Joining This Program Already in Progress: National Short Story Month

I’m a bit late with this post. May is National Short Story Month, and here it is May 16, and this is the first I’ve said about it. This seems like bad form for a fiction writer, especially one trained to write short stories. Tsk, tsk.

Truth be told, my life has been taken over lately by food writing – memoirs, articles, fiction, etc. But I’ve come out of the literary kitchen for a moment to talk about my favorite short stories.

Novels are easier to publish; anyone in the business will likely tell you that. Short stories, for whatever reason, have not taken hold with much of society. Some people like the continuous narrative of a novel; some say that they like the way you can really get to know the characters because you’re with them longer. That’s one of the major hurdles with a short story: ┬ámake your readers care about the characters in a very short amount of time.

But in this, the age of blog posts and smart phones and sound bites and all other manner of quick information and entertainment, short stories are perfect for us. They’re usually around 20 pages long, which can be read while waiting for a meeting, riding a bus, eating lunch (or breakfast), or if you’re like me, giving a test to your students. And when you’re finished, you’re really finished (most of the time). Nothing to remember when you next pick up the book, no plot lines or sub-characters. You just move on to the next bite-sized chunk.

So in the next week or so, I’ll be posting about some of my favorite short stories. It’s not a complete list by any stretch, but these are some of the ones that jump out at me immediately when I look at my book shelf.

1. “Music” by Ellen Gilchrist

“Music” is a short story about a girl named Rhoda Manning, a character that Gilchrist wrote about over many books and many years, developing her from a little girl in “The Broad Jump Pit” to her senior years as a student who has returned to college in “Joyce.” I love the Rhoda stories. These are probably my favorite stories I’ve ever read, and these are the stories that made me want to be a writer.

In “Music,” Rhoda is described thusly:

Rhoda was fourteen years old that spring and her true love had been cruelly taken from her and she had started smoking because there was nothing left to do now but be a writer.

She is also described as being “stuffed with cookies and ice cream and cigarettes and rage.” To make her stop smoking, her father takes her to the Kentucky coal mining country where he owns some of the mines. He drops her off with two very sweet country people, and then he drives to Memphis to see his mistress for a few days while Rhoda eats and pouts and is held prisoner. When he comes back, he takes his very angry daughter to the mines, but when something goes wrong, he asks a feckless old man to take her back to the trailer she’s been staying at. Rhoda has other plans, though, and she takes the Jeep, leaves the old man behind, goes to town, buys a new dress, meets a boy named Johnny, loses her virginity to him beside a pond in the woods, and then goes back to her father, smelling like sex and indignation. He puts her on the first flight home, and Rhoda is as she ever was.

What I really admire about this story is how Gilchrist handles time. In the present action, Rhoda is fourteen, and she and her father disagree about everything from the people she’s staying with to evolution. At the end of the story, Gilchrist leaps forward about thirty years, at which point Rhoda is an author, and her father has written her a letter telling her to take┬áhis name off of the books she has written. By jumping forward, she breaks Aristotle’s rule of containing a story to its own space, and we get to see how the original story, “Music,” has played out in years to come, even though we don’t get to see the full progression in real time.

This story shouldn’t work. It’s one of those stories that would have some good stuff going for it, but would likely be torn to shreds in an MFA workshop for wobbly POV and the leap in time at the end. But Gilchrist gets away with it because we can’t help but cheer Rhoda on. We want her to win, we want her to defy her father, and I personally was thrilled to be able to see how the drama of “Music” is still playing out thirty years in the future.

I’ve got more where this one came from, so stay tuned for more of my favorite short stories. And hey, if you have any that you love, please post them in the comments. I’m always looking for more stories to read (or stories to gush over with people who have also read them!).

3 thoughts on “Joining This Program Already in Progress: National Short Story Month

  1. I’ll check Rhoda out, lately I find that it is easier to read short stories than entire long novels. It takes me forever to finish them. Time is such an elusive item these days. Truthfully, I end up reading most of my stories online anyway, can’t remember the last time I stopped in a bookstore. Truly, how terrible of me.

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