I think a lot about the craft of writing. The poem, the essay, the short story and the novel each have their own internal rules, all of which are to be broken if a writer wants to achieve something new. Lately, my obsession has become short form. The short story has all the same requisites as a novel: voice, characters, arc. But because it’s short form, everything must be compressed.
You don’t have hundreds of pages at your disposal, maybe only a dozen at most. So you haven’t got the time to paint a sweeping landscape or people a multi-generational cast of characters. You may not even have enough space to get through a single day. Short story writing is about choices.
Not that I know much about the matter. Only three of my short stories have been published and I have enough rejection letters to paper a small whale. But I try anyway. I read and listen. And as soon I think I’ve figured it out, I hear the admonishing words of John Gardner in The Art of Fiction (p.3):
When [a writer] begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition.
Yikes. What then is a writer to do? Luckily Gardner gives all of us writers an out.
Every true work of art – and thus every attempt at art (since things meant to be similar must submit to one standard) – must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws.
So what sorts of laws are there?
beginning, middle and ending
A great deal of the art of the short story is to do with exits and entrances – when you jump in; when and how do you dismount.
That’s a great description by Sam Leith on the craft of short story writing and all its predicaments. Where should the story start? When is it over? Which arc bridges the beginning and its end?
Lydia Davis writes stories so short that some are no longer than a few lines. So that’s two, maybe three pen strokes to create a whole world, characters and action. Like this one from the collection Can’t and Won’t (p. 235):
My Childhood Friend
Who is this old man walking along looking a little grim with a wool cap on his head?
But when I call out to him and he turns around, he doesn’t know me at first, either – this old woman smiling foolishly at him in her winter coat.
Other stories from Can’t and Won’t don’t sound like stories at all to me. They could be better described as vignettes, prose poems or sometimes just a gag. But given that Davis is one of the icons of our time, it’s hard to quibble with how she chooses to break the rules. As my writer friend Megin put it:
She’s one of those who give me permission to do what I want/need. I was so surprised when I first read her, what could constitute a story. If she’s allowed to do it, why can’t I?
Maybe it’s just me, but I like more tension in my fiction. Oddly enough, I don’t care whether that tension is resolved. In fact, I have a particular weakness for short stories with an ambiguous ending.
When does it end?
Let’s take “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff. I heard it on The New Yorker fiction podcast as read out loud by Akhil Sharma. It’s a classic story inside a story. Frances has spent most of her childhood protecting Frank from their abusive father. Now an adult, Frank has found God. He tells his sister about a sermon he heard.
A father gets an unexpected call to work the night shift and, because he’s alone that night, he takes his young son along. His job is to raise the movable bridge for water traffic and lower it to allow cars and trains to pass. There’s a train on the way when the father realizes his son is missing. He knows that the boy has gone into the machine room to play among the crunching, grinding, unforgiving cogs and gears. Should the father lower the bridge, thus saving the lives of all those on board the speeding train, or does he leave the bridge open to save the life of his son?
We never find out. Frances refuses to hear the end of Frank’s story. All she wants to know is, if it were me, you would save me, wouldn’t you Frank?
Wolff doesn’t tell us the answer to that question either. And that’s what’s so wonderful about his ending. There is a finite number of ways this story could go. You could plot it out yourself with a dotted line like the one the roadrunner draws just before Wile E. Coyote gets clobbered.
Drive It Off the Cliff
Another great example of an open ending is “Herman and Margaret” by Vi Khi Nao, first published in Glimmer Train, issue no. 90. Herman is a war veteran, now missing a leg, his wife and any more reason to live. He’s en route to Hoover Dam in his wheelchair where he intends to throw himself off the edge. Margaret has the same plan though she’s traveling by RV, all 489 pounds of her.
Herman and Margaret arrive at their chosen departure point. Improbably, they meet. Tenderly, they fall in love. Life has suddenly become worth living. Tomorrow will be another day. But before dawn can come, Margaret must pee.
In the dark, she cannot see, but she steps just far enough from Herman, lifts her dress, and pees. And, then, without realizing it, she walks right off the edge and into the abyss.
light at the end of the tunnel
John Gardner says (p. 194):
The novel’s denouement … is not simply the end of the story but the story’s fulfillment.
When I attended the Paris Writers Workshop in 2014, Lan Samantha Chang was the leader of the fiction workshop. She described the function of an ending in a way that has stuck with me ever since, a grain of sand inside the oyster of my mind. She said that an ending should send light all the way back to the beginning.