet, and you cry without making a sound.

You sleep for an hour or so, until you’re woken by the sound of Cheryl vomiting into her metal trashcan next to her bed. You wait there, outside, until the springs in her mattress stop squeaking. From your crouching position, you try the doorknob. It’s not locked. You remember your deal, but you break your end. She’ll owe you a tantrum the next time you have a man over. The door squeaks when you open it, and you move to her bedside and grab the trashcan, which you empty in the bathroom and set in the kitchen sink to be cleaned tomorrow. You go back to her room, step inside and close the door.  You pull back the comforter on her bed. She’s sleeping in her clothes, dirtied from the bushes under her window. You crawl in next to her. She stirs, but doesn’t wake.

The End

Writers and readers, how do you feel about an unreliable narrator, an unlikable main character? Does the second-person point of view soften the mother’s character at all? Can you understand her…just a little bit?

What are you reading and writing right now? How much like you are the characters you create?

 

“Sleeping Naked”: a snippet

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Image courtesy of Pixabay (noskill1343)

Banner day: I’m responding for the first time to the Daily Prompt. Today’s is “snippet.”

So, there you go. Nope, not even a snippet of nudity.

What follows is a snippet of a short story of mine, my first published short story, which appeared in Carve Magazine many moons ago. (So very early aughts–even the second-person point of view.)

It’s funny to look back on a story I wrote while I was still in graduate school, before marriage, before kids, before the first germ of yearning to indicate I might want kids (and the responsibilities that include, often, sleeping clothed and ready as an EMT for the next cry or summons from your progeny).

The protagonist in this story–she is no heroine–is in a stage of life I didn’t know when writing this piece. (I’ve discussed before my penchant for writerly distance.) She has been married; she is the mother of a pre-teen named Cheryl; she has seen her body and spirit morph to become “mother.”

Until, one day, she arrives home to find that her daughter is gone.

And so, a snippet from “Sleeping Naked” by Rebecca Moon Ruark:

You never thought to make a deal that required her to be in the house by eleven, to be home from her friend Julie’s or your sister Judy’s place down the street. You’re surprised she’s not there. She’s always in the living room, six inches away from the television screen, which casts a blue hue onto her face, when you pull into the drive around ten-thirty after your shift at Lubrizol. Tonight you stopped at the Claridon Tavern before returning to your two-bedroom split-level in the allotments. You had two glasses of Chardonnay, and after, you left your old rusted-out Mustang parked on the street before walking the five blocks home. You were smart not to take any chances and drive it, you think, as you rest your head on the doorjamb. Ever since you dumped the town’s deputy officer, Steve, he’s been eager to land you in the holding cell for something, anything. Read more