Let me tell you a story. I heard it from a fiction writer whose accent makes the story better. He is at a small northeastern college, participating in a student-run arts festival, and he is at breakfast with some hungover fraternity boys and their dates. Because, apparently, it is necessary for one of the boys to make a gesture, he unzips his fly and directs his girlfriend's attention toward it. She looks down with genuine curiosity, she looks, and then she directs her gaze to the writer. She explains to him, "It looks like a human penis, only smaller."
I lied. It isn't a story. It's a wonderful anecdote, but it isn't a story because the writer never makes clear why or with what energy and what variety of motive the boy needs to expose himself to his girlfriend. We don't know--there isn't a hint--what the couple will do next, if anything, and we don't know what action on the part of either of them might matter. We don't have a clear sense of the relationship of the writer to the couple, so we've no sense of why he is telling us, or me, the story about the fraternity member's member. We know about the girlfriend's wonderful sarcasm, but we don't know about the relationship of the prick--boy or penis--to the woman or her words.
In "The Gates Are Closing," in the Zoetrope: All-Story Winter 1998 issue, Amy Bloom writes in the voice of a woman in love with a dying man who is married to someone else. In his home, on the edge of his bed, she touches him for what might be the last time. She touches his hand, his stomach, and then--telling us and telling herself--she says: "This is the tip of my pinkie resting in the thick, springy hair above his cock, in which we discovered two silver strands last summer." We can see the lovers as they were in their intimacies, we understand the pleasure she derives from his pleasure; we can infer the way she studied her lover's body as if it were a sacred book and how, finding the silver hairs, she might have pointed--as if at a lovely sentence about time--to what he ought to know. When she says "His cock twitched against my finger," it is both a physical response and a kind of conversational reply. Death, and passing time noted earlier--those gray hairs which remind us they've a happy, furtive past and a brief, sorry future--make them powerfully, pointedly, and in several ways, in touch. We know some of what they mean to and for each other, and we respond to her mourning. We see them as she does, caught in their gentled passion, caught as the gates between them close. The gates are going, when shut, to divide them forever. But in the story the gates too are caught, forever closing between them.
Stories store time. While novels demonstrate how time passes and what time does, stories show us that time rushes through us and makes palpable not ideas about time but moments we--the story's characters, and we who accept that something about them is something about us--insist upon preserving. Stories save crucial moments, they make poignant time's passage, they sadly celebrate our rituals of birth and growth and death. A story about initiation into sexuality does not only memorialize the loss of virginity, the commencement of pleasures and risks that will make you crazy for the rest of your life; it notes not only that you are part of the vast, overwhelming biological cycles, but it says that you are changed forever--you will never be what you were. In and because of a good story, we respond as if it were a matter of life and death. We believe that it is a matter of life and death. Anything less at stake suggests an anecdote, a tale about the teller (not about the reader and writer allied by their sense of very much to lose or gain). Writers, notoriously selfish and difficult people, must do their best work so that they are considering the otherness in the story and its readers--so that, despite whatever personal motives drive them, they create a believable dream that pertains to others as much as to themselves. This enlightened self-interest in the battle with time is what produces the stories we love.
I came to writing stories because I failed as a poet. I had the wish to work in a form in which time could be contained, and with which I could dramatize the memories that haunted me. My lines sprawled across the page, and my poems became stories. I have spent several decades searching for ways of achieving poetry in prose while making a reader continue through my lines like the child who goes limp on your lap, seems barely to breathe, as you tell a story and the child hears and then, and and then, and and then. A lifetime of loving stories and trying to make them suggests to me that they are a fine way of capturing the essence of moments, and of suggesting the damage and glory of living alert to death. I am also convinced of a few other aspects of the short story and its relationship to readers.
Shallow stories are easy. The novelist and story writer Pam Durban calls it The Shrug. It is thought by some to be a by-product of writing workshops but, if so, it is produced in the inferior workshops; the good ones are helping talented people in their period of apprenticeship to get better at their craft, and the good writers who teach them do not accept The Shrug. The Shrug is what happens at moments of intensity (or those moments with the potential for intensity) when the characters confront themselves or each other and much might be thought to be at stake. They look at each other, or into themselves, and--instead of exploring, through metaphoric dramatic action, what in hell the story was supposed to be about--they back away into limp thoughtlessness, into diversions involving drink or drugs or passionless sex or sexless passion, into attitude: they show you that something significant is within hailing distance, is around the corner, is just under that dead dog or torn-up diploma or scissored condom or burning car, but they really are not about to suggest what it is. It's, you know, whatever: The Shrug.
And it is often these stories, I would suggest, the stories of easily won affect that do no one any good, which are selected by second-rate editors for second-rate magazines and that we find in too many second-rate anthologies--Erotic Stories by Middle-Aged Middle-Europeans and The Best Action Fiction of Twice-Convicted Shoplifters and The Best Stories by Eccentric and Highly Talented Middle-School Students. Alas, we find them even in the better places, and you have read them. They gesture, they do The Shrug, they imitate--with wise, inarticulate working-class characters; with women outspoken about invasive sexuality; with guys who kill lots of animals and maybe even you if you cross them--the superficial qualities of writers who are considered successful, hot. The editors do not distinguish--maybe they don't know how--between how the good writers walk their walk and how the imitators waddle behind, emulating them. Readers begin to sense the difference between, say, the simple, sober language they sought and the cliché-ridden language they're given. If they seek complexity but are given fancy, perfumed talk, they realize it. After a while, readers find less sustenance in what they're given, whether in magazines, in collections, or in anthologies. They move on to what sustains them.
Good stories are hard. In a collection of stories, the reader must work to become accustomed to the rhythms of the writer, to the shaping force of the sentences, and to the new character through whom each story focuses. It is like breaking a bone and resetting it each time one begins a story in a collection. And each ending, if it's written right, is emotionally demanding, is a new way of seeing and saying; and even though the reader is drawn to the labor, labor it is. (That is why book editors ask writers either to link the stories in a collection or to recast the separate stories so that they may seem to form a novel; neither works--the good reader knows.)
Ann Beattie, a writer whose gift includes a brilliant eye, often ends her stories with a kind of freeze-frame as metaphor. Take, for example, the anthologized story "Janus," probably read by thousands of students every year. The protagonist, Andrea, is caught between her love for her husband and for her lover. She must choose, and she doesn't want to. At the story's end, Andrea sits with a bowl her lover has given her--a good luck charm. It is "perfect: the world cut in half," as Andrea's is. In her enjoyment of her solitude, Andrea contemplates the bowl: "Near the rim, even in dim light, the eye moved toward one small flash of blue, a vanishing point on the horizon." Andrea is arrested by her author, and so am I: Beattie focuses my inner eye on what her character sees; I can understand Andrea in how she sees--who she is, for that instant, is how she sees. I have to check myself to be sure that I get what the author is up to, the way she alerts me to the opening up and then shutting down, like a blinking of her eye, that is offered by that "vanishing point." This is wonderfully rewarding work, but it is work nevertheless, and it sometimes makes stories hard for some readers.
Look again at Truffaut's The 400 Blows and watch the boy, at the end, having been abandoned by his parents, having escaped from the reformatory, as he races to a beach, thinking that he will find freedom. He finds ocean. His way is blocked. He can go no farther. He will be caught. At this moment, though, he is alone at the edge of land. He raises his arms--in triumph? in despair?--and Truffaut freezes the frame. That is the effect of the end of an Ann Beattie story, and we respond with our senses to the conclusion--not breathing, and then sighing air out and out and out. Our bodies know how much is at stake.
Good stories are hard to understand, sometimes, because they are more suggestive than instructive, more about finding in the chaos of experience a metaphor--a smell, a sound, the rhythm of a statement, or a long wait through devastating silence--with which a character (and a reader) might focus upon or manage to shape a way of seeing oneself in the vastness of experience.
I have said that stories try to say what isn't sayable. Some of Hemingway's best advice to writers lay in his pronouncement that the majestic dignity of an iceberg's slow progress through the water lies in the fact that seven-eighths of it are under that water. You look at this enormous structure and you realize that the vastness of what you see is just the tip, that what isn't visible, what in a story isn't said, is under the water, hidden ballast. That great weight, what the writer suggests or implies but does not say in a good story--and about which the writer does not cheat with attitudinizing, with The Shrug--is, somehow, made palpable to the reader. Good stories say the unsayable, and that act is very close, I believe, to prayer.
In the Zoetrope: All-Story Summer 1997 issue, novelist and essayist Phillip Lopate wrote a wonderfully argumentative essay called "Always Be Closing: A Skeptic's View of Contemporary Short Stories." A number of his complaints and mine, above, might seem to rhyme: we each say loudly how much we don't like the dumb stuff. While complaining, Lopate says, "For a short story to work, it has to be about one thing. Not only that, but that one thing must be felt to be hastening toward its conclusion with every woven effect." He sees this quality as an impediment to enjoying short fiction. I see it as a glory. For he is saying that a story is so impeccably and urgently composed that it becomes a strong, delicate web: touch one strand, and the others begin to shiver. Such moments are congregational moments: the writer is the preacher, the parishioners begin to clap their hands, the amens ring across the room, and we, each usually locked in our membrane of self-consciousness, are all merging emotionally at the heightened moment of awareness.
I think Lopate might not enjoy such experiences, for he writes very persuasively and engagingly about the isolated consciousness--about his consciousness. For example, in his 1996 essay collection, Portrait of My Body, Lopate, in the title essay, says "About my penis there is nothing, I think, unusual." You might think of an artist in his studio, sketching himself, contemplating with his pencil strokes the ordinariness of his body, but knowing--as the essay makes clear--that the body is unique not only because it is his, but because of his decision to sketch it and the way he draws the lines.
Here's yet another penis in our literature, this one in D. H. Lawrence's story "Odour of Chrysanthemums." A man working in the coal mines has been killed, and his corpse is brought home. His wife, unhappy in their quarrelsome marriage and pregnant again, decides that she owes him the bathing of his body. After the intimacy of the washing, the wife contemplates the body with which she has been both familiar and self-deceiving. Looking at his loins, she thinks of their lovemaking: "There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings." Finally, "from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame."
I'm not using Lawrence as a club against Lopate, nor would I wish to, for I am an admiring reader of Lopate's work, and I do love the energy and inventiveness of his contemplations. I am trying to demonstrate how stories work, and why they are not merely different from essays but capable of effects I think of as more stirring. The self of the wife in the Lawrence story retreats, in spite of her intensified consciousness; it is the awful power of the inert, alien body that dominates the final pages of the story, and before which she cringes. In Lopate's essay, it is the self of the writer, and his personal history, which come to the fore. In one case, we know the essayist better; in the other, we know more about sex and death.
Finally, though, I take this occasion to celebrate the story because I love to write it. Most writers locate crucial moments in their stories. They work toward those moments with each word of the early portions of the story; when the crucial act or conversation or realization arrives, the reader senses, and the writer knows, that every early word has carried the story's weight to this moment. The moment is necessary, and it is borne upon, and born of, the earlier moments that took us to it. And the reader senses, while the writer labors to make it so, that every word after this moment exists because the crucial moment did. At the story's end, the reader feels--and the writer has revised and honed or added and shaped elements to make it feel this way--that the ending is inevitable, like the fate of the characters in whose world the reader has believed.
"Crucial," the word I use to describe those necessary, inevitable instants in a character's life, comes from "cross." In "cross" I find the shape of crossroads as writers remember them and discover analogies for them. Those are the psychic and physical decision points at which, when you look back, you understand you made a choice, and you sense something of the nature of the choice you made, and you comprehend the cost of choosing. In stories, writers celebrate the act--a simultaneous gain and loss--as time roars through them, that they try to fix against its flow.
This is desperate work, if we think about it. And we do. We know that where two roads or branches cross, the angle is called a crotch. A crotch is the forking of the crossroads. It is the place of decisions, where we choose the direction in which to stumble toward how we'll live. It is the point we remember and from which we look back in time and measure loss. It is where we do our work.