June 24, 2008

Ode to the Short Story

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a creative writing class I took my senior year of college as kind of a little treat. I had finished almost all of my credits, and there weren’t enough classes being offered in the summer semester as I needed to fill my schedule. So, I supplemented with a little literary dessert.

The class was taught by Myrna Marler, a name and personality I still remember quite vividly. She had silvery short hair and was really skinny. She wore strappy brown sandals most days, and she bent her knees to her chest in her desk chair sometimes while listening to students read their writing. She was on loan from BYU Hawaii and talked about her tropical garden almost every class period. She taught me a great deal about literature as an art form, especially concerning short stories.

I always figured short stories were easier to write than anything else. With poetry, you have to worry about rhyme and rhythm, sound quality and vocabulary. And your space was usually somewhat confined. And novels seemed far beyond my reach. Detailed plot, character development, meaningful dialogue, and the list goes on. It’s difficult to achieve all those things at such a length as novels require. However, I changed my mind on further inspection. Short stories, if they are really good, must have the lyric quality of a poem, considering rhythm and flow, with all the meaning, development, and detail of a novel. With a short story, you’ve got no stretching room as you get with a novel and you can’t manipulate language in the same way you can with poetry to make the puzzle fit together just right. In essence, the short story is a poem in a few pages.

In composing a short story, you get a small canvas and mosaic tiles. Every word has got to count, and if you can’t make it happen, your picture will look like a botched art project, a silly infantile attempt. A Mona Lisa drawn with jumbo crayons, glitter, and glue sticks, completed with a two-year-old’s pudgy and awkward grip.

In any case, my creative writing class, I believe, did make me a better writer, but more than that, it made me a much more aware reader. Our study of short stories made me look at them in a new way, which, unfortunately for me, this a-ha! moment came at the end of my academic experience. As I go on my way as a dedicated life-long learner, I can use my new perspective to benefit. One of the greatest of which has been to re-read some of my favorites over the years. Myrna Marler opened my eyes to the wonders of the short story.

So, to you, short story, I salute you. And a double salute to those who can actually write them!

Have a look, if I may entice you, at my personal haven of short story goodness. Click on the links to see the full text of each short story.

William Carlos Williams
The Use of Force (full text)

I know, what a name! I think I’ll name my son something similar in hopes that he will aspire to WCW! He was born in New Jersey in 1883. He rubbed literary shoulders with Ezra Pound and James Joyce. He knew he wanted to become a doctor and a writer, and he was fortunate enough, and perhaps driven enough, to excel at both, which few could boast. He became a pediatrician, which must have given him ample material for this short story! He was known as an innovator and experimented with many different styles of writing. He won the National Book Award in 1950 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 (posthumously) for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.

Flannery O'Connor
A Good Man is Hard to Find (full text)

Flannery was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. Her father died of lupus when she was 15, which disease would also claim her life at an early age. She was born into a Southern Catholic world, which she criticizes with a style that mixes comedy with tragic brutality, referred to as Southern Gothic. Of her writing she said, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” She leaves her readers with disturbing and ironic conclusions. She was interested in birds and trained a chicken to walk backwards as a child. She was diagnosed with lupus in 1951 and was told she would live maybe 5 years. She, however, lived 15 more years and passed away at the young age of 39. In her time, she wrote 32 short stories and two novels. The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, named in her honor, is a prize given annually to an outstanding collection of short stories.

Alice Walker
Everyday Use (full text)

Alice was born in 1944 also in Georgia. She became blinded in one eye from an accident as a child. In college, Alice became active in many causes including civil rights, welfare, children’s rights, and voting. She married a Jewish civil rights lawyer, and she and her husband were the first interracial couple in Mississippi, which spawned threats and harassment from the community. She was instrumental in bringing to light lost details of the life of Zora Neale Hurston, another African American woman writer. She is known for writing on themes of sexism, racism, and poverty, especially in portrayal of African American women. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple.

Doris Lessing
A Woman on a Roof (full text)

Doris was born to British parents in Persia (now Iran) in 1919. Her family moved to Southern Rhodesia (at the time, a British colony, now Zimbabwe) in 1925. Her father ran a farm that eventually failed. Doris was formally educated until age 14. After that, Doris was taught at home and spent a lot of time reading. Her mother raised her in a strict fashion, and she is known to have said that her childhood was riddled with painful experiences. She left home as a teenager and worked at different jobs. Her employer gave her material to read dealing with politics and sociology. Doris became interested in and then disillusioned with the communist movement. Her writing is reflective of many of her life experiences and social as well as women’s issues. Doris has been writing for many years and has quite a library of works. She published a book this year and has announced that it will be her last. Among many awards she’s been given in her lifetime, Doris won the Nobel Prize in 2007, becoming the eleventh woman and the oldest person to ever be given the honor.

William Faulkner
A Rose for Emily (full text)

William was born in 1897 in Mississippi. He was known for his experimental style, meticulous attention to diction and cadence, and stream-of-consciousness writing. Most of his stories are set in the South. He wrote mostly from a farm in Mississippi. Faulkner was an alcoholic, although he never drank while writing and did not believe that it fueled the creative process. Many believe he used alcohol as a way to escape the pressures of continuous financial problems. Later on in his career, he moved to Hollywood and worked as a screenwriter. Throughout his life, he wrote many short stories and several novels, along with poetry. Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of all time. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949 and two Pulitzers in 1955 and 1963 (posthumously).

1 comment:

brittani c. said...

Thanks for these little jewels...some of them I've never read before. A Rose for Emily is a classic...love that one! And I love Flannery O'Connor.