Many aspiring novelists learn their craft by first writing short stories. This makes oodles of sense: the character’s goal is more immediate, its complications are fewer, and the supporting cast is more manageable. With the end never far from sight, its layers are easier to interweave. I’ve so believed in this logic that, over the past twenty years, I’ve accumulated way too many short story collections.
Why “too many”? Because despite my best intentions, I don’t read them. It goes something like this: I’ll read one story, say something to myself like “huh,” then look at the clock. And then I’ll think, “Damn, I could be forty-five minutes into a novel by now.”
This is a shameful admission, but what can I say—that’s how much I love the long form.
Only one collection stayed on my nightstand past the typical one-story cut: The Stories of John Cheever.
The collection came to me as part of a thoughtful Christmas gift. After hearing that my writing-heavy, high-school-English track had not introduced me to many of the must-read classics, my stepson, himself a high-school teacher, gifted me a bundle—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Updike’s Rabbit, Run—and among them was the surprise addition of the Cheever collection.
Cheever had already been gone from this world a good twenty years before I discovered him (just think on that a moment—wouldn’t you love to leave such a legacy?), but I immediately sensed that the man was telling stories from my life.
This at once both pissed off and excited me.
“Goodbye, My Brother”
I adore this story, which begins:
We are a family who has always been very close in spirit. Our father was drowned in a sailing accident when we were young, and our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.
The narrator’s family has four children, one of whom is a black sheep, but despite their differences, an inexorable pull brings them back together at the same vacation spot each year. In the year of the story, push comes to shove.
My family had five children, “black sheep” being more of a floating determination, but despite our differences, an inexorable pull still brings us back together at the same vacation spot each year. Push came to shove at any number of those gatherings. I’m novelizing a slant on that premise now.
“O City of Broken Dreams”
This tale of a Midwestern family spending their last dime on train tickets to New York City while pursuing their dream of selling the husband’s play, and finding that nothing in the city is as they thought it would be, could have been ripped from my family’s life. Several times over. Until I’d read Cheever, I’d never before realized such a story’s inherent and relatable drama.
“An Educated American Woman”
This is the story of a suburban woman who leaves her ailing son alone to attend a highway commission meeting, and her husband returns home to find him dying. It isn’t the plot of this one that snagged me so much as the description of the main character:
Her light-brown hair, at the time of which I’m writing, was dressed simply and in a way that recalled precisely how she had looked in boarding school twenty years before. Boarding school may have shaded her taste in clothing; that and the fact she had a small front and was one of those women who took this deprivation as if it was something more than the loss of a leg. Considering her comprehensive view of life, it seemed strange that such a thing should have bothered her, but it bothered her terribly.
No doubt these thoughts about distorted body image were seeds in my creative brain that bloomed into premise when conceiving of my first novel, The Art of Falling.
A couple revisiting locales from a happier time take their little girl skiing in Upstate New York, but an undercurrent of tension suggests all might not be well, right down to the surprise ending.
My family skied in Upstate New York, and after moving to Baltimore, we returned one year to our favorite mountain, staying nearby at the home of a pastor who was away for the Christmas holiday. The undercurrent of tension in our story was the complete lack of heat in the manse. We spent extra-long days exhausting ourselves on the mountain, where movement would keep us warm, and bought extra pairs of long underwear to get us through the nights.
I had many days like those depicted in the story, wondering about icy conditions and fraying tow ropes, believing that my father, with whom we rarely spent time, was my only true safety net.
Look at the inspiration mileage I got from this one: I suffused the seemingly normal sections of my novel The Far End of Happy with a similar undercurrent. The lack of heat found its way into my work-in-progress. I have a road trip novel on the back burner about a couple who is revisiting locales from happier times.
I could go on, but you get the picture. These stories spoke to me in a way that said, “You too can be a writer, look at all the material you are sitting on.”
For that awareness, I must thank John Cheever for embracing the short form, as well as my insightful stepson for the gift of the collection.
Are you also a hard-core lover of the long form, or did you start learning novel-writing craft through short stories? What short story collections (that you actually read!) have you found instructive or inspirational? Hit us with all of your must-read short story writers and tell us why!
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