Sunday, December 4, 2016

Amina Gautier on Loving the Short Story

In the 49th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of The Loss of All Lost Things (Elixer Press), on the artistic challenges short fiction presents.

I hear it time and time again at various writers’ conferences. An agent/editor/publisher is saying it to me or to someone else: Now that you’ve written a short story collection or two, you really should write a novel, if only to challenge yourself. If only to challenge yourself. Because infusing a three to five thousand word story with life—giving it the blood and bones and tendons known as conflict, drama, and tension—is somehow not a challenge? If pressed further, the agent/editor/publisher will clarify that what he or she meant was that since you’ve already mastered the short story, why not challenge yourself by writing something new? Yet, that same agent/editor/publisher would never approach a writer who has written two or three novels and encourage him or her to challenge him or herself by writing a short story collection, since he or she has already mastered the novel.

There is a misconception that, by virtue of their length, short stories take less effort and time. Short stories are one of the most challenging art forms around; their brevity only makes them that much more so. The writer cannot stage her characters and use body language, props and visual cues to make the story known. She can only use words; and since she is writing a short story, she has only a few words and a few pages in which to make a moment come to life. Short stories are not easy to write; they challenge every single step of the way. Once the writer has gotten the subject matter and a general sense of the plot, she still has to find the words, and each word has to matter, each word has to count. She can’t use them just to tell the story; they need to create the rhythm. What is the mood of the story, what tone does she need to set, what words will help? Does she need sibilants or liquids? Long serpentine sentences, or short staccato ones? How can she best show the story—after all, she has so little time. She does not have chapters to write her way in, or create backstory; she doesn’t have a pocket full of flashbacks and she has neither the time nor the space to insert a new character midway through when the action lags. She does not have pages of filler to pontificate and talk about the weather and the scenery; she cannot introduce characters and then forget about them halfway through; in fact, it’s best that she not take her eye off the characters for one hot second because when she is not looking, they will hop into extra scenes that, while lovely, are not needed, speak lines of dialogue that are not necessary, and swim in pools of redundancy.
Limitations: Only packing what's necessary

The writer of short stories must always stay on her toes. She must choose carefully, select and dramatically render that just right moment that captures the heart of the conflict, takes the emotion and forces it to speak. She cannot afford to be gentle. She is not coming back forty pages later to deepen the image or expand the conflict. She must make each turn count.

As both a reader and a writer, I abhor flabby fiction. I respect concision. I was trained on the “less is more” advice. Short stories function like the baggage limitations at the airport—forcing you to rethink what you really need, to select, to make choices, to choose, to decide, and to excise. A love of conciseness might beg the question why not write poetry? The answer is simple. I love the sentence too much. I love the beauty of sentences in short fiction—whether they be sweeping and lyrical, or short and succinct. Well-crafted sentences are the building blocks of the short story; I am fascinated by the why and how one can carefully manipulate the mechanics of sentences—the grammar, diction, and syntax to pace a story, imbue it with a rhythm or make form follow function. I celebrate sentences, for they are the brick and mortar of any good short story. Whether they be the intellectual ones of Baldwin, the sassy ones of Bambara, the nihilistic ones of Borowski, the poetic ones of Elkin, the journalistic ones of Hemingway, the lyrical ones of Dybek, the serpentine ones of Faulkner, the buoyant ones of Mansfield, the uncompromising ones of O’Connor, or the quietly humorous ones of Paley, the sentence is the foundation of the story, the structure that upholds it so that the writer’s brilliant subject matter takes center stage.

I love the short story in all of her glory, with all of her twists and turns. I love her because she keeps me on my toes. I love her because of what she gives and what she demands.