When is a story a STORY, anyway?
Hi everyone. Over on the other side of the paywall, we’re going to start working, on Sunday, on a new story, one by Bobbie Louise Hawkins called “The Child.” It’s a wild, brief, gut-punch of a story. Join us over there, if you’re inclined.
Also, for those of you in the U.K., Foyles is offering signed bookplate editions of Liberation Day.
Now, for this week’s question:
I wrote a short piece I really love. It's not exactly "a story." It's full of detail, it has emotion and movement, but not a thorough beginning/middle/end. It's a slice not a whole pie. Maybe two slices. I asked for feedback from a magazine rejection (paid for advice actually) I was curious. The advice was: “It's lovely, but it's not a story, make it one.” So...then I read Sam Shepard's collection called Great Dream Of Heaven. Amazing, intricate, near-perfect writing, I loved it. But 90% of his stories, by conventional definition, are not stories. The pieces are mostly very brief. They don't have beginning/middle/end. You want more when he's done. You're dying to know what happened to these people, but he cuts the cord way before most anyone else would. And yet there are all the rave reviews about his work. They are a slice or two. And goddammit that pie tastes good. So, what's a guy to do? When is a story a story? And does it matter? And who's asking? In your opinion, how much "plot" (or dramatic unfolding) is needed?
I remember a similar thing happening years ago. I got a piece back from a place and they praised it quite a bit but then, at the end, said, basically, “We like it, but it’s not a story.”
And I was left with the same question: “If it’s (list positive attributes here – funny, fast, daring, surprising, etc.), how is it not a story?”
It’s something to think about, for sure, this question of what a story actually is (and isn’t). It leads me back to basics, makes me ask: “All right, what am I in this for anyway? What is the essential thing a work of short fiction is supposed to do? When I pick up a piece of fiction, what am I looking for? What do I hope will happen?”
And everyone will have a slightly different answer for this, I’m sure.
That might be something we could usefully think about together in the Comments.
For my part…I find that I intuitively resist the idea that a story has to have this much plot, or convey that much message, or be shaped just so. That is, I find myself averse to any simple, reductive idea about what a story has to be.
Because if I say, “A story must always be this,” and you deliver that – somehow we’ve missed the essential experience, of an expectation that is co-created in real time between reader and writer and keeps changing along the way, responding creatively to itself.
For me, it may come down (to put it bluntly) to whether I feel a sense of disappointment at the end.
Or, to put it the other (more positive) way: whether I feel, by the end, that my initial expectation has been both taken into account and transcended.
I’m looking for an experience that builds; one that knows what it is; one that has a little flair about it, is showing off a bit, has a quality of joy and exploration.
But that might just be me. :)
There may also be something to be said about scale.
In this very short piece, by the Russian writer Daniil Kharms (available at Wordpress.com), I experience myself as being in a little dance with the writer, based on a tiny kernel of expectation that gets created at the outset:
Old Women Falling Out
Excessive curiosity made one old woman fall out of a window, plummet to the ground and break into pieces.
Another old woman poked her head out of a window to look at the one who had broken into pieces, but excessive curiosity made her too fall out of the window, plummet to the ground and break into pieces.
Then a third old woman fell out of a window, then a fourth, then a fifth.
When a sixth old woman fell out, I felt I’d had enough of watching them and went off to the Maltsev Market where I heard that a blind man had been given a knitted shawl.
Or consider this little gem from Lydia Davis, published in Conjunctions:
An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.
Both of the pieces have rising action; we feel a patterning, which creates an expectation, and then the writer…does something with that expectation. There’s a lot of movement going on; the writer seems aware of where we are, and where we think the story might be headed. Their brevity, maybe, makes these little specimen-stories; we may feel that, because they’re short, even a little magic is sufficient.
Compare these, to this “original” short, by me, that I wrote just now, for demonstration purposes:
Once there was a bricklayer who ate a bon-bon. Then he ate some fruit. Then he ate a pot roast. Then he ate some duck. Then he ate some ice cream. (The End).
That’s the beginning of a pattern but it flatlines, and could go on forever like that but would never attain story-state. No matter how brief it is, we can see that…nothing happens within it.
By the way, I’ve quasi-lifted this notion from the introduction to Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, which I don’t have at hand - it’s a wonderful intro, crazy and deep. Jarrell talks about, as I recall, stories that grow and grow but never complicate….and stories that grow unlimitedly (and thus never complicate).
In my mind, there are a few mantras that are always swimming around when I’m writing a story – kind of like touchstones, to see if the piece is doing enough:
“Is it ‘worth it’?” – worth the reader’s interest, worth her time, worth the “cost of admission?” (I like this one because each story can be “worth it” in its own way. And a story can teach me how it wants to be “worth it.”)
Is it non-trivial? (That is, has the story reached out and tried to speak to something eternal in the reader, something vital to her? Has it elevated itself above mere cleverness in this way?)
Have I been on a journey worth taking? (What was the effort vs. payoff ratio?)
Would this story keep a reader reading to the end and then sort of launch, or propel, her through the ending in a way that elicits a reaction more than “Huh?” or (a bummed-out) “You’ve got to be kidding me.” That is: is there a feeling, even a small one, of delight at the end?
Of course, the real trick is to try to find a way to do one’s work without getting too wrapped up in these formulations (because, as I said above, if we are responding to a formulation that is not organic to us, we’re already losing).
Maybe one useful idea: we might ask ourselves, when, exactly, in the process, do we need a definition of story?
The truth is…maybe we don’t.
That is, if we just keep thinking about putting one foot in front of the other (phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, trying to make some fun and forward momentum appropriate to that moment) maybe we’ll never have need of such a definition.
That is: when would we need to know? When would we ever pause to ask that question?
We get to the end (having revised, in order to maximize the pops along the way) and, if we like that last instant, the instant when we exit the story – boom, it’s a story. (It’s earned its keep with that little dollop of delight.)
Now, when we send that out and the world doesn’t agree with us that it’s a story, we’re forced back, maybe, to reconsider the steps we’ve taken along the way.
Here’s how I think of it: to what extent are the individual parts “shiny enough?” That is, have I done everything I can to make each stairstep along the way solid? And propulsive? (Does each step propel me to the next?) Have I considered and blessed every idea and image along the way with my full attention? Have I maximized the verve, the fun?
Is there any way in which the story might be made more complete? (Have I left any bowling pins up in the air?)
Finally, I suppose this is the dream: to make something that, at first, the conventional mind of the culture doesn’t understand as “a story” but that, somehow (because of the way its shape and meaning intersects with our collective lived experience) comes to seem, in time, like “a story,” indeed.
Then we’re not “failing to write a real story” but “writing a truly original story, that has changed our expectation of the form.”
And wouldn’t that be fun?