Short Stories: What Do Writers Love About Them?
Marisa talks about her new collection:
Marisa: Ah, the plight of the short story. It’s alive! It’s dead! It’s alive again! It’s like the old grandmother who is pronounced a goner on her pallet only to sit up and yell at her family one more time. Honestly, has the short story ever died? I don’t think so. Does it have a smaller audience of readers than the novel? Sure. But why do we compare them? The comparison is as useless as comparing watercolor paintings to oils, or a concerto to a symphony. A short story is not a “mini-novel.” It’s a discrete form that requires the writer to work in different ways than if he or she were writing a novel and requires of the reader a different sort of attention and a different set of expectations.
What I like about reading short stories is the thrilling sleight of hand of them. When a story works, an entire universe of characters and emotion and thematic resonance explodes in the space of twenty or so pages. What I like about writing short stories is the attention to compression required in order to pull this off, and how the negative space of the story–what I choose not to write–becomes as much a part of the story as the words that I put on the page. Writing a story requires me to distill issues like character and structure and time to their very essence. I have to figure out, in very few moves, how a character can become so alive to a reader that he or she vibrates on the page. I have to select the two or three bits of action and behavior that are ripe with association so that the reader not only grasps the situation of the characters in the particular moment in time, but that they also grasp how the particular moment of the story reaches across time and beyond character to illuminate something larger about the problem of being alive. I think about what is suggested but not said, how a past can be conjured in a sentence rather than a chapter, how a line of dialogue or a gesture can contain a multitude of meaning. And I have to do all of this without trying to do any of it, because if I try too hard to load up a story with meaning, it will fall flat, burdened with the weight of too much intention.
To me, stories have the possibility of exploring states of being rather than large arcs of multi-layered action. When I write a story, I feel like I am taking a particular moment in space and time in the life of a character, bringing a big hammer down and smashing that moment to bits and then looking at every single shard that I can collect off the floor. I don’t try to fit them together correctly. I try to find out how the new jagged edges might bump up against one another, how they might scratch, how the unlikely juxtaposition of pieces might allow me to see more deeply and accurately what that person is experiencing at the moment of the story’s telling. Most important for me, I want to come to the end of a story with the beginning of understanding. I want the story to end and I want my mind to vault beyond it’ plastic limits into the unanswered mysteries the story reveals.
The short story pantheon is filled with many Gods–Joyce, Munro, Chekov, Deborah Eisenberg, Peter Taylor….the list is long and varied and inspiring. But the stories I turn to again and again are those of William Trevor. In his hands, the smallest story, the most provincial of characters, the tiniest emotional gestures are deftly orchestrated so that entire worlds of emotional truths are exposed. And he does that most cunningly–he presents stories that seem to be about one thing but that, by their end, are about something different, something deeper, something more disturbingly truthful about human nature. His stories widen the gap between what we think we know and what is yet to be understood, a gap, which embodies the whole reason to read in the first place.