Why I write short stories

by Lucian Childs

In August I’m blogging at 49 Writers, something I did a number of years ago.

I thought I’d reprise a post that speaks to the decision Martha Amore and I made to include in “Building Fires in the Snow” only fiction and poetry. We are lovers of brevity, omission and implication, the foundations of both forms. Enjoy and look for new blog posts in August here and at 49 Writers.

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The writers I meet in Alaska are a varied lot: people writing memoir, creative nonfiction of all types, novelists. But short story writers? There are few. I’ve had to wonder what it is about short fiction that seems right to me and why I persist in writing it.

When I started, my reasons were mostly practical. I had plucked out of thin air the notion that this was where you begin. You master the short form and move on to the real work: Writing novels. Writing short fiction was, and still is, more in sync with my too busy life. Plus, let’s face it, I’m impatient. Why slog away for years on a novel to have it wither in some box in the back of my closet?

In this I found some solace from one of my heroes, Alice Munro. She says, “I never intended to be a short story writer. I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else—I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

What is “that way”? Is telling a short story all that different from a novel or is it just a matter of degree?

I’m attracted to the 19th century French idea of the flâneur, the peripatetic observer of urban life who seeks to merge with the myriad things by wandering through them. I like to think of this walker passing by an open window and looking in on a domestic scene, trying to understand the essential truth of it from the scant evidence at hand: The way the father braces his back as he bends to light the gas fireplace, the way the mother looks anxiously toward the disaffected daughter shuffling through the opening door.

Some of my novelist friends, no doubt, would go on to describe the house’s other rooms and occupants; some the neighborhood, the city in which the family lived. My genre pals would shoot them into outer space for a little extraterrestrial mayhem. The short story writer, though, is content to describe the small actions spied in the window, to pry out the single crystallizing event, that one thing that reveals a life. Then, like the flâneur, she moves to the next open window. Not for lack of imagination, but because this single event is enough.

John Cheever, another master of the form, wrote, “So long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story.” Our life is revealed to us in sequences of discrete moments, each sequence like a short story: The time we injured our back and lost our job, the winter we discovered our daughter smoking pot, our sophomore year in high school when everything seemed drab.

I used to study Zen Buddhism. One of my teachers said, “Pick up one thing and the rest of the world comes with it.” Flannery O’Connor, arguably the patron saint of American short story writing, said much the same thing, "The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it." The short story shares this ability with all forms of storytelling, but, I believe, the effect is starker for concentrating on that one thing. Much is left unsaid, unexplained. So long as we are thoroughly grounded in character and place, in implication the moment comes alive.

Dramatically too, the short story appeals to me. I’ve always liked Roman candles, a simple stick, a single glowing ball that arcs in a luminous moment then disappears. Alice Munro again: “There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Call me feebleminded, but I’ve come to prefer the singularity of effect so evident in short fiction where that one explosive moment ripples through the story out into my life. There is an immediacy to it: I’m the father lighting the fire, the anxious mother, the petulant daughter. This puts an onus on the writer of short stories. We can’t gab our way out when we’ve painted ourselves into trouble; we can’t hypnotize the reader with interesting diversions or annotate the historical context. The short story, like the Roman candle, is arching toward its ending right from the start. For a short story writer, this is the cause of much consternation, but also exhilaration. While there are so many ways to go wrong, there is also no place to hide.

Do you write or enjoy short stories? What is it about them you enjoy? Can’t stand them? Tell us why.