Archive for short stories

Short story month

Did you know that May is Short Story Month? I had no idea! And as a lover of short stories, I hate to think I’ve been missing out on this celebration. What else have I been missing out on? Is there a Cake Month? Too Many Exclamations in Email Month? Boots for Girls with Big Calves Month? My god, have you people been celebrating Things Erin Doesn’t Know About without me?

To honor Short Story Month, I’m going to try and read a short story a day. I’ll do periodic updates here about what I’m reading, but for daily doses, friend me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter.

New story love

Barry used to have this futon in his basement where his kids watched TV and somehow the cord to the space heater got caught under one of the futon legs and frayed, and sometimes when you’d sit on the futon, you’d get a shock. Not enough to do any real damage, and not every single time, but enough to make you pay attention and worry for your safety. To hear him describe it, it was kind of dangerous and awful and exciting all at the same time, like your first date or your first mammogram, or that time someone convinced you to go ahead and pick it up, the mousetrap wasn’t going to snap.

That’s kind of the tone of the story I’m working on now. I wrote the first draft quickly for me, and now, in revision, I’m trying not to lose the adrenaline-fueled energy of it while still harnessing it into something that makes sense and has a point. We’ll see how it goes. Here’s to keeping some of the fizzle and not burning the house down.

 

Notes on “Dog People”

I finished a first draft of “Dog People” about a year before I got pregnant. I thought I had a good handle on what it might be like to be a new mom, but when I read the draft about a year after Cora was born, I knew I’d missed the mark. The story was mushy and gray–being a mother is joyful, but hard too–and I’d failed to really capture how alive that contradiction is every moment, of wanting to simultaneously hold your baby and walk away, to go back to work and never leave the house. I’d never lived with such contradiction before in my life.

Looking back on the first draft, there were a few things I still liked: I’ve always been a fan of stories where two unrelated characters are thrown together, like a dog groomer and a new mom. I liked that I knew the ending had to push past Margie getting back in the house to some form of resolution with Jim, even though the earlier option for how that happened wasn’t very good. When I went back to revise, I really listened to the story and let the ending arise from the details I’d given myself to work with. Robert Boswell writes in The Half-Known World, one of my favorite books about writing, about how, when you get stuck in a story, the best thing to do is go back and read carefully, paying attention to the clues you’ve given yourself.

One of my favorite things about the final story is a small detail about the knitting needles. I wrote, “For the rest of her life, the sound of knitting needles clacking together will be a sound Margie associates with Katherine, a sound she will recognize out of context and always know.” When my daughter was a baby, sometimes in her sleep she would push her binky out of her mouth and it would clatter to the hardwood floor. If her father and I were in the living room we’d both pause, frozen, and wait for the coming wail. Sometimes Cora would wake up and sometimes not, but the sound of that binky hitting the floor is a sound I’d recognize anywhere. Unswept oak, an Avent pacifier. It’s a sound that struck terror in my heart and could wake me from a bone-weary sleep, but is also one of the most nostalgic sounds of my life.

Cora finally gave up her binkies when she was three. I told her if she left them in the bottom of her Christmas sock, Santa would take them and distribute them to needy babies around the world, and in return, she’d get a Dora kitchen. She thought it was a shifty deal at best but agreed to the terms, and sure enough, the fat man held up his end of the bargain. She never looked back or complained, although she did want reassurance for the first few nights that Santa had in fact passed them on and it hadn’t been for nothing.

A few weeks later, she found a rogue binky in her room and came running downstairs. “Mommy, Mommy, Santa missed one!” I told her thank you and said I’d mail it to him right away so he could take care of it. She stared at it a moment before nodding resolutely and heading back upstairs to play. I wanted to give her back the binkies; I wanted her to let them go. That’s what was missing from the first draft.

I hope Mavis doesn’t get these

Aaron Gilbreath had a great essay on Tin House’s website about tracking lit mag submissions, which he has done on paper for years. He says, “It took years of tracking subs for me to realize that part of the charm of my paper system is the handwriting. I like the look of it. Not because it’s pretty–it’s barely legible–and not beucase it’s mine, but because it’s human. When you’re receiving form letter rejections addressed to ‘Dear Writer’ and signed by ‘The Editors,’ it’s nice to see the intimacy and warmth of handwritten text, something personal, even when it’s you writing to yourself.”

I completely get this. For years I’ve used these two sets of index cards for short story submissions:

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They’re cross-listed with one set for story titles and one set for journals so I’ll know at a glance if a magazine has something and what stories are where. For years students have tried to talk me into Duotrope or at least a less pathetic excel sheet, but I’m with Gilbreath, it’s the personal touch of the index cards I must be drawn to, the old office efficency of index cards in a box.

Whatever your system, be sure you have one and you keep it up-to-date. Like Gilbreath says, “If you’re a submitter, two things are essential: order and efficiency.” It might seem unmatched to a writer’s temperament, but I know from working the other side of the desk that an editor is hoping to say yes and looking to say no. Don’t give them a reason as silly as you didn’t follow their guidelines.

How I wrote “The Summer of Cancer”

When my friend Sarah was in graduate school, she and another friend spent a summer in their backyards with a fan on an extension cord and their feet in a plastic toddler pool trying to fight the Southern sun. They had a rule they couldn’t start drinking before noon because they weren’t those types of people, but the fact they had to make it a rule shows maybe they were a little bit. They called that summer “The Summer of Cancer” which was too great a title not to steal.

I have very fair skin and my summer ritual as a kid was to burn, blister, peel, and start again. My sister on the other hand tans like a pro, something I was always jealous of growing up. I never got into laying out–never understood the appeal–and for that reason alone I wanted to write about it. I don’t remember how the protagonist’s friend’s father entered the picture, but I knew when Emily walked in that kitchen after being blinded by sunspots, Mr. Mackelvoy would be there waiting for her. I liked writing this story from a point-of-view that didn’t fully understand the story she was telling, who was young enough to see only her side of a situation and whose self-centeredness could be both troublesome and, I hoped, understandable. It sucks being a kid. It sucks being powerless. And it sucks not having the ability to fully understand or express this. In the end, I knew she wouldn’t be able to see beyond herself to help her friend, but I hoped her own desperation would make her sympathetic to the reader.

And the secret concoction of baby oil and iodine really does get you tan. My roommate in college was a true California girl and used this nearly every day in the summer. I tried it once and still have the scars on my shoulders to prove it.

How I wrote the title story

I thought I’d write a few posts about the stories coming out in the new collection, many of which haven’t been published before.

“It’s Not Going to Kill You” is one of my favorite story titles of all time, if only because it’s what my mom used to say to my sister and I when we were kids. We grew up on a farm in Iowa seven miles from town, and unlike where I live today, we didn’t have quick access to a grocery store or other forms of entertainment. We drank powdered milk during snowstorms when we couldn’t get to town; we did real farm chores for our allowance; if you were bored it was your own fault for not being resourceful. “It’s not going to kill you” was my mother’s refrain after we sniffed something questionable from the fridge, or complained about not being able to watch TV before 7:00 p.m., or when she tried to serve us something that had fallen on the floor. According to family lore, one time she served us brownies that had dog prints in the frosting thanks to one low counter in the kitchen and a particularly resourceful springer spaniel.

I started this story years before I finished it. It was about a recently divorced mother who was hiding Girl Scout cookies in her bedroom closet (no comment on where that came from) and who had a child who was a biter (rather than the bitee he is in the final version) I couldn’t figure out what the story was about. It just seemed to be following a woman in a kind of shitty phase of her life who was doing a bit of wallowing and daydreaming to keep herself afloat, and after following the story long enough, I realized that was the point and had to trust it was enough. Sometimes things are bad but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stay bad forever, and despite our tendencies (or maybe just mine) to think we’re the only one in a crap phrase, if we can just step to the side of our own self-centeredness for a minute, it might be enough to bring us back to center. What I needed to worry about next was how to keep the reader’s attention. I hope I’ve counter-balanced the meandering plot with a thirty-something woman getting a gearshift bruise on her thigh from a make-out session in a pickup with her high school bully;some slipping into bad habits; raspberry doughnut filling mistaken for blood; and for those who like grilled cheese sandwiches, what borders on the erotic regarding details on how to make one.

I think this is an appropriate opening to the book. The characters, the setting, the mindset all seem representative of how many of my characters and I view the world. I love the stoicism of the Midwest, the general attitude that I live by to this day: buck up. Get over it. It’s not going to kill you.

The new cover!

I could not be more thrilled with the cover for my new collection It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories. First off, it’s blue, which I look terrific in, so I’ll be able to match my outfits for any readings. But perhaps more importantly, I think it really captures something about the book – the playfulness but with a sense of danger lurking, the instability of the characters’ lives, a different view of an everyday object. I guess I can’t say (at least succinctly) why I like it so much, but I do, and I’m so thankful to UNP for coming up with the perfect image and design.

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Short story popularity

There was an interesting article this past week in The New York Times about the rise in short story popularity thanks to the internet. I attribute the rise to the internet and the fact short stories are awesome.

I’m particularly intrigued by what Tom Perrotta said about editing Best American Short Stories 2012:

“‘I felt like the story form had to loosen up some,’ he said. ‘And I was intrigued by the fact that a number of the stories felt novelistic — they were not 20 pages, but 40, and had shifting points of view and complicated structures.'”

I haven’t gotten to the 2012 edition yet but noticed this in the 2011. I like these complicated stories a lot as a reader and writer, but as a teacher, I’m not sure what to do. In an intro class, do you think it’s better to jump in with the contemporary, more complicated story, or stick with a more traditional narrative to teach the basics of craft?