Cell at Eastern State

Cell at Eastern State

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Songs, Jokes, Short stories, The Philadelphia Writers Conference and A Man With a Towel on His Head

"...the most fundamental question a reader has, consciously or unconsciously, when they are reading is, “Why are you telling me this?” So, you know, I want my students to think about that and also to think about what they have to write about that not everyone else does. I ask them an obvious question, but one that sometimes they don’t think of, which is, “Where is the first interesting sentence?” If it’s not the first one, then that’s something to attend to. And I don’t want them to waste their time or a reader’s time. They have plenty to compete with, in real life, so get to it! Get right to it!" (Amy Hempel, in an interview in Vice Magazine)

Last weekend I taught a class at the Philadelphia Writers Conference on short story. The experience was exhilarating, terrifying and ultimately a lot of fun. I had a chance to read a ton of great stories while I prepared, and not just for fun, but looking at them as exemplars of the elements of story - plot, character, dialogue, etc - and to think about what's going on in the stories I love.

The idea of writing first occurred to me when I read a short story called "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again," by Joyce Carol Oates. I was thirteen, and it was the first thing I can remember reading that wholly absorbed me, the voice of the narrator filling my head and hijacking my consciousness so that I was unaware of anything except that voice until I reached the end of the story. Reading that story changed the way I read and made me want to accomplish the same thing. That total absorption is what I hope for every time I start reading a piece of fiction, and it's the goal I start with every time I write.

I opened the class playing a Bruce Springsteen song called 'Stolen Car' and a Randy Newman song called 'Bad News From Home.' I told the attendees that a song wasn't a bad model for a short story: It's typically one or two characters in a compressed space and time, and it's designed to produce a single effect. The same parallel can be drawn with jokes, and a lot of the stuff I first read when I was very young was classic science fiction and horror that ended with something very much like a punchline - think of the great Twilight Zone episodes, some of them drawn from that same pool of fiction, that end with a single devastating or darkly funny revelation.

We talked about how stories work and where they come from (I had passed a car driven by a bald man with a towel draped on his head and offered it as a jumping-off place for a story.) I put together a list of short stories that I love and that taught me something about how to do the job. I've listed them below - tell me what you think. You already know some of these stories, and some may be tough to find, but they're worth reading more than once and each illustrate something important about craft. They're also entertaining, beautiful and compelling.

Stories: The Three Hermits, Leo Tolstoy. A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor. In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, Amy Hempel. The Most Girl Part of You, Amy Hempel. Work, Denis Johnson. Beverly Home, Denis Johnson. The Leopard, Wells Tower. The Tonto Woman, Elmore Leonard. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, Joyce Carol Oates. The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien. Cathedral, Raymond Carver.

1 comment:

  1. I've only read one of the short stories you've listed - the Flannery O'Connor story. I liked it, but I preferred Good Country People. The characters in Good Country People were memorable to me, even though I haven't read it in years.

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