Lucian Childs: Why I Write Short Stories

Welcome to our August featured writer, Lucian Childs, who not only has written some great posts for us in the past, but also volunteers regularly for 49 Writers. Thank you, Lucian!

The writers I meet in Alaska are a varied lot: people writing
memoir, creative nonfiction of all types, novelists. But short story writers?
There are few. I’ve had to wonder what it is about short fiction that seems
right to me and why I persist in writing it.
When I started, my reasons were mostly practical. I had plucked
out of thin air the notion that this was where you begin. You master the short
form and move on to the real work: Writing novels. Writing short fiction was,
and still is, more in sync with my too busy life. Plus, let’s face it, I’m
impatient. Why slog away for years on a novel to have it wither in some box in
the back of my closet?
In this I found some solace from one of my heroes, Alice Munro.
She says, “I never intended to be a short story writer. I started writing them
because I didn’t have time to write anything else—I had three children. And
then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and I don’t
think I’ll ever write a novel.”
What is “that way”? Is telling a short story all that different
from a novel or is it just a matter of degree?
I’m attracted to the 19th century French idea of the flâneur, the peripatetic observer of
urban life who seeks to merge with the myriad things by wandering through them.
I like to think of this walker passing by an open window and looking in on a
domestic scene, trying to understand the essential truth of it from the scant
evidence at hand: The way the father braces his back as he bends to light the
gas fireplace, the way the mother looks anxiously toward the disaffected
daughter shuffling through the opening door.
Some of my novelist friends, no doubt, would go on to describe
the house’s other rooms and occupants; some the neighborhood, the city in which
the family lived. My genre pals would shoot them into outer space for a little
extraterrestrial mayhem. The short story writer, though, is content to describe
the small actions spied in the window, to pry out the single crystallizing
event, that one thing that reveals a life. Then, like the flâneur, she moves to the next open window. Not for lack of
imagination, but because this single event is enough.
John Cheever, another master of the form, wrote, “So long as we
are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its
episodic nature, we will have the short story.” Our life is revealed to us in
sequences of discrete moments, each sequence like a short story: The time we
injured our back and lost our job, the winter we discovered our daughter
smoking pot, our sophomore year in high school when everything seemed drab.
I used to study Zen Buddhism. One of my teachers said, “Pick up
one thing and the rest of the world comes with it.” Flannery O’Connor, arguably
the patron saint of American short story writing, said much the same thing,
“The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you
see in it.” The short story shares this ability with all forms of
storytelling, but, I believe, the effect is starker for concentrating on that
one thing. Much is left unsaid, unexplained. So long as we are thoroughly
grounded in character and place, in implication the moment comes alive.
Dramatically too, the short story appeals to me. I’ve always
liked Roman candles, a simple stick, a single glowing ball that arcs in a
luminous moment then disappears. Alice Munro again: “There’s a kind of tension
that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away. I kind of want a
moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”
Call me feebleminded, but I’ve come to prefer the singularity of
effect so evident in short fiction where that one explosive moment ripples
through the story out into my life. There is an immediacy to it: I’m the father
lighting the fire, the anxious mother, the petulant daughter. This puts an onus
on the writer of short stories. We can’t gab our way out when we’ve painted
ourselves into trouble; we can’t hypnotize the reader with interesting
diversions or annotate the historical context. The short story, like the Roman
candle, is arching toward its ending right from the start. For a short story
writer, this is the cause of much consternation, but also exhilaration. While
there are so many ways to go wrong, there is also no place to hide.
Do you write or enjoy short stories? What is it about them you
enjoy? Can’t stand them? Tell us why.
Lucian lives in Anchorage, Alaska where he makes his living as a
graphic designer. He has studied creative writing at the University of Alaska
and has attended writing intensives with, among others, Nancy Zafris and Dani
Shapiro. He was a finalist in
Train’s April 2012 Family Matters competition. His work has appeared or is
forthcoming in
Cirque, Compass Rose,
Quiddity, Sanskrit and Rougarou.

8 thoughts on “Lucian Childs: Why I Write Short Stories”

  1. Thanks, Lucian. After reading your post it's a wonder we write anything but the short story–it does so much! 🙂

    I have written more novels than short stories, because I usually want to follow the character arc and show growth over a long period of time. But there are times when I want to capture a snapshot or a critical moment–that's when the short story works for me.

  2. "…I’ve come to prefer the singularity of effect so evident in short fiction where that one explosive moment ripples through the story out into my life."

    Yes! Reading and writing short stories makes me stop and take notice of the small moments, the little things that seem routine or ordinary in a life but are potentially profound. Thanks for articulating the things that I love about short stories in this post. I'll be reading this one again.

  3. Aunt Booka/Rebecca Goodrich

    Our father read us poems, recited poems, read us O. Henry and Poe. Several people in the family passed on family stories, myths and legends of the family, as well as personal history. Which we understood to be subject to mood of the teller. Or our ages.

    As for myths and legends, my mother gave us a brilliantly illustrated nearly coffee-table-book-sized compendium of the classical Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and their stories.

    Perhaps because of this, I write and read all sorts of things. And hope I always will.

  4. Ah, Lucian. You are doomed. As an old short story addict myself I'm both saddened and comforted to see yet a another young writer seduced by the siren song of the short form. Nothing else in print will ever seem as exciting.

  5. Rebecca,
    There may be something to the old saw, "You can only serve one master." Still, that doesn't mean you couldn't have a lot of fun trying. I don't mean to imply you should only write in one form. It just that for me the short story fits, both my schedule and temperament. Besides, the bar's set pretty high. You could spend your whole life on the short story and never really master it.

    Doomed indeed! But happy to be in such good company.

  6. Very informed and thoughtful comment, Lucian. As a writer, I've always found the short story to be an elusive and frustrating art form. That Roman candle never seems to find its trajectory. My stories tend to lurk around the horizon like heat lightning on a sultry August night. There is no clearing of the atmosphere, no clap of thunder, no sudden burst of light.

  7. Is this where I second Lucian's nomination? If so, I, NNStoelting, second Lucian Childs' nomination for Best of Bloggers.

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