My main experience with short stories has been high school English assignments: read this story, answer these questions, write this essay. Thirty years later, I’ve now been giving them a whirl for pleasure—and am finding they’re not how I remember them.
Back then, short stories had a beginning, a middle and an end. Now there seems to be a beginning, a middle…and a drop-off. They’re like trailers for movies you’ll never get to watch: they pull you in, string you along, get you hooked, then, before you’re fulfilled, roll the credits. They’re snippets, rather than whole, satisfying circles.
I’ve also realized that reading a collection of short stories requires more cerebral work than a novel. The first dozen or so pages of a longer work are always the most difficult, having to decipher who’s who and where you are: ages, sexes, settings, relationships, conflicts, etc. Once you’ve placed these things, you’re able to settle in. A book of short stories, on the other hand, has you repeating these efforts again and again. (And sometimes, I admit, a particular story doesn’t give me enough information to be able to decipher these key pieces at all, leaving me entirely at a loss.)
Which ties in to the problem of not being able to put down a short story. Once I begin one, I must finish it. If not, the few pages I’ve read haven’t had time to lodge themselves in my brain. When I next pick it up, I find I’ve lost the thread and have to start over.
Not that I dislike short stories. Now that I’m readjusting my relationship with them, I’m starting to get in the groove. I just read Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s How to Get Along With Women and have two more collections coming in the mail: Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels and Katherine Fawcett’s The Little Washer of Sorrows.
Over the past six months I’ve actually written two stories myself—the first in adulthood—which I found quite satisfying due to their brevity. Plus I’m about to start my MFA in creative writing and am certain short stories will abound. By the time I graduate, I’m sure to be a pro—at reading them, if not at writing them.