"Sticks" - A short anecdote about an even shorter story.
Story Magazine has been revived. https://www.storymagazine.org/about/
I have also written many stories in the strange sleepless surreal land that is having small adorable children banging on pots and refusing shoes. (I actually did a video about writing in very small spurts, and still getting writing done, here: https://juliefalatko.substack.com/p/writing-in-30-second-spurts)
I don't write short stories, though, I write picture books, which are actually short stories, I guess, but with illustrations, and for kids so there's no cussing or sexytime, but otherwise: the same. You are probably reading a bunch of picture books already. I'm not here to tell you what to write, but there is a satisfying process to writing one page a day of a picture book, in the time it takes you to scribble something down on an index card while the macaroni is boiling. A page of a picture book is a sentence, or a few words. It's pretty fun.
I can definitely relate to what you said about your writing not seeming to matter until you had children. Only after I had kids did my songs and stories begin to operate at a whole different level. I was no longer a third-party observer of my life, but an active participant with things to lose. I also chuckled about your stealth writing on the clock. Fifteen years ago I wrote an entire novel while working at the death star (what employees call AT&T). Not my most noble moment, but the only way I could keep my soul from drowning in Dilbertland.
1. Sticks is just such a fantastic story. It's one of my favorite stories, ever. One thing--every time I read it, I am stopped in the same place. It's when the narrator says "...found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us." I never see the Dad as mean. I figure (every time) that he's a frugal sort, born of depression-era mentality. Even the one crayon at a time out of the box, or the no ice cream--i see those as quirks. Then the kids grow up and roll their eyes when reminiscing: Dad! Wouldn't even let us have ice cream! But the fact that i "read" the dad this way doesn't interfere with my love for the story. I just feel for the guy. And I love him. His one "concession to glee" is just so fantastic! Have I got it all wrong?
2. Constraints can be god-sends when it comes to getting words on a page.
3. I have never, ever forgotten how tired I was when my kids were small. Maybe i can't actually "feel" it--sort of like the pain of giving birth--but oh yeah, I remember.
4. George, you write that "the big difference between this and [your] “real” writing" is that you gave yourself a time constraint. But hey--Sticks IS your real writing! Just not your usual. I see Sticks as the George underneath the George of your other stories. The George of this world as opposed to the other worlds you like to dive into.
5. Key takeaway: "I’m trusting my subconscious mind."
6. Thank you so much for walking us through the creation of this story! And thank you to the questioner for bringing up Sticks in the first place. I'd say "enjoy those kids of yours" but i used to hate it when people said that to me. I mean, of course i wanted to enjoy them, but not all of it is enjoyable. Some parts suck. (But mostly, it's great, especially in retrospect.)
I teach this story and it is always a winner. Also ‘fiction theory wonk’ is something I’d like on a badge. Thanks George. As always.
Not pertinent to "Sticks" but in line with the teachings George has been giving us: The current story in The New Yorker called "The Soccer Balls of Mr. Kurz" illustrates escalation, playful narrator, excellent prose and purpose.
I’d been obsessing about this story for years, rolling it around in my head, wondering how something could be so short and complete and wonderful. And finally I get the origin story. Today was a good day :-)
Shortly after 10th of December came out, I met my cousin for brunch. We hadn’t seen each other in several years. I told him I wanted to be a writer. He pulled out your book from his bag, turned to “Sticks,” and said, “Wil, you’re probably not going to make it. But if you want a shot at all, you got to write something like this. I picked this up at the bookstore this morning and randomly read this story, it blew me away.” I told him I was a big fan and had he read “Puppy” yet? No, only “Sticks.” I told him the rest of the collection wasn’t like “Sticks.” “Whatever,” he said. “That’s how you should write.”
George has ennobled the act of writing at work. I will not feel guilty for changing my status to, “Do not disturb.” By god, I could be writing the next Sticks!
I am always moved when I (re)read Sticks. I think it’s because there is a great deal of space left for empathy. We have a brief depiction of a father who acts in a pretty unconventional way and seemingly ends up lonely and isolated, which makes me really wonder, well, what made him this way? It’s from his son’s perspective so we get none of the father’s interiority, only the son’s experiences. The only hints of the father’s background and his interior state come from the way he decorates the pole, which seems also to be the only way he tries to communicate with the world, including his kids. There is so much sadness in the gulf between what the father seems to want to say and the tools he seems able to use to say it. With so little conveyed about the why, there is a whole world of possibilities that could explain his behaviour- maybe his own father looked down on emotional displays, maybe he is a survivor of trauma of some kind. Whatever the answer is, the imagining of the explanation I think is a process that builds empathy for the father- to devise an explanation for the actions, I can’t help but imagine challenges he must have faced to make him behave that way. The ultimate sadness in the whole thing seems to be that the children weren’t able to bridge that gap of empathy with him.
I work in healthcare. A few years back, I had to write a piece of flash for a narrative medicine class. I had reread Sticks around that time and it got me thinking about the challenges of good communication, understanding, and empathy in healthcare. I wrote a piece of flash with that in mind for class, and later submitted it to a medical literary journal where it was published!
So, thank you, George, for inspiring an assignment/publication I’m still proud of and for building sticks into a perfect compact empathy making machine (for this reader/writer, anyway!).
I really love Sticks. It was one of those stories that stayed with me long after I’d read it and I find myself returning to it often. Very interesting to get this insight into its creation.
Exercises and/or challenges that involve writing under some constraint seem surprisingly good at producing results. You talk here, George, of setting yourself the goal of writing three short-short stories before you left work, and of course there’s the earlier exercise we tried as a group involving the 50-word limit and the 200-word count, which yielded some absolute gems. But I wonder if there are other exercises like these (or resources for finding such exercises) that readers (or you, George) can recommend.
The fires are still raging, although we have had a good rain today and it is rather chilly, which is good. Pretty scary!
Here is an anecdote in the form of a short-short. A long time ago I was writing a script for an experimental puppet and mask play I was scheduled to perform at an experimental theater. I was completely absorbed in the process. One night I dreamt I was with a man and playing with a silver dog, small as a charm. Sometime later I told a friend about the dream. She suggested I draw the dog. I drew a simple outline of the dog in a notebook. Every so often I’d page through the notebook and see the drawing. One day when I was at the library, browsing in the New Titles section, I saw a small book, and since I like miniatures, I pulled it off the shelf. There, on the cover, was the dog I’d drawn. I checked out the book, Road-side Dog. It was filled with short essays, anecdotes, stories, most of which were no longer than a page. Some were only a few sentences long. I said to myself “I can do this.” Of course, I couldn’t write like the author, Czeslaw Milosz, but was willing to give it a try. I couldn’t help but wonder if the man in the dream was urging me to keep writing after the play closed. I discovered short-shorts are a genre, read collections of short-shorts, even took a class or two about writing stories no more than 500 words long. I began to write short-shorts, and then one day I had an idea for a story that refused to be confined to so few words. The story grew and grew and now has become a series of three books, all because of a small, silver dog charm. The moral of this story is that even a very short story is a means to hone your craft.
I’ve begun to write one page stories, scripts, poems as perhaps a memoir for as fodder for short stories or novella. I love the form, having to cut out 1/3 of the draft to tighten it, clarify and so on.
I've always loved this little guy. Thanks for sharing more of its backstory. More than once, I've written about how I first connected with your books while living alone in northern Thailand in 2013. I used to bring this (already old) iPod out with me on weekend nights to restaurants and coffee shops and sit reading your books and stories for hours. I've long loved being alone, so I didn't recognize that I was lonely at the time. I just thought I was depressed. Turns out I was both.
I'm still living in Thailand and married now but your stories were and still are like good friends to me. "Sticks" inspired me to write a book of very (very) short stories from my little apartment here at the time, which I finished in early 2014. It's not very good and I don't like to look back at it too much. But the closing story, one that I wrote to be tweet-length before ultimately deleting my Twitter, is the first one that comes to mind when I think about the inspiration I drew from your books and "Sticks." It's not fiction, as its based on an actual dream that I had, but it's one of the few pieces I still like, and it's short enough that I'll leave it here now:
Had a dream last night where a tiger skinned a crocodile alive. It was narrated by a wolf. The wolf was the crocodile's best friend. It was beautiful.
Such a feeling that story left me with, sad, rueful, complex and incomprehensible like a life. I think one time you said (or someone said) you get hold of a feeling and write it out and in the process a story emerges. You hold onto the feeling like you've got a tiger by the tail and see where it takes you and where it ends up. I think that takes the pressure off writing "the right way" or being a perfectionist. As always, I find such inspiration in Story Club! I m so appreciative, especially now that I have a broken shoulder and am on a forced hiatus. Time to stop doing and start being, absorbing below the intellectual level all you and the other members have to share. Reading Story Club posts and comments feels like a nurturing massage of my hyperactive brain, bringing me back to reality.