The art of writing short stories: masters of the form at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest

Note: This article was first published a year ago on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Meagan Kus for copy editing.

Granville Island. Photo by Keith Dunn

For many years, I’ve been an eager attendee at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Granville Island.

 

(2016 was no exception, and my review of a recent event will be published soon on West Coast Editor.)

Like most editors, I’m an avid reader and an aspiring writer, and I never fail to be amazed and inspired by the panels of writers at each event. In 2015, one of the events I attended was the True to Form session, which focused on short stories. The writers on this panel were David Constantine, Steven Hayward, Greg Hollingshead, and Irina Kovalyova; the panel was expertly moderated by book critic, editor, and writer John Freeman. All of the authors are seasoned short story writers, with the exception of Kovalyova, who has just published her first book.

Why go to the Writers Fest?
There is nothing like a live performance, whether we’re talking about a rock concert, the theatre, or a Writers Fest event. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 90 minutes. It is wonderful to see these authors on the stage, to get some idea of the personalities behind the writing, to appreciate that most of them are consummate performers as well as writers (especially when reading their own work), and to get some understanding of what motivates them as writers. What are the seeds that germinate in these writers’ minds as they create their stories?

Sitting in a packed audience of people who were all there because they love literature, I felt a vast kinship with everyone in the room. As the writers shared some ideas about where short stories come from, I was reassured that I was grappling with key questions in my own attempts to write. These authors gave many helpful insights into what makes a short story a winner.

The short story as a metaphor for—?
Moderator John Freeman got the ball rolling by asking each panel member to suggest a metaphor for the short story. Irina Kovalyova said a short story is like a very small canvas that, despite its size, contains a whole world.

David Constantine introduced a new idea by saying a short story is like a container you scoop into a rushing river, removing a small part of that river, and then pouring it back in again. He was making the point that a good story has no closure (though convention pushes us to want closure in stories), because in real life there is never closure, and the river never stops moving. Constantine commented that Chekhov was a master at showing that any arbitrary closing is at the same time a new beginning.

I was comforted by Constantine’s analysis, because I’ve always struggled with my inability to contain my stories, to keep to a word count. Now I understand that beginnings and endings to stories are arbitrary. As a writer, I must choose a beginning and an ending, but it is inevitable (and desirable) that the story evoke the larger story of which it is but a part.

Greg Hollingshead followed Constantine by suggesting another water metaphor. He compared the short story to a whirlpool. His key point was that a short story contains centripetal energy—it’s spinning toward a crisis, not closure. In contrast, Hollingshead suggested, a chapter in a novel has centrifugal energy—it spins out into the world, forward and back.

Steven Hayward compared the short story to an unhealthy breakfast. He told a funny anecdote about lying to his mother on the phone about what he had eaten for breakfast—he told her he had had “the melon plate” when in reality he had eaten a breakfast called The Authentic. I’m unclear about how a breakfast is a metaphor for the short story—perhaps he was just making the point that an authentic short story has to be complete and honest?

Form in short stories
Freeman next steered the panelists toward a discussion of how writers can be creative with the form of short stories. When whole worlds have to be implied within such a constrained number of pages, are there special techniques that writers use? In answering this, some of the panelists segued into explaining where their story ideas come from and how their creative process expands the germ of an idea.

Kovalyova began by describing one of her short stories from her debut collection, Specimen. It’s a story about a mother and child trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. She structured her story with two different scripts, one on each side of the page. On the left side of each page runs the narrative of what is actually happening as the mother tries to keep her child calm. On the right side of each page is the mother’s interior dialogue as she struggles with her panic and the knowledge that she must stay calm for her child.

Hayward talked about his use of footnotes in short stories, a format used extensively by the late magnificent David Foster Wallace. Footnotes can be a way of cramming more into a short story and may actually contain all the punchlines or subversive comments about the more conventional words in the main text.

Hollingshead, speaking after Hayward, explained that he uses a very conventional structure in his stories in order to get away with having extremely weird characters. In fact, he said, his weird characters come from real life. He uses 4″ × 6″ cards to write down notes about unusual people or incidents that he might later incorporate into a story. He said that the conventionality of his structure allows him to disguise his real (but weird) characters as fiction.

Just as Hollingshead finds inspiration for his stories in real-life events and people, Constantine also draws upon real life for his ideas. Constantine spoke at length about the critical importance of place to his writing. He talked about his attachment to one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in England. These islands, said Constantine, though made of enduring granite, are “in a state of pure flux,” changing every moment with the tides, winds, light, and seasons. For him they illustrate the impossibility of writing a story with complete closure, when real life is ever-changing.

Finding things to write about, said Constantine, depends on paying attention to what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars.” We write about things that grip us, things that obsess us. We are compelled to write. Creativity doesn’t mean grabbing ideas out of the blue. It’s about working with memory and your own interpretation. I left the event feeling reassured that the “minute particulars” in my own life are worthy of writing about.

Dialogue
A few lines of dialogue can bring characters to life quickly. Hollingshead quoted Mavis Gallant, who used the expression “the dialogue of the deaf” to make the point that people typically don’t listen to each other. One speaker often uses the last few words of the other person’s speech as a springboard for what they want to say, whether there is any real connection or not. So in a story, the only dialogue that sounds real is dialogue that captures this “failure of communication.” For example, when three people are talking, it might sound like they are reading three separate scripts.

 

Performance
Unless you’ve been to the Writers Fest, you might not realize the sheer entertainment value it offers. All of the panelists in True to Form read portions of their latest stories, and they were all dramatic performers. But the star of this show had to be Steven Hayward. Before he went to the podium to read his story, he gave us the real-life backstory. He talked about living in Colorado Springs, where everyone is either an Olympian-in-training or a former Olympian, and about his discovery of Strava, a software program that measures and ranks athletic performance (in this case, in cycling).

When Hayward started reading his story at the podium, he turned into his fictionalized protagonist—a very funny fat guy. Hayward showed great dramatic flair and timing in his reading. His story was a perfect illustration of how to take an incident from your own life, exaggerate it, and give it to your created character to produce a fictionalized story that is even better than the original true story.

It was obvious why Hayward has been a successful stand-up comedian!

Masters of the short story
True to Form concluded with the panelists discussing which writers had particularly influenced them. All of them named Chekhov as the great master of the short story. Kovalyova read Chekhov first in Russian when she was young, and she commented that some nuances are lost in translation, yet good translators can add something too, with their own interpretation of the stories.

Hayward said that Alice Munro is the best at the modern, sophisticated short story. Though she doesn’t have as wide a range as Chekhov, she shows technical mastery. Hayward recommended Jim Shepherd highly. He also likes Charlie Baxter and Richard Ford. Kovalyova cited Edgar Allen Poe as one of her big influences.

I left True to Form with a renewed eagerness to read—I can’t wait to devour all of the panelists’ new books! In addition, I feel inspired and hopeful about writing my own stories.

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Deep reading: David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life

How many of us read novels anymore? How many of us read “difficult” books that force us to stop, think, re-read, argue with the author inside our heads? How many of us can still become obsessed by a book?

I don’t know the answers to these questions; I only know that over two months ago I was drawn into the orbit of David Shields’ book How Literature Saved My Life when I read a review about it in The Globe and Mail by André Alexis. The review itself was worthy of a blog post, but I decided to hold off until after I had read the book. Ever since then, I’ve been reading, re-reading, and trying to figure out how to write about it. Being engaged with a book’s ideas for over two months can count as an obsession, I think.

I can’t describe How Literature Saved My Life better than Alexis does in his review.

    …a book that relentlessly relates instances or art (books and movies in particular) to the life of the critic. We have here a book in which a man seeks passionately to discover the personally relevant in art while, at the same time, looking for that thing (“truth” you could call it, I suppose) that transcends the personal, that allows for a break from the self.

Shields is the kind of reader who always wants to make connections between his personal experience and what he is reading. In view of this, I found it curious that Alexis, in his review, prefaces some of his comments by writing, “I hate inserting the personal in assessing a book…”

And I immediately had the reaction—“But I always do that! What’s wrong that?”

Then, after I read How Literature Saved My Life, I thought about the irony of Alexis “apologizing” for being personal in the context of a book that makes all criticism personal—the book’s title doesn’t lie about its intentions.

While struggling (at times) with A How Literature Saved My Life, I realized that both Shields and Alexis are more sophisticated, experienced, and cynical readers than I am. But Alexis is different from Shields. In The Globe and Mail review Alexis states, “It has been a long time since I expected anything of literature. I accept that what writers do is only tentatively meaningful or significant.”

This is a pretty cynical remark from a writer, I thought! Alexis goes on to write, “I’m more interested in what I might be able to do with literature than what literature does with me.”

It makes sense that a writer cares about what he “might be able to do with literature,” but I was still surprised that a writer wouldn’t be immensely involved in others’ writing as well. Yet though Alexis describes How Literature Saved My Life as “one of the oddest books I’ve read,” he is full of praise for it, and admits to being grateful that the book provoked him to ask, “Well, what is it we do when we read?”

Shields certainly makes it clear why he reads and what it is that he does when he reads.

He reminds us of Samuel Johnson’s words: “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.”

Shields rejects Johnson’s first reason for reading books; he finds “books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time.” For Shields, reading is all about the second reason. He rejects not only “escapist” books but is repelled by what he calls the “tidy coherence” of traditional novels. He writes that this coherence “belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhibit and overwhelm us. I want work that…foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive.” [italics mine]

Shields is obsessed with the “problem” of how we live when we know that death awaits us no matter what we do. How do we make our lives meaningful and not despair?

Knowing why Shields reads, it’s no surprise that he’s a big fan of David Foster Wallace.

Quote from David Foster Wallace

Shields goes on to quote Wallace at greater length:

    I strongly suspect a big part of a writer’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

Shields’ reaction to the above is: “The only books I truly love do exactly this—”

Shields mentions Wallace’s most famous works, including the mind-boggling fiction opus Infinite Jest (1996). He gives his personal take on Wallace’s best-known essay, “Shipping Out” (from his first non-fiction book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997).

[As an aside, I’d like to add my own reaction to Wallace’s work: I tried to read Infinite Jest a few years ago. I spent months immersed in it. I recognized Wallace’s genius; I was fascinated by the book, its obsessive, indulgent detail and perverse humour, but I had to give up halfway through—it was too much. On the other hand, I loved all the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—they were small “bites” of Wallace that my relatively “normal” intellect could handle. After reading “Shipping Out” I questioned whether I would ever go on a cruise.]

Of course, the irony is that literature couldn’t save Wallace; he committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46.

[Aside #2: It seems terribly wrong that a mind as brilliant as Wallace’s could choose to extinguish itself. He had suffered from clinical depression for over 20 years.]

“All great books wind up with the writer getting his teeth bashed in”

The above is the heading Shields uses for the section in his book describing the “fifty-five works I swear by.”

This section is wild, intimidating, inspirational, educational. It reflects what you could call either Shields’ morbid cynicism or relentless honesty about the human condition. His choices seem largely dependent on his personal relationships with the books; how are they relevant to him?

Shields reminds us that Tolstoy said the purpose of art is to transfer feeling from one person to another. Shields wants writing that does more than that. He describes a kind of writing called collage. In collage, the movements of the writer’s mind aren’t merely entangled with the work’s meaning, they are the work’s meaning. Collage is more than a transfer of feeling; it’s a transfer of consciousness. This is what Shields is after, and many of the books he has loved are collage-style (as is How Literature Saved My Life itself).

I haven’t read many of Shields’ Top 55, but his descriptions and quotes from many of them are alluring.

His biggest book obsession is with Renata Adler’s Speedboat, about which he comments, “I can’t read it anymore. It’s one book I’ve read so many times that I feel, absurdly, as if I’ve written it…I learned how to write by reading that book until the spine broke.”

He calls Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams her best book because of what one of its characters says: “There is only one valid theme in literature. Life will disappoint you.”

He loves Annie Dillard’s advice about writing:

Quote from Annie Dillard

Shields provides examples of works of art whose richest material is not the apparent “subject” or the actual plot. For example, Ross McElwee’s film Bright Leaves “pretends to be about his conflicted relation to his family’s tobacco farm, whereas it’s really about the way in which we all will do anything—make a movie, smoke cigarettes, collect film stills, build a birdhouse, hold a lifelong torch for someone, find religion—to try to get beyond ourselves.”

Similarly, Frederick Barthelme’s ninth book, The Brothers, has a complicated plot that includes familiar Barthelme themes about middle-aged men’s ennui, divorces, relationships with younger women, etc., but “the novel’s true subject is Del’s attempt to reclaim his presence in the world by seeing it as breathtaking, as beautiful.”

Del says at the end of the book, “it was one of those nights when the air is like a glove exactly the shape of your body.”

Now that is a breathtaking and beautiful sentence.

My reactions to How Literature Saved My Life

I can deeply admire Shields’ writing, his humour, and his insights into great books without wholly sharing or understanding this statement: “We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb.”

I agree that our culture provides us with endless choices and distractions. But a lot of the choices are stimulating and eye-opening. We can use self-control to avoid trivial distractions—maybe some people are better at this than others. Am I bored? Never. Am I numb? Never. I don’t even understand why Shields feels this way.

One of my biggest disagreements with Shields is his assessment of escapist literature and even the traditional novel. For me, one of the saddest paragraphs of the book was this one:

    Forms evolve. Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason—or so I have to believe, the novel having long since gone dark for me…

Has technology made the novel irrelevant?

According to Shields, the novel “was invented to access interiority”. In a culture where young people communicate mainly through social media and don’t seem to have the old notions about privacy, what purpose does the novel serve?

His other criticism of the novel is that “It’s nearly impossible now to tell a story that isn’t completely familiar and predictable.”

Do the above points mean the novel is no longer relevant? I think not. I’ll bet the vast majority of readers can still be enthralled by a well-told story. Maybe I’m a less jaded and more easily entertained reader than Shields, but to me it doesn’t matter if the great universal themes are repeated. Writers build new stories and new characters around these themes and tell their story using a unique voice; that’s good enough for me.

Technology, social media, and new forms of communication

Shields believes that readers’ short attention span is incompatible with reading a traditional novel.

It’s certain that new forms of writing and communicating, made possible by the Internet, social media, e-devices, and other technologies, are competing for readers’ attention. I’ll admit I was astonished by this factoid: “By far the most popular novels of our era are interactive, plot-driven video games: 11 million people subscribe to World of Warcraft alone…”

Shields is cynical about the power of the Internet. He comments, “The power of the technology cancels itself out via its own ubiquity. Nothing really changes: the individual’s ability to project his message or throw his weight around remains miniscule.”

I don’t agree, though the Internet’s potential is a double-edged sword. It gives us all control of our own work and the way it’s marketed; there is the possibility of gaining a huge global audience, but at the same time we’re competing with a global pool of writers in a sea of distractions. You have to be gifted and pushy to get noticed, but it’s possible to be noticed by large numbers of people.

Can writing done in blogs and other forms of social media lead to the creation of good books? Rarely, says Shields, but it does happen, and he cites Justin Halpern’s Shit My Dad Says as an example. Shields admires the immediacy and “naked feeling” of the blog form. He says:

    Books, if they want to survive, need to figure out how to coexist with contemporary culture and catalyze the same energies for literary purposes…Concision is crucial to contemporary art…The paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle is everything. [italics mine]

Does How Literature Saved My Life have that “paragraph-by-paragraph sizzle”?

Is it a “successful” book in today’s multimedia-heavy culture?

The answer, paradoxically, is yes and no. Yes, the book has concision, as Shields breaks it down into the short sections typical of a collage-style work. Yes, it has sizzle. Shields writes with brilliance and wit as he mines his own sexual experiences, character flaws and most despairing moments to illustrate his points.

But it would be wrong to equate “concise” with “easy”. Make no mistake, this is a book for readers who are akin to Shields himself, readers who are unafraid to confront the most difficult questions of what it means to be human, readers who find consolation rather than discomfort when exposed to a writer’s most intimate thoughts. This is a book for readers willing to think deeply and to be guided, by Shields’ quirky personal taste, to more “deep reading”.

Shields’ conclusion is a fitting summary of his book’s exploration:

    I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.