On Hemingway’s Short Stories

One of my summer reads has been The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, a 650-page gathering of 70 stories that I finished on Monday afternoon. Hemingway has long been one of my favorite writers. I’ve read four of his novels, along with the collection In Our Time. I’ve taught “Hills Like White Elephants” probably 2 dozen times. “Soldier’s Home” I’ve taught 3 times in my war-literature class.

When I read a collection and/or an anthology, I make two types of marks in the table of contents. A check mark indicates that I’ve read the piece, and a dot or a star means I like it a lot. Of these 70 stories, only 11 did not earn a “star.” It’s strange because I enjoyed the some of the “unfinished” and previously unpublished stories the most. Of course, there were stretches in the book were there was just one great story after another, and at different times I told my wife, “I can’t believe how good these are.”

Having spent weeks with these stories, I can say that my admiration of his craft has not diminished but has only increased. And the whole shtick about how he only writes simple and compound sentences is a crock. (I realize that not everyone critical of Hemingway makes this accusation, but I’ve heard or read it enough to know it exists.) There’s a sophistication to his style that I find commendable. I’m also drawn to the way he uses dialogue to advance the story, develop character, provide subtext (among other things the dialogue does). Both he and Carver have helped me sharpen my dialogue-writing skills.

Reading through these stories, I was struck by the way he kept using Nick Adams as a character. (I am aware that there’s a volume called The Nick Adams stories.) Readers glimpse Nick in various scenarios at different points in time, and because I have a recurring protagonist who appears in 12+ stories, I found it instructive how Hemingway “built” the character of Nick across these different stories.

In an earlier post, I talked about my reading of 200+ stories last summer, including collections by Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Phil Klay, and Larry Woiwode. I’m not sure that I’ll reach that number this summer although I’m sure I’ll read at least 100. I can’t get through novels like I used to. There’s something I find so satisfying about reading well-written short stories, my favorite genre to teach, read, and to write.

On Editing

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work in several editorial capacities, starting when I was a senior in college, editing the annual student literary journal. During my MFA, I worked on the graduate/undergraduate literary journal, Red Weather. During my PhD, I worked on South Dakota Review. For three years I edited The Blue Bear Reviewan online literary quarterly. And since 2012, I have worked as editor of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature.

This April and May I had the opportunity to serve as a guest editor for Issue 2.3 of wonderful literary quarterly, Driftwood Press. They published my short story “On the Hi-Line” in issue 2.1, and a few months later, the staff asked if I was interested in reading submissions for an upcoming issue. Even though I have a significant workload with Windhover, I decided to pursue the opportunity.

Over six weeks, I read 50 short stories, giving each a “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.” Because of my editorial background, and because of my familiarity with the publication, I didn’t experience much difficulty with voting “no” on pieces. (I’m not trying to sound callous.) The challenge was limiting myself to no more than 5 in the “yes” category and no more than 10 in the “maybe.” As my reading of the submissions continued over the weeks, my “maybe” votes shifted. When I finally finished all 50 pieces, then I devoted time over a few days to “finalizing” my votes, including ranking my favorite 5 stories.

As a result of the process, some of the “maybe” pieces ended up being shifted to “no”s due to limitations, but those limitations forced me to consider why I was voting on pieces in a certain way. I agonized over some of my votes, but at the same time, I kept in mind why I like editorial work so much: discovering and supporting writers whose work I admire. It’s tiring work and time-consuming work, but it brings a level of satisfaction that I find in few other endeavors. You open a submission, begin reading, hoping to be surprised, hoping to be wowed. And sometimes you are. There were a handful of those stories in the batch, and I’m happy to say that my favorite piece of the 50 was eventually accepted for the 2.3 issue.

All of this discussion about editing brings to mind other types of editorial work I’ve done: copy editing and substantive editing. In the near future, I plan to write a post on these other kinds of editorial work I’ve done, work that is, of course, time-consuming but also very rewarding.

On Creative Nonfiction

Much of my writing output is poetry and short fiction. I’m most comfortable and familiar with these two genres, read them the most, enjoy them the most. I teach both of these genres in my role as a college educator; however, I also teach creative nonfiction within the context of a prose creative-writing class. Lately, I have been discovering (rediscovering?) some of the pressing issues in writing creative nonfiction. And I’m thinking about some of these issues because I know an individual who is working on a memoir and asked me, “I’m trying to be as honest as I can, without hurting people I love. Any advice on that?” Whew. That’s a tough question.

Two weeks ago, I received an acceptance of a piece of creative nonfiction, a piece that I presented at the 2014 Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers’ Conference. I was excited of course. I felt good reading the piece at the aforementioned conference, and I am glad the piece has found a “home” in a magazine I admire. Although I have my share of poetry and short fiction publication, this piece will be my first published creative nonfiction, which is also exciting.

In his excellent creative nonfiction text, The Truth of the Matter, Dinty W. Moore addresses the idea of the writer’s motivation in writing creative nonfiction: why are you telling this story? When teaching this genre to writing students, I pose this question, as well as these two: are you trying to get revenge on someone? Are you trying to make yourself look better than you were/are? For me, these are three fundamental questions in creative nonfiction because the “characters” are real people. I want to be fair, as truthful as possible, and yet in that truth-telling, I must also practice tact. What to include, what to omit, how to say what I want say–these are all considerations, too.

After I received the question quoted above, I began scouring the internet for available articles that I thought might be helpful to pass along. At the same time, I had this feeling in my gut that I needed to reexamine my forthcoming publication. In the piece, I am recounting a series of incidents from my time in a Christian rock band and a weekend tour that was a disaster (from my perspective). In portraying the concert promoter and the visiting evangelist, I realized that I was being uncharitable at the expense of delivering a few more jokes, jokes that were essentially cheap shots. When I read the piece aloud at the conference, it generated a good response. Laughter in the places where I had hoped to achieve laughter. But the promoter is still involved in lay ministry. The evangelist/church planter has a growing ministry. And despite some of my theological disagreements, they were (and still are, as far as I can discern) genuine people, “real” people–not simply “characters” in a story that’s “made up.” I had to think about my motivation for telling this story, arriving at the conclusion that the main target of the piece is really me (as a 21-year-old) and some of my assumptions and my self-inflated ego.

In discussing these matters, I do not intend to paint myself in a more positive light as though I’m some “holy roller” who has it all figured out. I’m only trying to engage the core questions with which I challenge my creative writing students. I am trying to answer these questions, confronted by my own lack of charity. So there is rewriting to do, and I’m grateful that I can do so (since the piece won’t be published until the fall sometime.) As the late Richard Marius wrote in “Writing and Its Rewards” (a wonderful brief essay), “Writing is a parable of life itself.”