Friday, May 02, 2008

Short Stories

I thought teaching contemporary poetry here at Plymouth University might trigger me back to writing my own. Well, not quite. The creative writing teacher's load is much more full-on in the UK university system than in the US. I managed a novel in the past year by embracing the freedom of summer 2007, but the preparation / teaching / marking / admin aspects of the job stopped anything else squeaking through.
Now summer's just about touching the UK again. A marking load is set to swamp my May, but I've just had a few more relaxed days. In choosing the works for next year's story module, I've been reading and reading short stories. I was shooting for The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford's recent selection, then shot back to his previous one. They both contain real gems but quite a deal of American realist sameness. I needed a collection I could love. Years ago, at the now defunct Pan Bookshop in London, I attended a reading given by Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and Jonathan Raban - quite a heady trio. Carver has since won himself classic, posthumous status. Raban was the most fun. Ford, fresh from The Sportswriter, was genial enough but one from the jock school of writing, too dry for me. His introductions to both books manage to stultify.
Daniel Halpern's The Art of the Story is a marvellous anthology drawn from around the world. Sadly it's not available enough to make a core text in the UK (a reissue, please!). I'm opting instead for the recent anthology drawn together by Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People, and a surprisingly terrific collection called Poolside. Printed on paper you can take into the bath with you, it contains fourteen poems based around swimming, from Hemingway and Cheever through to A.M.Homes and David Foster Williams.
Reading Edna O'Brien's contribution on the train, a tale of a woman at her celebrated lover's houseparty (called 'Paradise') a story of my own began to filter through. It seems all my story reading had placed me in the right space. Four characters, a setting, and off I went, pursuing their story as it unfolded. I've wrapped it up in 3,500 words, a delightful experience all round, my first wholly new short story in years.
I've come to see again what a beautiful form it is. Charles Baxter, in an essay I read recently, spoke against epiphanies. I'm all for them. I don't need characters to be manoeuvered into opportunities in which they see the light. I just need them to be true to themselves, to chase down their own stories. I suppose for me an epiphany is simply catharsis. I re-read Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party' on the train last summer, and closed the story in tears. You know something hidden inside of yourself, some quiet pain perhaps, has been brought into the light and healed a little.
The close of Poolside achieved the same effect. Julie Orringer (a new writer for me, born in 1973, though astonishingly I'm set to teach student writers born in 1990 next year)first published 'The Isabel Fish' in The Yale Review. It is a tale about grief, and beyond that it is the finest brother and sister tale that I know. The boy is sixteen, the girl fourteen, the narration is hers, the truth and the toughness and the compassion are beautifully done. No train compartment this time, just me on the couch before breakfast, cup of tea to hand and the morning sun slanting through the high windows. My tears washed me clean for the day.

Julie Orringer's notebook for the story is worth checking out online.

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