Monday, October 31, 2016

MB Caschetta's Encounters with Grace Paley

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, MB Caschetta, author of Pretend I'm Your Friend (Engine Books), remembers the simple question Grace Paley suggested writers ask of their work.

I met Grace Paley twice when I was a teenager.

Once I heard her read at the library in my provincial hometown in upstate New York, and another time, I sat in a workshop with her. This was after I’d escaped to college, where I hoped to follow in the footsteps of famous alumnae like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, and Mary McCarthy.

As undergraduate students in the creative writing program (which is sadly now defunct), we met a lot of writers and tried on their styles in workshops: minimal Amy Hempel, angular Madison Smartt Bell, noble William Trevor, mysterious Carole Maso, fragile Brett Singer, bold Ellen Currie.

But Grace Paley was singular.

She inspired us to write like ourselves, even though (or especially because) we had yet to become the writers we were going to be.

By the time Paley came to campus, we’d read every story she’d written; we’d studied her collected works; we’d spoken of her in terms reserved for rock stars. Up close and personal, when she arrived on campus, we admired everything about her: her twinkle, her sneakers, the stain on her shirt. She might as well have been Jimi Hendrix.

“How do know when you’ve finished a story?” someone asked.

We were in a classroom workshop, crowded with extra teachers and students. There were probably 40 of us gathered around her, breathing in unison, waiting on answers.

She considered the question before picking up a page of her own writing. She pointed to the first word: “Is this word true?”

She looked at us, pointing to the next. “Is this word true?”

She snapped her gum and winked (At me? No, at the person behind me.) “What about this one? And this one? Is this word true?”

In that moment, I knew I was doomed, or blessed, or whatever it is that binds a person preposterously to a life of stalking the truth through fiction.

I probably didn’t stand much of a chance anyway: stories had always written me. One summer, just a kid, I penned a complete novel in a series of spiral notebooks on the front porch. I was lopsidedly verbal, terrible at everything else, obsessed with trying to get on the page what no one in my family seemed capable of hearing or seeing.

On the way out of the classroom, Paley stopped me. “Not bad, kid.”

It was my short story we’d read in the workshop.

I’ve thought of this compliment many times over the years. I still marvel that I managed to get away from my troubled childhood and land in a magical world where writing stories was offered as an attainable, respectable career. Even during the miserable times I wished I could be something else, (anything! please God!) other than a writer, thinking of Grace Paley always brought me back to being grateful and humble.

I survived a couple of rough decades thinking this way, even when the rejections piled up, the stories stumped me, the novels got sidetracked by paid writing, and publishing a book seemed impossible. Through it all, I continued to sit at my desk, searching for the next true word, and the next after that.

When I went back for a short stint to teach the short story in that very same classroom, years later, I was stunned to find that young writers “didn’t get” Grace Paley. “Too concrete,” they said.

Their rock stars were from my generation, it turned out, and just as worthy of admiration: Elizabeth McCracken and Junot Díaz.

The last time I saw Grace Paley, she was reading in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where I had been living. I reminded her of this story, but she didn’t remember it—or me.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “It only has to matter to me.”

She crackled her gum and gave me a smile.

“That’s good,” she said. “Remember that for me.”

Friday, October 28, 2016

Katie Chase's Ten Simple Steps to a Short Story Collection

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Katie Chase, author of Man & Wife (A Strange Object), offers guidance on producing a collection of stories.

  1. Fall in love with the short story: the earthquake of literature. But more specifically, fall in love with short story collections, the rumbling of one voice along the Richter scale. Extend the metaphor to Moore’s Birds of America, Diaz’s Drown, Munro’s Anything: aftershocks, destruction of your infrastructure.
  2. Write a bunch of stories. Then write a bunch more. Write from life, write from imagination, write from prompts and in a spirit of experimentation. Write a suite of flash fiction, attempt a novella, write a bunch in the sweet spot between 10 and 20 pages.
  3. Write one—just one, everyone starts with one—that is actually pretty good. This, as you’ve well discovered, cannot be willed. In fact, the process will bear similarities to that of stories that were actually pretty bad. It will happen as though by accident, as though in spite of yourself, maybe when you least expect it, maybe when you need it most.
  4. Submit your work, but especially that story, ruthlessly. Start at the top (as you deem it) and pretend to miss the bit about simultaneous submissions. There are so many strong, beautiful, and loving publications these days—just not many that are rich. Good work will find a home, eventually.
  5. Repeat previous steps as needed, until you’ve waved down the attention of a person who wields a moderate amount of power in the literary world (an agent, an editor) and convinced them to give you a lift. Luck will play its role alongside that of hard work, so it is best to focus on the latter and ascribe the success of sworn enemies and those picked up by prize anthologies to the former. 
  6. With this new momentum, shape up a thematically or otherwise linked collection of your stories and shop it around to publishers. Preferably not in the same year that a financial crisis has hit and shaken the economy to its core, and not at the same time that a celebrity is conducting a bidding war for his or her story collection. But when it doesn’t sell, don’t despair.
  7. Because of “two-book deals,” start working on a novel. Invest no less than two years in this relationship—you have to give it a fighting chance—but no more than ten. (If you were directed to this and previous steps via the list of Ten Simple Steps to a Novel, congrats; you have a workable draft! If not, proceed to our Step 8.)
  8. When your novel seems not to be working, despair. Put it in a drawer and write more stories: better stories. Write the stories that have been simmering, that bubbled up but that you tamped back down. Write all the stories—right now!—that you have been “saving,” because death, I’m sorry to say, is all too real.
  9. In a simple yet elegant ceremony, renew your vows to the short story. Under a full moon in a clearing, before a candle at an altar, level with the sunrise across the sea: promise to never stray again. (Of course, Step 11, omitted from this list as per its title, is to revive your flirtation, laced with scorn though it may be, with the novel.)
  10. Gather the best of the best of your stories, the ones that stand out on their own and seem to be speaking to one another, even if all you can hear of the conversation is a murmur, and get them, however you may, to a publisher (whether Big Five or small, strong, and beautiful—it’s 2016, after all) who will fall in love and can summon the sound into more of a song. In comparison to the steps that came before—particularly if in Step 9 you became reconciled on the point of money—this last one will be easy. (Easier.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Kirstin Allio on Reading the Newspaper Before Sitting Down to Write

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Kirstin Allio, author of Clothed, Female Figure (Dzanc Books), discusses finding poetry in newsprint.

This post is about writing ritual, and practice.

I still make my sons’ school lunches even though they’re teenagers, and when I get a compliment on a particular PB&J my heart still soars. Then they’re out the door on ten thousand horses—they’re always late, they jump the stairs, the dust they raise, the clatter echoes down the sidewalk. I put the milk away. Silence—as if I’ve been tossed up above the day, and the air holds for a few seconds. Exhale—I lean over the newspaper on the kitchen counter. The material of the world. Leaves of trees, footprints of thought, tight poetry, broad comedy, specific tragedy. It takes 70 pounds of hay and 15 pounds of grain and half a cup of mineral salts and 35 gallons of water to make six gallons of milk, one milking’s worth. How much does it take to make today’s paper?

I grew up without the newspaper: my childhood was counter-cultural, spiritual instead of political. Eyes closed in meditation rather than open on the headlines. When we visited my mother’s parents, my grandparents’ inviolable morning ritual was to trade sections of the newspaper at the breakfast table. (Raisin bran sprinkled with wheat germ, skim milk thin as paper.) My parents stalked off; my grandfather wiped tears of laughter (“lahf-ter”) from his pale eyes as he shyly passed me the “funnies.” My grandparents sent clippings by mail several times a month, annotated in the margins. I never read them.

But here’s what happened in my own story: I moved in with the native newspaper reader who would become my husband. At first I had no idea how to wield it, not to mention read it (the newspaper and the relationship, but this is about the newspaper)—standing up, or sitting down? The wing-sound as the pages turned, the wingspan, the inelegant bird was as big as a tent, unfolded, and caught the slightest draft from an open window. I was, at the time, an MFA student. I assumed the paper was all foreign wars and corporation business, and I considered reading it a kind of safari (Land Rovers, tiger trophies), a visit to another world populated by elites burning cocktail conversation calories. I hadn’t imagined there would be continuity in the news stories—that you were inducted, and rewarded by reading daily—and I hadn’t bargained for the masterful, measured writing.

Beginning my work day by reading the paper orients me, and calls me to attention. Reading, even touching those pages, measures the day, and gives me a barometer of mind and mood. Am I open? Sentimental? Critical? Quick to absorb and empathize, or quick to dismiss, judge, and categorize? Reading the paper brings stories, and words to the fore. New words like seeds suggest, incite, excite me. I wish my grandparents could see me now, a zealot with scissors. I have shoeboxes of ivoried pages like precious textiles, family linens. I hoard stacks of sections in my office, notebooks glued with cut-outs, collages I’ve constructed over years, waiting, ambushing, editing, just like I do with short stories. Text fragments thrill me, photographs of art and dance are, themselves, art objects, I cleave to clever book reviews, ribald reviews of restaurants, tech reviews that portend both the past and the future.

The newspaper, like a poem, is at once whole and atomic, a cosmos and a microcosm. It might be difficult to get the news from poems, says William Carlos Williams, but it’s not so hard to get poems from the news. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Valerie Trueblood on Eudora Welty's Matchless Book, The Eye of The Story

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Valerie Trueblood, author of Criminals: Love Stories (Counterpoint), writes about a literary touchstone.

“If these short sentences have the look of simplicity, let no simplifier try to copy what they do.”
That’s Eudora Welty, writing about Henry Green in her book The Eye of the Story, in which the essay “Henry Green: Novelist of the Imagination” is a literary education in sixteen pages. May every young writer, slow to begin or tempted by despair, find this book in time, with its adages and comforts, its revelations of a mind disciplined and enchanted by story. Just as this writer’s portraits of a plausible goodness move us in her stories, in the essays her profound respect for the books of others seems to come from another critical world, slower and more emotional than the one we have now with our fast strobes of enthusiasm and scorn. “I write about what I like.” Like! It is wonder she transmits in her reviews. In me she awakened the desire to read any book that had produced this luxurious submission, allowed her to possess its secrets as she did in all humility, and confirmed her belief in wonder as the purpose of art.

In the title essay, writing about how Katherine Anne Porter does without a certain kind of scene-setting, Welty finds nothing lacking in a story offering revelation in this degree. A character’s intense inner state has expanded to fill the space, and to Welty what matters is the story’s own path to its end. For her, nothing can hold a strong story back; it must do what it will.

In “Looking at Short Stories” she examines five in detail—by Crane, Hemingway, Chekhov, Lawrence, and Faulkner—and when she finishes, we’ve gone from technical matters into style into beauty. Speaking to us as like-minded seekers (reader and writer ought to be companionable, she says) rather than as a cohort in need of what she knows, she examines what makes us think something is beautiful. She goes into all this in an everyday voice. No gushing. Beauty is not, she says, “a blatant or promiscuous or obvious quality.”

In 1941 a reviewer struck by the beauty of the stories in Welty’s own first book refused to comment on their form, saying to do so was as hopeless as “saying a tree is right in form.” This rightness exists throughout her work and steers her criticism out of its surface matter-of-factness into vision.

Henry Green: "the look of simplicity"
Before I read The Eye of the Story I had some school-learning of her stories, often presented (as with the mysteriously oft-anthologized “Why I Live at the PO”) as comedies packed with that Southern knowledge of what people would do. “She would do that, wouldn’t she.” Asked about her progress as a writer, Welty said she improved “once I got some sense.” In the South you’re raised on the word. “He’s got no sense.” “What was the sense in that?” To a child listening to the marvelous litany of what people would do, “no sense” had an endless store of effects inside it like seeds in a pepper. Some of them were just flavor, some of them burned: desperate acts, rape and incest and murder, abrupt intensities in lives called ordinary—the ground of Welty stories. “Trouble, the backbone of literature,” she wrote. She was not a comedian at heart any more than Chekhov was. Our comic writers are funnier today, lacking her boundless sympathy. Our paranormal is thin compared to her normal, and much of our criticism, lacking her wonder, just advertisement. Not just her visionary stories but her way of reading enlarged my reading and my life. I go on and on learning from The Eye of the Story.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Serena Crawford's Nine Tips For Authors in Search of Characters

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Serena Crawford, author of Here Among Strangers (Lost Horse Press), discusses character.

Never be better than your characters. If your character falls into a vat of slime, you should have experienced that firsthand, either figuratively or literally. If your character is jobless or homeless, you should be jobless or homeless, or understand that you could be with a small turn of events.

Pick two or three distinctive details about your character, no more. How do these details evolve from scene to scene? Does a cut get infected? A tremor become more pronounced? The development of detail in itself is a story.

Find your character’s voice. When developing a character, try to imagine what she sounds like. Is her laugh a snort or a wheeze? The vividness of a character often lies in his or her noise.

Don’t let your characters munch, or even worse, nosh. Careful word choice strengthens characterization, whereas incongruous word choice pulls the reader out of your story.

Try to have a trait in common with your character. Do you both have a fear of heights? Are you both deaf in one ear? If you can relate to your character on some level, it’s likely your reader can too.

Make sure your character isn’t you in disguise. Autobiography limits the possibilities of a story.

Give your character a desire. Is he desperate to do right by his son? Does she want to tell her husband about a dark time in her past? A character’s desire hooks your reader by raising the stakes of a story. Your reader will want to know how it turns out.

Expect your character to fail. Complex characters need time to come into their own. Don’t be discouraged if this takes several drafts or more.

Let your character surprise you. As the story progresses, and you have a good grasp of your character, allow him to dictate what he will do next. At this point, you relinquish control and the story takes off.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Maryse Meijer on the Frivolity and Necessity of Clothing and Books

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), compares writing stories to designing clothes.

Once upon a time the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen filmed himself making a wedding dress out of a men’s suit. I can’t think of a better metaphor for what writers do—for what I try to do—than this. Taking something commonplace and finding within it the shape of something unexpected, discovering all the things hidden within something familiar. It’s as if the dress is a secret the suit had been hiding all along, waiting for just the right pair of scissors to reveal it.

Editing can be like this: looking at the perfectly serviceable and handsome suit you’ve just created and then slashing through to the story that is less serviceable, less handsome, until you have something wearable, but only just. The best clothes are the ones that make you hesitate—can I wear this? Should I?—and writing is like that for me, too. I like to be a little uncomfortable when I dress up, and I like to be scared when I write. I like to feel the boundaries of what I am and of what writing could be. And yet, while good clothes and stories cast you beyond yourself, they also remind you of very simple things closer to home, much the way a corset, drawn very tight, reminds you that you have lungs, a ribcage, a diaphragm. Suddenly you’re just trying to breathe, to not break anything, taking care even as you are taking no care at all, looking batshit fucking crazy while eating tacos in a wedding gown made of trouser legs slapped with white paint. You’re finding the spectacular moment in the ordinary one. You’re finding out they’re kind of the same thing.

I think, too, of the frivolity and necessity of clothing and books, the meaningless of fashion, the possible redundancy of writing—so you take some words and make more words, so what? So you take some silk and make yet another sheath dress someone will wear maybe once or twice and then abandon at the back door of a charity shop. You don’t need more than one warm outfit to survive. You don’t need to read any books at all, strictly speaking. Does anyone really need to write? To make clothes? I don’t know. Writing feels necessary to me, but I also can see beyond it, the way I can see beyond my desire to wear beautiful things. I could live without books and I could live without dresses. But I also live a lot through books, and I’ve lived my whole life through clothes. I feel that I live more when I’m writing, as I do when I am wearing my favorite things. Words bring the world to me, and clothes help me find my way in the world, and vice versa. These words put together in this way become art to some of us. This satin cut into this shape becomes a fantasy, a nightmare, a story. We do need, maybe, some art, somewhere, at some time.

When I am looking for inspiration or beauty I often go to McQueen, lately. Watching him work makes me want to work, helps me think about what I do. And wearing his clothes, or looking at pictures of his couture, helps me think about what I would like to be—helps me imagine the many bodies I have inside me, the many women waiting to be worn, the way that wedding dress waits inside its suit. From just one thing—the sky, a tree, love—comes a thousand stories. The writer has her materials, too, and she cuts her work from them, wears them, gives them to others to wear, to judge, to discard, to live in. Aren’t there some stories you never want to take off? Some you hate because they make you feel fat or cheap or stupid? Some that make you feel incredibly lucky to be a body in the world?

To make something that moves, that envelops and exposes, that reflects the body as it transforms it—that is what I would like to do as a writer. It is what McQueen did as a designer. We should be able to enter a story the way we do a demanding piece of clothing, sometimes struggling with it, sometimes made breathless or uncomfortable by it, sometimes blinded by it, the way a sweater blinds us when we pull it over our heads. But there is always a way in, always a way out. We reach for the holes, we pull ourselves through, we enter and we exit, but if the dress is beautiful enough, the story strong enough, we leave it changed creatures, wiser and more wonderful for having inhabited the skin of a ruthless imagination. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lynn Stegner's Answer to the Question: "Why Stories?"

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Lynn Stegner, author of For All the Obvious Reasons (Arcade Publishing), discusses why she's written a book of stories rather than a novel.

Why stories? Why not a novel this time, like all the last times? What is it that compresses a tale into this narrow frame, rather than brushing it across the sprawling canvas of a novel?

At some point in every novelist’s writing life, he or she begins to notice a silent accumulation of narrative passages, conceits, a measure here, a few chords over there, a lyrical line that keeps singing somewhere in the background. Each of these might have grown into the longer composition and commitment of a novel, as well as the complexity that a closer, more leisurely look exposes. After all, a novel must negotiate with Time, portraying its passage, conjuring the moods that characterize change, as well as generating the sense of movement that reflects the way lives are actually lived. But a short story begins after most of the developing action has taken place. We meet the players almost as they are walking off the stage…one last scene, one duet or ensemble and the curtain will drop. So everything that has come before this final scene must be already distilled within character, emblematized in a handful of causatively related events, or even left just out of reach and merely glimpsed in the imagination, or metaphorically presumed, the way you can almost feel the muscles of large birds as they fly overhead.

Someone I knew well used to say that short stories are a young writer’s game largely because they offer many more opportunities to try things out as a writer is maturing. To experiment without spending too much time. I’m not sure I agree with this. In a sense, there is a kind of extravagance to the form, and not because stories are dealing with truths and situations and characters nearly equal to what might be discovered in a novel but because each story has to be a whole world, just as in a novel. That’s quite an investment in a remarkably small piece of turf.

The word short then is mightily deceptive. A collection of nine stories, like mine, for instance, is nine worlds complete unto themselves, and each and all are creatively more work, entailing nine times the research and preparation, nine times the heart, and nine times the charge. They must exhibit economy and precision, penetrating to the central meaning with the flash and speed of a laser finding its mark. By means of a few brushstrokes, the writer provides enough to reveal what we need to know about a character—what he worries about, what she yearns for, and some of the life that they have seen before they show up on page one, even if that life can only be inferred. If in a novel details do double and even triple duty, in a story they are even more burdened with the job of communicating what is essential to making final meanings. Verbs cannot simply say what the action is, they must also qualify that action in such a way as to capture character, mood, habits, and even health. A woman who staggers into a meeting is clearly more interesting than one who walks. She’s got trouble; she has problems. And let us say that she slouches into that same meeting—that tells us something about her attitude, her position in the pecking order.
Meeting: Enter staggering, no, slouching

So for stories compared to novels (and with the exception of Time), the rules are the same, only more so.

Over the course of the years it took to write four, book-length narratives, I found that I had accumulated a number of story threads that, for one reason or another, did not want to be the fully rendered tapestries that are novels. Actually, that’s not quite true: One of them was supposed to grow into a novel, but the instant I sat down and began to write it, I realized that what was essential could be dramatized and brought to the light in less than twenty pages. It did not need a long distance to execute the necessary turns in the journey toward meaning and truth; it turned on a dime, or two. But another of the stories in the collection could have expanded into a novel easily, if I had wanted to spend that kind of time with those characters. I didn’t. I wanted to encounter them only at the borderline between the fictional life before and the suggested fictional life after—suggested because that fictional future is only gestured toward. It is there by implication and no more. Latent action—present, past and future—along with its import, is naturally occurring in novels and helps to inform the action that is front and center. But in short stories latency composes a whole ocean of content, while on the surface a few islands, a carefully arranged archipelago visible to the reader’s eye, comprises all that is actually available—the story on the page. Which turns out to be quite a lot.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Jensen Beach on the Likability or Unlikability of Characters

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Jensen Beach, author of Swallowed by the Cold (Graywolf Press), explores the issue of seemingly unlikable characters in fiction.

The other day I was talking to my students about “The Dead.” I’m often talking about this story in classes; it’s so good for demonstrating such a wide range of issues related to the construction and analysis of short fiction. Following the discussion, one my students said he disliked the story. Fair enough, I said, you don’t have to like a piece of writing to learn from it. Another student interrupted to ask the first student why he disliked the story. The characters are awful, the first student said. I don’t like Gabriel at all. I guess I agree with this sentiment. Gabriel is pretty awful—selfish, self-aggrandizing, interested primarily in his own social and physical pleasures at the expense of everyone else, his wife in particular. If he wasn’t like this, of course, the end of the story wouldn’t work at all, the story would be less a story than an interesting summary of an evening in Ireland at a particular time with a particular group of people. I explained this to my student and we moved on and I didn’t, to be honest, think much more about whether I liked Gabriel.

What's not to like?
Someone recently asked me, after having read “The Apartment,” a story in my new collection, Swallowed by the Cold, whether or not I liked my characters. The story is about a woman named Louise who drinks too much and who is convinced that her new neighbor is the daughter of a former lover. Louise gets drunk and visits this neighbor, a young woman named Sara. It goes without saying that the interaction is somewhat awkward. Louise is obviously in pain; but her actions are odd, off-putting, and render her selfish and deceitful. She’s not as awful as Gabriel, nor is the ending of story centered as forcefully on such a significant self-understanding as Gabriel achieves. Still, I suppose there is something likable about Louise, or if not likable, at least its suggestion, arrived at mainly through our sympathies.

Maybe good characters (if I can make the arrogant assumption here) resist such simple summary? Should they? Is likability, as in attraction, as in appreciation, as in electability or dateability or go-for-a-beer-ability, something the writer should at all concern herself with? What kind of a story would “The Dead” even be if Gabriel, madly in love with his wife, understood and sympathized with poor dead Michael Furey? If he fell asleep thinking how nice and fulfilling it must be for his dear wife to have been loved so much and so purely in her life? What if we liked Gabriel because he was such a good person? At the end of “The Dead” I’d argue we don’t like Gabriel, but we feel for him, we get him. We see his sadness and, if even for just a moment, forget that he has for so long been so blind to the life around him. Maybe there’s something in that that’s likable, because it’s familiar to us.

This impulse to want to like or dislike seems distinctly human, or perhaps distinctly contemporary. Fiction, to reduce somewhat clumsily, is the art of rendering lived experience, so maybe we need to face these impulses. Or maybe, better, we need as writers to understand them, to subvert, challenge, break them. We should be writing characters who may or may not act in ways that are cruel, or slanderous, or kind, but still allow if even a moment for readers to see something of themselves, their own consciousness, their own decision making. A recognition, in other words. And in that recognition there may after all be a complicated kind of likability.