December 21 is National Short Story Day.
The short story is a wonderful art form. A novel might be a “wallow,” a lengthy wander around a world or a psychological conundrum, watching a character chance, and grow, succeeding and failing in fits and starts. Comparatively, a short story is a deep dive that immerses the reader for perhaps only a few minutes, but ideally leaves them with a new perspective to ponder for days or even a lifetime afterward.
A short story is not a photograph, a frozen moment in time, but rather a complete plot arc with a beginning, middle, and end, and the main character’s development, if not outright transformation, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
This holiday season has some popular ones: The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. The spare, carefully chosen words in both give readers a complete plot arc, from the ponder of the perfect gift, to the trials of obtaining it, to the revelation of the gift’s “cost” and Jim’s realization of how connected he had become to “things” when in fact he had the greatest “non-thing” of all: his wife’s loving heart. Another is often read to children on Christmas Eve: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. Again, complete from the settling in for sleep, to the surprise and arrival of the “jolly old elf” to his departure once again, leaving behind the narrator gifted with the awe and wonder of the new believer.
I don’t know that I’ve ever written a short story with the level of impact of either O. Henry or Moore. But I strive for it. Nearly 20 years ago I took a short story writing workshop to devote some attention to this narrative form. I wrote two stories during that semester which I’ve not been inclined to share anywhere “publicly” because they’re actually both kind of stark and somewhat sad. The workshop instructor likened the style to Flannery O’Connor.
Here’s a sample from “At Home With the Coopers.” The story dives into the lives of a married couple one evening after work.
Caroline had already set out the card table, set up the Scrabble board and racks for the letters. She dropped the scorepad on the table by her seat and crossed the room to greet her husband at the door.
“Anything interesting in the mail?” He kissed her and squeezed her elbow with a smile before she backed up and went to her seat at the card table. She watched him settle into the folding chair, and start picking out the pieces for play.
“No. Online it was junk mail and the box was junk mail too.”
“Well, at least no bills,” he chuckled. “That’s something.”
“I checked the balance,” she said, shuffling the letter pieces around on her rack.
“Where would you like to go for vacation this year?”
“Ah, yeah. Right. What’d we do last year? Barbados?” He shuffled some letters around again, waiting for her answer.
“You got a word?”
“No. You go first.”
Chaz liked going first. Words were his life. He almost always had quite a unique one to start off the game. Tonight he wasn’t so fortunate, and Caroline laughed as he placed six of his seven tiles: C-H-A-R-T-S. “11, makes 22 for double-word score,” he said with a frown.
Caroline groaned. One vowel to work from wasn’t much. She studied her tiles and was surprised to come up with a good one, after rethinking twice, teasing Chaz by laying down half the letters then pausing to pick them all back up again, before settling on: B-U-N-T-I-N-G on the T from “charts.”10,” Caroline replied, writing down their scores for round 1.
Play continued back and forth for several more rounds, and Chaz came up with the Z, using it triumphantly across a triple-word score, in GRAZE. “Hmph,” he said. “Top that. What’s the score now?”
“Why don’t you go change the CDs out. We’ve heard ‘Orinoco Flow’ at least three times now,” Caroline remarked as the song in question started yet again on the player.
Caroline studied her letters as Chaz stretched and went to change the CD. But all she could see was the image in her mind of crossing the desert on camels and out of the windswept sands rose the majesty of the ancient pyramids, or a bedouin camp. She could smell the Moroccan and African dishes they’d dine on each night. It was almost an obsession, she realized. She hoped this year to convince Charles they could take that guided tour of North Africa. They had three weeks vacation coming, so why couldn’t they use all of it?
I’m not sure if the whole story is worth much, but I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, so reading back to a “lower tech” time period was enjoyable for me. I hope everyone enjoys their holidays coming up.