On Short Stories (2)

The summer of 2009 was significant for me in two major ways. The primary significant event was the birth of my son (our first child) on July 18. The second significant aspect was that I made the official turn toward the short story as my preferred form.

Two years earlier I had entered my doctoral program as a poet, planning to write a poetry manuscript for my dissertation. A year later (2008), I took a fiction-writing seminar (somehow surviving Literary Criticism’s attempts to argue for a text’s essential instability and the author’s unimportance) and found myself captivated (again) by the reading and writing of short stories.

Which brings me to 2009, when I had already decided to move in the direction of a short-story collection for my dissertation, and as a result, I signed up for an independent study with my future dissertation chair, Brian Bedard. We agreed to a plan of three brand-new stories, three drafts each, a conference after the first draft of each. But more than the writing, I decided to read a bunch of short stories. Brian specifically assigned me to read John Steinbeck’s collection, The Long Valley, for the reason that my stories (up to that point) were Spartan in their level of detail. He told me he wanted me to pay attention to Steinbeck’s use of description and setting.

I read the collection, found myself more appreciative of Steinbeck’s gifts than I had been before. On my own, I read T.C. Boyle’s Stories, compiled from his first four short-story collections (60+ stories). I was also continuing in my role as a fiction reader for South Dakota Review (of which Brian was also the editor), reading the stories that were “new,” acquiring a better sense of what others around the country (and the world) were writing at that time.

Then there was the matter of my own stories. I was experiencing an excitement in the initial drafting stage, in my meetings with Brian in his office on the second floor of Dakota Hall–the summer’s easy pace allowing me to take my time on stories and savor the opportunity–, in my second drafts, and in the third drafts I submitted in a portfolio at the beginning of August, just a few weeks after the arrival of my son.

The first half of that summer, for a six-week period (mid-May through the end of June), I drove to Sioux Falls two days a week to teach a remedial-writing course to five motivated students. The class sessions were nearly four hours, but the length didn’t bother me. We spent an hour on some grammatical or mechanical aspect, wrote a particular type of paragraph, read and discussed a couple of brief essays, reviewed the homework, and then had a mini-workshop on their paragraphs from the previous class session. And when I was done, I drove to the Barnes & Noble and spent the rest of the afternoon, a good 2-3 hours (minimum), working on the first drafts of my three stories.

When I began each one, I had no idea where they were going, no desire to know the ending from the outset. And once I completed a first draft, I gave a second pass before sending it along to Brian, curious as to his response, what feedback he might offer. I knew that the stories would only improve with each successive version. I watched how, with each successive version, the characters became more distinctive, the settings more developed, the conflicts more pronounced. I could feel myself growing as a fiction writer, being stretched and tested (experiencing the delight of real education).

In 2011, those three stories became a part of my dissertation, and since then, I’ve published two of those three. I hope the third one will find a home sometime this year (or the next). But I’m not in a hurry. I’m trying to take my time, just as I did that summer. I wasn’t under pressure then, and I’m not now. I am moving forward in my vocation, feeling the sense of satisfaction in doing what I have been called to do.

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