Friday, January 23, 2015

A Certain Dream for a Certain Dreamer

Yes, I am lost, but I seem to be lost in a fascinating place.

One great advantage of being lost is that it forces you to stare at the dirt roads and low hills around you with a new intensity. It forces you to look for stands of cedar, for evening stars, that might guide you back to some place just a little bit like home.

From the unknown to the less unknown leads me to ask: what do I know about short stories?

Both Sean O'Faiolain (whose work remains unknown to me) and H. E. Bates (whose work is in the process of becoming known) have written about short stories, and they agree on certain principles.

Both argue that short stories bear less kinship to novels than they do to lyric poetry.

Both agree that no one has been able to define what a short story is. There seem to be no rules for the crafting of short stories, but only tools and methods. Some stories have plots, but many do not. Some stories extend themselves in time, but many do not. Some stories work by implication, but many do not.

Sean O'Faiolain has gone further, and said that characterization is not important in short stories. Lacking the scope of novels, they must present the illusion of character, the implied possibility of growth or change. What people in stories require is not biographical depth, but vivid perception of the moment.

I find this reassuring, yet at the same time, troubling. How many editors would agree with Sean O'Faiolain? How many, instead, would believe that short stories must be novels in brief?

For my part, when I think of stories, I think of circumstances, and settings, and images, and weather, and implications. The characters arise from these.

As important as characters are, they remain one component. To succeed, a story must present with conviction many components, held in place by the most important of all: the prose.

Prose in itself is not one thing. It is euphony, imagery, sensory detail, metaphor, clarity. When we say that prose is well-written, we have in mind not only the structure and flow of the sentences, but the pictures the words convey, the moods that seep from the language, the ideas combined and illuminated by the text.

This need not imply that stories must present cardboard people or stock players; what matters, instead, is an illusion of life, a suggested complexity.

Quite often, the story itself is characterization: an echo, a reflection, of a character's hidden hopes and fears. Things happen to a particular person because this person is receptive in specific ways, to certain hunches or hallucinations, in the same way that only a certain kind of dreamer can have a certain kind of dream. For example, what happens to Colleen Lambert in "Who Would Remain" is not explicable by human standards, but it does reveal her sense of purpose, her self-definition, and her protective stance towards other people.

I love this approach, because I am less interested in where people have come from, than in what they experience right now. Their jobs, cars, clothes, consumer goods, have no importance to me beyond what they might offer to enhance the story; what matters is what people do and say and feel and fear, right there on the page. For that reason, I question the need to write autobiographical sketches before I begin to write, because these details are beside the point. In a play or novel, this approach would make sense, because plays and novels are very much about the detailed examination of people over time. But short stories are most often about specific moments, and like poems, they are built upon the careful choice and use of words.

Am I wrong about this?

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