In this series, we interview emerging and established writers as well as professionals in the publishing world to give you insight – and tools – into the art and craft of writing.
The recipient of numerous prestigious prizes, Joan Silber is the author of six works of fiction. Among them, The PEN/Hemingway Award for Household Words and a National Book Award finalist for Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories. Her short fiction has twice been awarded the O. Henry Prize and twice won a Pushcart Prize. Joan’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, to name a few. “Fools,” a short story, appears in the winter 2009 Northwestern Review. Her other works of fiction are In the City, In My Other Life, and Lucky Us. She’s also written about the craft of writing, entitled The Art of Time in Fiction. Joan is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. She’s also taught at New York University, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the University of Utah, Boston University, and the 92nd Street Y. She’s just finished a new book of linked stories, entitled Fools.
Click HERE for Joan’s Amazon Author page.
Her latest novel, The Size of the World, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ ten best books of fiction of 2008.
To learn more about Joan’s process, please CLICK HERE.
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A Conversation With My Father by Grace Paley
I love this story because there’s so much more to it than might appear at first reading. Actually, it’s two stories for the price of one.
Grace Paley once admitted that the only real person in her short stories was her father. I understand this only too well. My own father died when I was 12, and I once started a novel about his early life, so keen was I to bring him back to life. I would have loved to be able to have this kind of adult conversation with my father.
This story is about a conversation between a daughter and her 86-year-old father, who is dying. It’s also about how to write a story, and how to deal with a father’s imminent death. The father wants his daughter to write and accept a story with a tragic ending. She wants the ending to be open, to have the possibility for change. “Everyone,” she says, “deserves the open destiny of life.” He asks her to tell a story in a style he knows – Chekhov or de Maupassant. She says she’d like to try, but she can only tell it in her own relatively modern style. Her first version of the simple story her father demands is simple indeed. The woman across the street wants to be loved by her son so joins him in becoming a junkie, but cannot quit drugs when he eventually does, so he abandons her.
The narrator’s father is very unhappy with this tale. He wants more, and he knows exactly what’s needed. He wants to understand what the woman looks like, what her background is, how she comes to be living across the street, what her education is. “Start again,” he says, and the narrator does.
The revised story is a lesson in how to write, yet the writer takes no credit for it. She’s simply following her father’s instructions. This revised story can stand on its own, but the father still isn’t satisfied. If he were, the conversation would come to an end, and neither of them wants that. So he carries on criticizing. In this new story, there’s humor. The father doesn’t want humor – he wants redemption, and he wants his daughter to understand tragedy. She continues to avoid it.
The father wants to make his daughter come to terms with his imminent death. We, the readers, understand why she wants to keep his death at bay. But we wonder – does she realize that’s what she’s doing? Or does she really think it’s all about telling a tale? Grace Paley allows us to wonder.
You can read the story here:
To read an excerpt of Gabi’s short story, ‘The Rescue’ CLICK HERE.
‘The Rescue’ is now available in its entirety in Memoir, Vol.1 in iTunes Memoir Vol.1.
Down the Tubes in a Bleak Landscape
Do we like certain stories at certain periods in our lives? Do they hold up years later as favorites? I pondered this question while what I thought was my favorite story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver lay open on my coffee table, 25 years after I first read it
I remembered my outrage when a prominent poetry editor of that era, the late 70s and early 80s, scribbled on one of my several poems he was rejecting, “There is something in your work that says ‘everything hopeful goes down the tubes.’” He asked if I had any more work to look at, preferably cheerier?
So I read Carver’s story again and was dumbstruck by how cynical I was then and must still be now, to be so moved by his bleak landscape of hopelessness, of everything going down the tubes.
“Why Don’t You Dance” is written in an unvarying linguistic tone. No high notes or cadences. It is like monks’ chanting in an empty stone cathedral, its sparse dialogue creating a loud and lasting echo.
The distance that Carver creates between his three nameless characters in close proximity with one another is stunningly executed by his use of anonymity. He calls them “the Man”, “the Boy”, “the Girl”. There is desolation awaiting us. You can feel it pulling you in.
The story begins with “the Man” who has dragged his worldly possessions into his driveway as an act of ridding himself of his wife, who’d already left him. It is a ritual purging that made him feel better.
A young couple sees the furniture and, thinking it’s a yard sale, begin to talk about whether or not they should make the man an offer on the bed. The girl bounces on the mattress and tells the boy he should try it. He does. There’s a lamp. A sofa. A TV. A record player and box of old records. There’s even barware to complete this surreal tableau from a once-furnished home. Now, the man has at last given up on his illusory domesticity. She is gone and there is no domesticity without her.
The Girl is far more energetic and aggressive and vital than the Boy she is about to set up home with, and he follows whatever she suggests. He is awkward and passive. She advises him to offer the owner ten dollars less than he asks for, no matter what. Soon, they have every item for almost nothing, including the record player that, like all the other electronics, are plugged into long extensions cords that snake into the house; the only source of power left for the inanimate objects.
Is it an act of prophecy that the Boy and the Girl’s future of togetherness is blighted because they are taking the unwanted stuff from a house where giving up on romance has already happened? Do the objects have a life that they can pass on?
They all start drinking in the yard as if they’re friends at cocktail hour.
“Why don’t you dance?” The Man says as his one of his favorite oldies scratches out its tune on the record player sitting on a cabinet in the driveway. After some hesitancy, the couple do get up and dance. They are tipsy. The young man feels awkward. He blushes and sits down while the Man gets up and stumbles around to dance with the Girl too. She is nice to him.
The Man gives them the records for free. Later, the Girl can’t make her disquiet about the pathetic old guy go away.
“Junk, he gave us all his junk,” she tells a friend, and then another, about that afternoon. No matter how many times she tells the story she is still spooked about that afternoon. She cannot stop talking about it. Is it prophetic and she’s too young to know, or is it simply someone getting rid of ordinary things that once meant something?
It’s a really short story with a very long reach.
I stopped writing poetry about ten years after I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” because I finally did see that in all of my poetry there was a deeply cynical message I had no idea I was feeling. Now, I leave it to masters of the short story to give us their landscape of internal disquiet and failing optimism.
I have found a different, more empathetic and sometimes humorous voice in my short prose, I think. Certainly I have to find that old rejection note and see if I can locate the editor. I’ll send him something new. Something more cheery.
To read an excerpt of Ina’s short story, ‘Hush Money’, CLICK HERE.
‘Hush Money’ is now available in its entirety in Memoir, Vol.1 in iTunes Memoir Vol.1.
A good short story manages to say so much about life and love in just a few pages. And to me, O. Henry’s beloved Christmas tale, “The Gift of the Magi” remains the gold standard for packing both an emotional punch and a wealth of wisdom in a scant 2,000 words.
Henry tells the tale of an impoverished young couple in New York. It’s Christmas Eve, and each longs to buy the other a truly special gift. The young wife sells her beautiful hair so that she can buy a watch chain to complement her husband’s one luxurious possession. When she gives it to him, he reveals that he has sold his fancy watch in order to buy her a beautiful set of combs for her now vanished tresses. And in the final words of the story, Henry’s folksy, worldly wise narrator observes…
“And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”
The husband and wife have sacrificed so much only to ensure that each presents the other with a useless gift and yet, what all of us who know and love this story remember is its gentle lesson in what is really precious. Every Christmas, I reread The Gift of the Magi. And every Christmas, it inspires me to stop amidst the frantic shopping, cooking and planning of the season and leave at least a little time to enjoy the season’s true gifts.
To read an excerpt of Helen’s short story, “Tribes”, CLICK HERE.
“Tribes” is now available in its entirety in MEMOIR, VOL. 1 in iTunes MEMOIR, VOL. 1.
Here is Lorrie Moore’s version of advice: “Whisper, ‘Don’t go yet,’ as he glides out of your bed before sunrise and you lie there on your back cooling, naked between the sheets and smelling of musky, oniony sweat. Feel gray, like an abandoned locker room towel…Wonder who you are.”
That’s from the story “How to Be an Other Woman” in her aptly, ironically named collection, Self-Help. It was published in 1985, but I first read it twenty years later as I forged an adult life for myself in New York City. I was not, never have been, and hope to never be an “other woman,” but it got to me anyway. I felt like I’d been another woman, having read this. Not just because Moore is an extraordinary writer who can make you feel things, but because it spoke to me even in my non–other–woman–ness. It spoke to the heartache of loving a man who doesn’t love you back quite enough, to the messiness of sex and love, to the absurdity of being a young woman without all the answers (without any answers).
Moore’s work, and this particular book, came to my attention thanks to a particularly messy paramour of mine, a significantly younger, impossibly smart author I sort-of dated after ending a longtime engagement. I was searching for female voices to emulate, women writers who did more than squeal, “Yay, shoes! Yay, men!” This guy said Moore would do the trick. He was, obviously, right. At least he gave me that.
Now, six years later, re-reading that story nauseates me, taking me right back to a time when I did at least one embarrassing thing per week in the interest of getting or keeping a man’s attention. I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know you don’t do it; it just happens when you don’t do it. Every day then, I was following Moore’s take on “self-help” without even trying: “Feel gray, like an abandoned locker room towel.” “Be strange and awkward.” “Use his toothbrush.” “Wonder who you are.”
I’m so grateful to be far past that phase in my life, to be in a relationship that doesn’t make me feel like a locker room towel. But reading it again, it still gets to me in the same places. It makes me ill, and yet it makes me want a thousand drinks and a big cry. It is a great story.
Good stories put us in someone else’s skin. Great stories make us think someone else’s skin is ours.
To read an excerpt of Jennifer’s short story, “Dating Writers”, CLICK HERE.
“Dating Writers” is now available in its entirety in MEMOIR, VOL. 1.
“TRUE! Nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous… I had been and am…”
My stepfather, Chas, used to quote that line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” at me all the time. Not because he was insane, heard the death-beetles ticking in the walls, or had murdered anyone (I don’t think), but because he thought it was funny. Or maybe because my sister or I would always come back dramatically with the rest of the line – “But why will you say that I am mad?!”
Then we would all burst into maniacal laughter. What can I say? We were all of us a little bit strange.
Is it weird to admit to an Edgar Allen Poe short story as my favorite? “The Tell-Tale Heart” has a place in my, um, heart, and not just because it’s gripping, and scary, and one of the first short stories I ever memorized lines from. It’s because I shared my love for it with Chas, and somehow my enjoyment of the story got all mixed up with my love for him.
Chas was an amazing person, a brilliant mathematician, an award-winning fiddle-player, and an outstanding dad, always treating me with the same affection he showed his biological daughter. He died unexpectedly from a fast-moving cancer four years ago, and I miss him every day.
You might think it would make me sad to reread that story. It does, a bit. But still, every time someone happens to ask me if I’m nervous, I answer, “Nervous? Yes very, very dreadfully nervous,” even if it’s not true. Because, when I remember those lines, I’m not really thinking of that story – the narrator ripping open the floorboards to uncover the body he had hidden there – I’m thinking of Chas, wiggling his eyebrows, hamming it up, making me laugh.
Isn’t that the way it is with the stories we love? They become a part of our lives, they take up residence in us. And, if we’re very, very lucky, we share them with those we love, so that years later, the stories can recall that deeper love with just a few words.
To read an excerpt of Nikki’s short story, “Casserole Confessions”, CLICK HERE
“Casserole Confessions” is now available in its entirety in MEMOIR, VOL. 1.
Good morning, folks. Today, in our first-ever guest blog, I’d like to introduce Jimin Han, host of a new eChook feature, The Inside Story: Authors’ Q & A which will be launching soon. It will feature lively, revealing interviews with established and emerging authors and, to be notified when it posts, sign up for our blog HERE.
Jimin teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and her story “How to Become Friends with a Famous Writer” is included in our forthcoming app, MEMOIR, VOL. 1 (app avail April 22nd, read an EXCERPT HERE). Here are some of her thoughts on writing and writers’ workshops.
REMEMBER by Jimin Han
I’m in Alexandra’s living room in Yonkers, New York, at 8 pm on Friday night. The smell of sourdough baking in the oven pervades the entire house. The Simon & Garfunkel Concert in Central Park has just ended on the iPod sound dock, and Deb’s and Pat’s keyboards on their laptops click like the electric meter on the stone wall outside my house sixteen miles away. Alex has the tip of her pen in her mouth, reading what she’s written. Kate’s pen moves across a piece of paper, sloping upward. Gloria turns a page in her notebook. My fingers hover over my computer, flexing. There’s energy here, coursing through. Writers at work. We’re here, but elsewhere at the same time. The writing prompt thrown out by Pat five minutes earlier: “The place I remember the most from childhood is…”
I used to sit at a carrel on the second-floor balcony, at the end of a long row of bookshelves, in the Prendergast Library on Cherry Street in Jamestown, New York. With its wide turret, rounded arches, and giant slabs of red sandstone, it was like a castle. The carrel was placed against a sliver of a window so I could read in the sunlight that streamed in, rather than solely from the fluorescent tubes above my head. It was my private tower, where I read my way through the rows, from the A-B section (Austen, Jane; Bronte, Charlotte; Bronte, Emily) to the Z section (Zola, Emile.). When I think of it now, it was like meeting hundreds of people and listening to their stories. I read fiction because it was the most exciting – full of adventure, longing, and secrets. I was transported to another place, the characters in those stories always friends, safe and trusting. And it was there that I realized, at 12 years old, that stories were powerful enough to make me feel connected to someone I didn’t know and that I wanted to do the same – put my stories out there as part of an ongoing conversation.
In the company of these stories, all these books by writers around me, I would take out my notebook and write back to them: That character you wrote about? I’ve got one for you. Her name is… and she went to…
That was the beginning, and ever since, I’ve been telling my stories. Of course, it gets complicated as you grow older, and though I still write with shelves full of books around me, I have to put myself in other situations to sustain that initial spark and keep it burning. My writers group is one of the most important support systems I have. After we write, we discuss our goals and give each other strategies to obtain them. Sometimes we talk about the same things over and over again, but it feels just as important each time we say it.
Last week, at Sarah Lawrence College, I was reminded of the nature of what we as writers know deeply to be true and what we forget when doubts set in. I teach a novel-writing workshop and an introductory fiction-writing course in the Writing Institute. On Thursday, one of my students came back from a reading by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, beaming. “She said writing wasn’t easy for her,” he said. “She said she has to work at it.” The entire class gasped, and then smiles broke out around the table. I looked at them, ten talented men and women striving to write novels while balancing work, families, and their own demons of insecurity. I wanted to tell them this was nothing new. I’d said the same thing to them many times; they’d read essays by writers who had stated that very thing. But I stopped myself – because no matter how many times they’d heard it, they needed to hear it again. And it’s just as important every time they hear it because even though they know it’s difficult, they still imagine that writers who write such brilliant books, like Strout, have some hidden talent that makes the process easier somehow, and they don’t want to believe that it’s as hard for her as it is for each of them.
I’m the same way, and so is every writer I know. It seems an easy truth to keep in mind, but it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile what we know with what we see—like the rounded shape of the Earth challenged by the flatness of the land before us. There’s the experience of reading a book like Olive Kitteridge, and there’s the first draft of our novels on our computer screens that seems impossibly far from what we hope it will become. So, that Thursday in class, we took a minute to bask in the knowledge that we had something in common with Elizabeth Strout. And then we began to write.