Read Flannery O’Connor. Read Joy Williams. Read William Maxwell.william maxwell Read about the universe. Read about neuroanatomy. Read “On the Origin of Species.”

Yes, really!

Yes, really!

Read “Nine Stories.” Read Tolstoy. Read Carson McCullers. Read Edward P. Jones. Read Willa Cather. Read Yasunari Kawabata. Study atlases and maps. Read E.B. White. Read fairy tales. Remember that “fresh new voices” can come from people over forty. Find those writers and read them. Read Shakespeare. Read Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis. Compare. At least once a week, read a book published by a small press. Read, read, read poetry. Learn the names of all the insects that inhabit your backyard. Or make up names for them. Read Freud. Read graphic novels. Read prose poetry and flash fiction. Study the dictionary. Read a book about a place you never heard of from a writer whose name you can’t pronounce. Read naked. Find and read a newspaper from the day you were born. Or any old newspaper. old newspapersLearn another language, then read a novel or poetry in that language. Read “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” out loud with no children fish two fish Read philosophy. Buy a thick notebook and write “Sentences I Love” on the cover. Fill it up and buy another one. Read collections of short stories. Read both print and online journals. Read the history of the town you grew up in. Read Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and the Bronte sisters. Read Katherine Mansfield and Shirley Jackson and Kõbõ Abe. Read Grace Paley. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Read long into the night until the characters walk around in your dreams. Read “The Dead” at least one winter afternoon a year. And if your mother or your aunt or your grandmother want to tell you their stories, drop everything you’re doing and listen.

*Originally published as one of my writing tips for Lascaux Review.

My Tattered Copy of Best American Short Stories 1998: A Short Story Writer's Primer *

story pageThe first (contemporary) short story I ever read was “Appetites” by Kathryn Chetkovich. It was the first story in the 1998 volume of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Garrison Keillor. That story knocked me out. I think I read the whole volume in one sitting. I was 38 years old and falling in love, for the first time, with literary short fiction.

Up until then I believe I thought that short stories had been discontinued after 1890. Like most people I knew, I read novels exclusively. I read whatever was on the bestseller list. I read The Thorn Birds on the train in to work. I read the latest Stephen King. In 1998 I was living with my family in Australia. I’d recently given birth to my fourth child. My days and nights were given over to childrearing. Slack-jawed from sleep deprivation and lack of adult contact besides the checker at the grocery store, I needed an outlet. So I signed up for a creative writing class (something dopey like: Explore Your Creativity Through Writing!) held every Saturday morning above a health food store in Bondi.

That class turned out to be the most fun I’d had for a long time. It completely woke me up. I was the suburban housewife amidst the sweetest group of young hippies and surfer dudes there ever was. We were given prompts and wrote exercises, but the instructor wanted us to keep in mind that by the last class we were to have completed a Short Story. All I could remember of short stories were the obligatory stories we read in English 101. Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain and so forth. Homework. Was I supposed to write something like that?

After one of the classes I went into a nearby bookstore and discovered The Best American Short Stories 1998. Perfect. Short stories. American ones. The best.BASS 1998

I still have it. I’ve reread it countless times. Its front cover has fallen off and there’s writing in the margins and sentences I’d run over with pink highlighter and exclamation marks all over the place. On some of the pages there are scribbles courtesy of an impatient toddler made to sit on my lap while I read. On the first page of Poe Ballantine’s story I’d written “HOLY SHIT” (the extent of my critical reading skills at the time) and that was pretty much how I felt about all the stories. Looking at the book now, I feel the same rush of joy I felt when I read it in 1998.

I saw what a short story could be and what it could do. I wanted to write stories this good. I wanted to learn everything and to read every short story I could get my hands on. This book was my primer. Each story held a lesson or a revelation.

I’ll just mention a few here:

“Appetites” by Kathryn Chetkovich: It’s okay to be funny. The tender parts are all the more moving if there are funny parts, too.

“The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue” by Poe Ballantine: The glory of specific details. The holy truth that is childhood. And my own childhood was worth writing about.

“Glory Goes and Gets Some” by Emily Carter: Voice, voice, voice! The truth is that there is humor in tragedy.

“Body Language” by Diane Schoemperlen: There’s more than one way to tell a story. You can be innovative and original.

“Flower Children” by Maxine Swann: This is one of my all-time favorite short stories. It’s so full of amazing details. How language can sing. It shows the way a story can subtly arc and shift right out from under you. And whoosh, there’s that beautiful and breathless final paragraph.

The authors’ notes at the end of the book were also a revelation for me. Most of the stories had gone through several drafts, some took years to write. This didn’t deter me. It thrilled me. I felt a kinship to these writers who were all new to me then. Short story writing was something worth dedicating one’s life to. The world was complicated, baffling, and lonely. But here was short fiction, offering me a way in. And when you’re 38 years old and you’re just discovering this for the first time, it feels like nothing short of a miracle.

*For throw back Thursday…This essay was originally published for Short Story Month in 2012 on David Abram’s blog, The Quivering Pen.

Watermelon (short story month)

It was like the time we broke icicles dripping from the low eaves and brandished them like swords, slashing and sparkling, and you cut my cheek and dropped your weapon. Or the time we got up early and hiked until we came to a cliff and looked down into the valley covered in dew and you made to push me over the edge, but grabbed me around my waist before I fell. The night you ran away, you stood under the barn light, tapping your fist on your palm while I called you names, telling you I never liked you anyway, ugliestworstmosthorrible brother ever. You left anyway, hitchhiked all the way to Houston and one night months later, we looked up and saw you at the table, eating watermelon in the dark.

(This story is one of the shortest I’ve ever written, but one that took the longest to write. It’s included in both “Wild Life” and “Together We Can Bury It.” It was originally published in the great Quick Fiction.)

Caitlin Horrocks ~ Opening a Story (Short Story Month)

One of my favorite short story collections that I’ve read recently is “This Is Not Your City” by Caitlin Horrocks. I recommended it for The Lit Pub. Horrocks is a writer to study. I’m particularly taken with her openings. Every story in the collection opens strongly. Here, for example is the opening of “Going to Estonia”:

“Ursula Kotinlainen left the north on January second, a Sunday. She’d already been on the bus for two hours when a boy with acne and a wispy moustache got on in Sodankyla and sat in front of her. He wiped the condensation off the window and waved frantically to an old woman outside, shouted as the bus pulled away. At a highway rest stop outside Kemi, the boy stood outside the men’s toilets puffing out great gouts of air, trying to step forward into the clouds before they disappeared. He had a strange, flat face, and as Ursula watched him choke with laughter at his own breath she thought there was something wrong with him. But it was the first time she’d seen the sun rise in over a month, and as she looked at the boy, at the haze of exhaust the idling bus exhaled, at her own breath, she could believe that there was warmth in the belly of the world.”

It’s an incredible story. This strange boy she observes so closely at the beginning of her journey will not figure into the rest of the story, at all, but what’s important here is what she observes, how she observes, and where her mind is in this moment. That is the jumping off point and already, I want to know this Ursula. All of Horrocks’ stories did this for me, in the all-important opening paragraphs.

"Flower Children" by Maxine Swann (Short Story Month)

This is one of my all-time favorite stories. It’s beautiful, honest, harrowing. These are the last few sentences, which I have memorized:

The leaves on the apple trees are all turning blue. The sunflowers in the garden are quivering, heads bowed–empty of seed now. And the heart gets watered and recovers itself. There is hope, everywhere there’s hope. Light approaches from the back. Between the dry, gnarled branches, it’s impossible to see. There are the first few drops. There are the oak trees shuddering. There’s a flicker of bright gray, the underside of one leaf. There was once a child standing at the edge of the yard at a terrible loss. Did she know this? Yes. The children! (They have her arms, his ears, his voice, his smell, her soft features, her movements of the hand and head, her stiffness, his confusion, his humor, her ambition, his daring, his eyelids, their failure, their hope, their freckled skin–)

“Flower Children” originally appeared in Ploughshares and was reprinted in BASS 1998. The story can be read online here: Flower Children

Falling in love with literary short fiction: My post at The Quivering Pen for Short Story Month

Asked to write something for David Abrams’ fantastic lit blog, The Quivering Pen, for Short Story Month (or week, for the blog), I wrote about my first introduction to contemporary short fiction, Best American Stories 1998:

I still have it. I’ve reread it countless times. Its front cover has fallen off and there’s writing in the margins and sentences I’d run over with pink highlighter and exclamation marks all over the place. On some of the pages there are scribbles courtesy of an impatient toddler made to sit on my lap while I read. On the first page of Poe Ballantine’s story I’d written “HOLY SHIT” (the extent of my critical reading skills at the time) and that was pretty much how I felt about all the stories. Looking at the book now, I feel the same rush of joy I felt when I read it in 1998.

Read the entire article here: The Quivering Pen

And while you’re there read the great posts on the short story by Dawn Raffel, Darlin’ Neal, Eugene Cross, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Alyson Hagy.

Joy Williams Makes Me Laugh and A Story by Me

Joy Williams

Oh man. I’ve finally gotten around to reading a novel by Joy Williams. I’ve read her short story collections and reread them. She just floors me. But now I’m reading The Quick and The Dead. Oh it’s an odd novel. I’m not getting “caught up in the plot”. You never do with Joy Williams. You get caught up in the language, the dialogue, the places and the characters. Joy Williams is funny too. Am I the only one who thinks this? Woman makes me laugh. It’s such a wicked, biting sense of humor. I think she’d be funny to talk to.

Come on. Does that not look like someone who likes to laugh?

John Minichillo told me that Joy Williams once bought him a beer. I’m so jealous.

I mean, maybe this isn’t supposed to make me laugh, but it did:

“He felt as resourceful as the Cub Scout he had once been. He hoped all his cub mates were dead, the little bastards.”


So I’m reading The Quick and The Dead very, very slowly because I love Joy Williams’ sentences. Sometimes her stories are devastating. I wonder if this novel will be devastating. I don’t get the sense that it will in the same way some of her stories are. “Honored Guest” kills me every time.

It’s Short Story Month

I love that short story month exists. I’m writing a short essay for David Abrams’ blog, The Quivering Pen. I’m thinking a lot about what short stories mean to me and it’s funny, but as a writer, I am a relative latecomer to the marvel that is the short story. I’ll say more about it on David’s blog.

In honor of short story month, I thought I’d link to a few of my stories which appear in my new collection, TOGETHER WE CAN BURY IT (I’m also going to link stories that I love by other people). That first printing sold out so fast I feel almost as if the book has disappeared. But it will be back soon and I hope lots of people read it. The thing about publishing a book, for me, is that it creates an incredible urge to go hide under the covers. What is that?

I think it’s that I feel so exposed. Uncomfortably so. And yet, I truly do want people to read my stories. Writing is my chance to speak up and say what I want to say in a fictional way. In a family of talkers and storytellers, I am the quiet one. My publisher, Molly Gaudry, at The Lit Pub has given me some author questions and I’m taking a ridiculous amount of time answering them. I have to talk about This. Writing. Myself. Myself as a Writer. And Me as a Person. It’s daunting. I go very quiet. Can I just write a story instead?

A Story by Me

One of the stories in TOGETHER WE CAN BURY IT is “Snow” which appeared originally in the lit journal, New South. The editor of New South surprised me by taking two of my more experimental stories. This one originally was one very, very long paragraph. I broke it up here, at Fictionaut, to give readers’ eyes a break. I have a sort of love affair with snow and winter. I like shorter days and the perfect, slanted light that happens around 4:30 and the way a new snow transforms a landscape and the world gradually becomes breathtakingly foreign.

Click on this pretty picture to read “Snow” by me.