Summertime Short Stories
Loved them ever since high school when I wrote an essay on Ray Bradbury and had to read many of the stories from The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. In college, I took two short story classes at the same time, flooding the semester with dozens of stories by dozens of American and Irish authors. Some I knew, some I only knew by their more renowned work like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Mark Twain. Some I did not know and so was introduced to words Katherine Ann Porter, Seán Ó Faoláin, Frank O’Connor and wonderful Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
I prefer Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro instead of The Old Man and the Sea; I’ve read most of Ray Bradbury’s collections including October Country, The Martian Chronicles and Quicker than the Eye; stories by Lit House guests Hannah Tinti, Laura van den Berg, Siobhan Fallon and Neil Gaiman.
What I enjoy most are the odd acts, the strange perspectives, and the incredible imagination that short stories can bring us. Some ideas are too beautiful for a full length novel. It takes great skill to craft a short story. Like a quick fire challenge on Top Chef, it takes focus to operate in a small window: 5,000 words or an amuse bouche. It begins with an opening sentence that, like a strong scent, will tell you so much about a dish without having seen it or tasted it. One of my favorite opening sentences is from Ambrose Bierce:
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.
~ An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Or this one from Ray Bradbury:
Quite suddenly there was no more road.
~ The Scythe
But I often forget to read short stories. Even though I have many collections from Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Stephen King and a subscription to One Story, I forget to trade the novel in for the collection. It is easy to get sucked into novel after novel, long stories that take time to develop characters and plots that demand a certain level of commitment, while also granting the possibility of putting the book down in the middle of the story. Short Stories are a different animal, asking that you sit for the entire duration of the story so you do not lose your way. I don’t like to break away in the middle of a short story, even if it is a 40-page short story by Irish author Sheridan le Fanu. Green Tea anyone?
Last summer, when Bradbury died on June 5, I began each weekday with a short story and for nearly six weeks I kept that routine. An early morning mental exercise that threw me into a new world and in a handful of sentences, a few paragraphs of a page or two, I had to find my way and determine who the narrator was where they were taking me. I began with The Machineries of Joy by, yes, Ray Bradbury. Though this book does not get the level of recognition as The Illustrated Man or The Martian Chronicles, it is still full of exciting stories, my favorite of which is “The One Who Waits.” After I finished the book, I moved on to a collection of American writers and read stories by Bernard Malmund, Samuel Clemens, and Jack London.
This summer I want to restart that routine and in the process branch out to some more current short story writers from some of the books I bought at AWP. On my short story shelf I have Ploughshares, Tin House, Gargoyle and the stack of unread One Story and One Teen Story booklets that await me.