To be human, one must have a story.
Ray Bradbury, in his writing advice (Such as Zen and the Art of Writing, and various talks) prescribes new writers read a poem, an essay and a short story every day. For several years now, that has been my practice, with a short break here and there. I have journals with lists of the stories, poems, and essays that I have read through the years, classics and new work, with quotes and comments here and there. I have really gotten inspired by essayists like E. B. White and Rebecca Solnit (talk about the spectrum, eh?) and lately I have been reading poets of color and that too has been eye opening. But truth be told, I have never been much of a story reader, so I would rush through the story each day and promptly forget about it most days.
Sure, now and then I would stumble upon a story that made me go buy the author’s story collection (Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” was one of the first) but mostly it was like eating liver – get it over with and move on to the essay.
So this year, in my self-education as a writer (and reading Gabriela Pereira’s Do It Yourself MFA as part of it) I have to get better at reading and writing stories.
According to Amazon, I purchased this book, The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, back in July 2018. Hmm, that was the summer that we had no air conditioning at the house for the month of June and I spent the afternoons at the local university library writing a bad draft of a bad novel. So I recognized my need for education even then, but did not have a plan for the book. I read a few of the stories when I needed one for my nightly reading, but skipped the longer ones. And hardly ever read the author insights.
So when deciding this was the year of the short story, I pulled out a number of previously ignored books on the craft, including this one. This year, I have a plan for the book. There are 52 stories and 52 authors. So I will focus each week on the story and author of the week. I won’t skip.
Something I didn’t realize, but both of the authors of this anthology are published poets. Not what I was expecting. They have both edited fiction anthologies and criticisms, as well as translated the work of others, but their primary creative product is poetry collections.
Curiouser and Curiouser.
Week 1 features a story by China Achebe, “Dead Man’s Path.”. He is quoted somewhere as saying that when we read a story, “we not only see, we suffer alongside the hero.” In this story, we see that Achebe puts that thought into practice.
The first thing I noticed is that in three short sentences, I know that the antagonist, Michael Obi, is young, energetic and ambitious and that he is beginning a position that he has yearned for. Three short sentences. And little things, like the wife imitating a woman’s magazine she read, tells you so much about her, that she too has ambitions, although different, and that she wants to be seen in a certain way and is working toward that end. The whole story is succinct, even though there are a few more characters than most stories. But here lies the difference between archetype and stereotype. I’m not sure how he accomplishes this, but we know these characters, in a deep understanding, with only a line or two of description and dialogue.
After the story, there is a section by Achebe describing his life, being truly bilingual, and his deep interest in the intersection of the Christian beliefs he was raised with and the heathen rituals he was surrounded with. He had no qualms with either and was able to reconcile them in his writing through the years. Something I need to ponder some more, to be sure.
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