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“Happiness and Short Stories”

Happiness and Short Stories

Cynthia’s Column  July 2006

At my writing support group’s last retreat at Colony House, I found myself moved to write a short story.  I knew the first sentence and it led to the next and so on.  Before I knew it, I had written a draft of a 5,000 word, 20 page short story in about 3 hours.

The last time I wrote a short story was in college.  I read it out loud to my boyfriend of the time, so based on college carbon dating I must have been nineteen.  When I reached the end of the story, I was in tears and he was asleep.

I don’t think the fact that a boy fell asleep was the reason I haven’t written another short story in, well, let’s say 20 years.  (Call me Jackie Benny.)  Though it may have had something to do with that particular boyfriend not being around much longer.  I didn’t take criticism of my writing well at that age.  But being told (even nonverbally) by a lover that my writing was a snore probably wouldn’t go over well at any age.

The short story itself was strongly influenced by a J.D. Salinger short story, “A Good Day for Banana Fish” only anchored in my own childhood memories.

Over the years I’ve made a living writing TV and movie scripts and have toyed with novels, essays, plays, lyrics, librettos and poetry.  But no short stories, until this one sneaked up on me.

I have always felt that every writing idea that crops up has a perfect form and genre that it wants to be written in.  A great idea for a country song, for instance, might make an appalling movie.  As a great idea for a novel might make a bad play.  And when an idea occurs to me, I try to give it its own way until it leads me to the form it wants to be written in.  Plays I think are the trickiest.  Poetry seems most clearly to know its own identity.  As the first line comes into mind it’s usually obvious it wants to be a poem.

A couple of years ago, one of the brilliant writers in my critique group told me that a section of a memoir I was working on would be better if I wrote it like a short story.  I left scratching my head.  What did that mean, write it like a short story?  I didn’t have a clue.

I have admired short stories over the years.  As a kid, Ray Bradbury, O.Henry, Poe and Twain.  As an adult Isak Dineson, Melissa Bank and recently a collection by Elissa Minor Rust, a local Lake Oswego writer.  Her collection, The Prisoner Pear, is a small treasure chest.

I adored Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain” published in The New Yorker.  Those sixteen pages contained the whole story.  All the details, symbols, passion, character and events bootjacked into a powerful sixteen page package.  The movie opened it up visually, but added nothing of substance.  Annie Proulx had created Ennis and Jack’s world in its entirety.  It knocked me out.

When I called one of my best friends and told her I’d written a short story, she asked “What’s it for?”  Exactly how I normally think.  It’s not for anything.  It just is.  When you write for a living, it’s an incredible luxury to allow yourself to create something just because the story comes into your mind and starts speaking to you in sentences.

William Stafford said, “The only thing an idea has to do to be worthy of my attention, is occur to me.”  And this story occurred to me and I’m honored that it did.  It was a rush of joy to write it down.

Another friend emailed me the editorial guidelines for Harpers and Atlantic Monthly.  As I sped through PDX last week on my way to Santa Fe, I grabbed copies of these two magazines at the news-stand.  Being shocked that two magazines cost more than $12 without sales tax should tell you how long it’s been since I looked at them as literary markets for fiction.  I planned to tear out the short fiction and toss the magazines so I wouldn’t have to carry them.  But the Atlantic Monthly had no fiction at all.  The subheading “Fiction” in the table of contents meant book reviews.  Criticism.  Disappointing.  I left the magazine unmolested on an airport chair as a gift to someone looking for something else in a $6 magazine.

Harpers, was the opposite case.  Flipping through it, everything was literature.  Smart, fresh, deep, well-crafted.  So the whole magazine got treated to a plane ride.

In Santa Fe, between teaching classes, I found myself rewriting my short story nine times.  I cut the fat and added more meat.  And finally came to a place where I felt satisfied.  My job was done.

But I won’t be sending it anywhere.  It can’t be published.  Not in the lifetime of someone close to me who has known me since I was born.

When asked why his first books weren’t good and then he suddenly got much better as a writer, Pat Conroy answered, “My grandparents died.”  This is like that.

It’s okay.  Sometimes it goes this way.

Eugene O’Neill made his wife promise that Long Day’s Journey Into Night would never be published or performed.  If he’d truly meant that, he would have burned the manuscript.   His widow send it out into the world as soon as he was gone.  And thank God.  The History of the American Theatre would have been poorer for honoring his dying request.

I have no pretension or being Gene or J.D. or Pat or Bill, but this form has a kind of Genie in a Bottle magic to it.  If you hear a sentence and write it down, you can pull a golden thread that leads into a magical experience.  And once you’ve uncorked the bottle it may be hard to stopper it again.  Another short story first sentence is already tugging at my inner ear.  “The day my father died, I started speaking of myself in the plural.  ‘We’re okay.’  ‘We’re doing better.’  When really, there was only me.”

I’m starting to think of my family as the Glass family from Salinger’s stories.  I think about all the stories that live in one family over time.  And I begin to see my own family differently as if from the other side of the glass.  The Story Version of our lives.  As if everything remarkable that has happened to each one of us just needs a “Once upon a time” in front of it for it to be transformed into a Story.  The pen can be a magical wand.

I have always thought that if you’re a writer nothing is ever wasted.  No matter what happens to us, it can sooner or later be transformed into our work.  Tragedies are fused into art by our own fiery hearts.  The rubble of the disasters of our lives can be worked and crafted into something beautiful that can make you weep, even if your boyfriend falls asleep.

The first short stories I remember discovering on my own were by Ray Bradbury.  I was 11 or 12 and I can still picture the library shelf his books were on and how I worked my way down the row from Dandelion Wine to R is for Rocket and S is for Space.  Here’s what Ray has to say now after many decades of writing.

In the introduction to his most recent book, a collections of personal essays, Ray Bradbury wrote “In my later years, I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back.  Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy.  The answer is that every day of my life, I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating.  The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.”

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