Essence of the Short Story

I always start reading Mavis Gallant’s short stories with pad on knee, pencil in hand, ready to make notes about structure, style, characterization, and other nifty craft insights.

By the second paragraph all that is forgotten. I’m lost in the world of the story.

So I think about the story for a while and then re-read, this time determined to keep a clear, cold eye. Again swallowed whole by the story!

I don’t usually read introductions until I’ve read all the stories in a collection but when I started Mavis Gallant’s “Montreal Stories” again, I thought it might help get me into analytic mode.

And whoomph! There it was! In Russell Banks‘ Introduction. One of those huge, wonderful “yes, yes, that’s absolutely it” moments when all at once a basic ‘truth’ of short stories becomes totally clear and meaningful.

What is the essence of a short story? Not only did Russell Banks’ description enlighten Mavis Gallant’s stories for me, it clarified what I am trying to do with mine. I just had to share.

“The tension – and sometimes outright conflict – between remembered and felt experience on the one hand and, on the other, the known truth of what happened lies at the heart of all great short stories. It’s the argument that generates plot and structure, which, finally, gives a story meaning.” Russell Banks

You can read Russell Banks’ whole Introduction to Mavis Gallant’s “Montreal Stories” in Brick Magazine


Every Story Has Its Seasons: Fall Clean-Up

Spring – seeds of your first ideas, images, characters, plotlines send up green shoots!

Summer – the story blossoms, flowers and weeds alike.


Fall. I’m working on my earth pond, pulling out invasive weeds and dredging stinky sludge and algae. I check every scoop for frogs and salamanders so it’s slow work. And it’s hard work too. The huge pond rake becomes even heavier when dragged through water.

If I don’t do this, the inlet pipe gets clogged up and the pond becomes cloudy with silt and will eventually fill up and return to the mosquito-infested swamp it once was.

salamander in netEarly fall is a good time for a pond clean-up.The frogs and salamanders I disturb are able to swim away and dig themselves into the mud again. If I leave it till later, when it’s much colder, they can be very sluggish and I worry about whether they’ll survive.

Dredge too early, in the spring, and the frogspawn and young salamanders will be destroyed.

Just like with the earth pond, fall is the optimum time for cleaning up a story! This is the time when a story’s process, motivations, scenes, points of view have become overgrown or tangled up in other weedy storylines, or even died off and disappeared into the undergrowth. Continue reading

Hey, What’s She Doing? Developing Character In The Short Story.

The Illuminated Crowd, sculpture by Raymond MasonJust had two stories accepted, and finally, finally finished the final draft of another story. Feeling pretty chipper (as in ‘OK, now I know what I’m doing’), I re-opened a story I’ve been wanting to finish since July 2012.

So much for thinking I know what I’m doing! I’ve no idea how to get into this story. As I’ve mentioned before, I love first drafts. The next stage is like cracking a nut.

Some nuts just don’t crack easily. You might have a lousy nut-cracker or the shell is too thick and resistant. So you try it from this angle, then that, get out the hammer. Some nuts refuse to open and you have to toss them away. But, if you’re lucky, finally a hairline crack appears, and now there’s a chance of getting to the kernel.

“God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.” Franz Kafka

When I was doing my MFA at Lesley University, my Advisor Brian Bouldrey wrote on one of my first drafts: “Now you’ll have to re-learn what you know.” At the time I had no idea what he was talking about.

But I’ve learned he’s right. There are Continue reading