The only short story that was easy for me to write was a gift for someone else. I wrote it in my sophomore year of undergrad for a class project. We could either write a paper on an author and his/her style, OR we could write a short story that borrowed the author’s voice. Being, you know…me, I took option two.
Writing in another author’s voice took the pressure off. I didn’t have to bare my soul. And the author I chose, Tim O’Brien, wrote about Vietnam, which enabled me to use my father’s stories and memories. It was a very heartfelt piece, but in the end, I was allowed to give it away. I handed the story to my dad and said, here, I wrote this for you. It meant the world to me that I was able to do this for him, but in the end, the memories, the burdens were still his to carry, even if I’d taken them on for a while.
Now when I write short stories, they’re for me. And they somehow consistently ask me to make sense of huge moments in my life and then carry those mapped out dissections around with me. My stories carry responsibility. They are tiring and treacherous. And yet, I keep writing them. This conjunction of difficulty and necessity seems to happen for a few reasons.
My short stories, are like my poetry in that they are breathless, often painful, purges, but they are unlike my poetry in that I actually want to share them. Which, for some reason, makes me feel like they have to be straight up realistic with grindingly actual events and sincere attempts at problem solving. They sometimes feel like I’ve fallen and scraped my knee, and I’m sitting there looking at the cut and thinking, well, shit, there’s probably a rock in there that I’m going to have to fish out, and won’t that suck. There’s no magic cure-all, no fantasy bandage…just a rock in a cut that I have to fish out. But it feels better once I do.
Also, short stories are short. So, not only am I trying to make sense of something that is, if not painful, at least helplessly prescient, but I am also trying to do so with a very limited number of pages and words. Short stories are like one of those slide puzzles, where you have to put all the letters in order, but they’re all interlocking and set in boundaries so you can only move one letter at a time. Each move has to count. You don’t want to repeat yourself or backtrack, and you have limited maneuvering room. If you mess up, it’s super obvious. Those little slide puzzles are unforgiving, and I think short stories are, too. But when you best them, it’s amazing.
And then there are themes. I can’t get away from a deep-seated, ingrained sense that short stories have themes. I think this comes from one too many pop quizzes in high-school literature classes. But I generally get wrapped up in figuring out what everything means, and then I forget that I don’t have to do that. It’ll come with time and thought. And when it does, when I can build a tree trunk and all of it’s branches, it’s pretty astonishingly awesome.
So, despite all this difficulty, or perhaps because of it, I can’t be without my short stories.