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The Role of the Short Story in America
The Role of the Short Story in America

As a child, did you love Cinderella? Was your nose
perpetually tucked in comic books? Did you huddle around a campfire and enjoy the fear of ghosts? Most of us grew up with stories that we loved to hear and tell again without thinking about what they really were. Those of us who did think a little more about it than others might have developed that chronic urge, the one that led you here: The need to write your own stories.
Want to learn more? Take an online course in Writing the Great American Short Story.

What is a Short Story?

From fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, parables, jokes and anecdotes rises the short story, a form that America appreciates but sometimes dispels in favor of novels, movies, or -- increasingly -- blogs. But the form lives on and new stories are being written every minute of every day. Some of them will stand the test of time; others will never leave the notebooks or computers where they were conceived.

In this class, your goal is to learn more about the short story form and write one short story using traditional narrative techniques. (For experimental works, flash fiction, prose poems, and song lyrics, try another course.) Here, we will center attention on building plot, character and language in order to create a solid story that someone else just might enjoy reading.
There's more to writing than sitting at the keyboard. Most of us also want to become published writers -- but that's not always easy. The challenges of a writer go beyond the page; in this course you'll look at the whole picture.

Who Writes Short Stories?

Some of the best short story writers in history are American. Among the ranks are Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor. At the very end, you would find writers like Mary Gaitskill, Madison Smart Bell, Edward P. Jones, Lee Smith, Richard Bausch and Richard Ford -- modern-day writers who had a hand in developing the short story form as it now stands in America.

But what does it mean to you that American writers are among the best? It might mean you have a hard act to follow, or that you have unlimited inspiration. I hope you'll be optimistic and consider the glass half-full. Writing isn't easy, but most people can write something resembling a story with a little effort. It's when you decide to raise the level of that effort that you become a short story writer. From my own experience, I can tell you that you have taken on a great challenge that is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating.

You will have your own ups and downs as a writer (if you haven't already). But if you're here in this class, you can enjoy a certain state of grace in knowing that you're going to write a short story. Raise the level of effort high enough and it will be the best one you have ever written.

Who Wants to Read Short Stories?

Anyone writing short stories in America today is facing one of the most difficult publishing environments in decades. Many major magazines have stopped publishing fiction, and rarely are emerging authors able to debut with a short story collection.

The good news is that there are many magazines that exclusively publish fiction and poetry. We call them literary or "small" magazines, and most of them are amateur operations with small budgets. Some writers plunge in, sending their stories out en masse to every literary magazine in Duotrope's Digest (www.duotrope.com). What they don't know is that the readership for the typical literary magazine usually consists of writers who want to be in the magazine and the mothers of those currently published in it. This incestuous audience is hardly what most literary artists have in mind when putting pen to page.

But there is hope. A few major publishers and smaller houses regularly publish anthologies of stories that astute editors have culled from the literary magazines. One series in this category is Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Short Stories, produced and distributed annually. Make it here and you'll have the audience you were hoping for -- ordinary Americans who want to read extraordinary work.

Who Wants to Read Your Short Story?

What point is there in writing a story if nobody ever reads it? When you create a role for yourself as author, you have a responsibility to your work: Get it out there so it can be read, so it can affect and inspire others, so that you will be able to move on and write another story, and another.

As you develop your writerly "sea legs," you might also reach out to local writing groups whose members can provide you with feedback and opportunities to publish or present. If your hometown seems hopelessly non-literate, look on the Internet for writing support.

I hope the story that you write will grow wings and fly -- send it to magazines, to anthologies, to contests.

But, for now, let's start writing.

Answering the Muse

Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about...)

-- Issac Asimov

Before you can begin writing a story, you need to know what story you will write. In this lesson, we'll consider how a short story is born.

Some people begin writing fiction because a story has taken hold in the brain and insists on being written. This situation deserves first mention because it is so common. Our experiences in life, stored in memory, tend to build momentum as time passes. Unknowingly, we begin to solidify these memories through narrative; we then have the seed of fiction. This is a gift -- so if you are one who is intent on a certain story, then you have already taken the first step.

Along the road of life we stop here and there to gather material for the fiction we want to write. Some stories are like butterflies: They appear suddenly, ominously, and dazzle you with their beauty. But, within a moment, they disappear. Others are more like houseflies: They simply won't leave. Buzzing and circling your head, they demand action. The only way to swat the fly is to write it down. So, your first lesson is to become aware of the butterflies and houseflies that come to you; they are your muses.

Through short story writing, you have the chance to do what many people would like to do: Preserve a memory, analyze it, make it more magnificent or more ugly. You can add to it, subtract, manipulate it like a lump of clay. What I'm saying here is that most fiction is -- in the beginning -- rooted in reality, in experience. The experience doesn't have to be your own: The stories you've heard from your non-writer friends or family members are your material, too.

When the Muse Is Absent

If you can't think of anything to write a story about, you can employ a few of the standard techniques that writers have come up with over the years. One of my favorites involves using a photograph. Find one that appeals to you and sit down with your notebook. Concentrate on the photograph for a few minutes, letting go of any worries or distractions. Allow the image to channel through your consciousness. Eventually, a word or phrase will come to you. Write it down. When another comes, write it down. Repeat this action until you find yourself with a story.

Close observation of your surroundings will help you gather material. Many fiction writers are exceptionally nosy and voyeuristic. I count myself among this group: Sometimes I sit so I can see the houses across the street from me. I don't know all my neighbors, and I'm forced to imagine what their lives are like. The overweight man who drives a tan Ford Taurus and comes home in the early afternoon is especially interesting to me. I wonder why he doesn't work until five, like everyone else. Why is he overweight? Why does he look so sad? He's conflicted about something, and that makes for a good main character.

Speculation is the core of fiction writing. Look around you and fill in the gaps -- you'll find that characters are begging for your attention. Remember, however, that characters are just one element in a story. Put your most intriguing character into a most intriguing situation (maybe my overweight neighbor goes to a funeral of someone he hardly knows?) and you'll have fuel enough for pages.

    (If you're wondering who the short story muse is, there isn't one. Short stories weren't around in ancient Greece; their stories were narrated orally.) By the way, you should never sit around waiting for a muse to visit you. Sometimes, she doesn't show up. Start writing without her, and-- eventually -- she'll arrive.

    Gathering Your Material

    When your muse pops in every so often to drop a story idea on you, then your should sit up and pay attention.

    When you have a story idea, write it down in a journal or diary (I use the back section of my daily planner). You can't write every story right away, so put it in the pickling juice and go on. Read through your ideas from time to time, crossing out the ones that have lost their muster. Also cross out the ones that seem too cumbersome. Keep the simple ideas and the ones that give you chills in your spine. Maintain this practice for a year and you'll find that you always have a few good story ideas in the queue.

    Get Started

    Now, the time has come: You must decide what story you want to write for this course. Even if you think you already know, pretend that you don't. Sit quietly for a few minutes and clear your thoughts. Somewhere inside, you have the answer.

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