My very first short stories were usually about a woman performing some domestic task and agonizing internally, invisibly. I was in love with Tillie Olsen’s “As I Stand Here Ironing,” and Bret Lott’s Jewel, particularly a scene where the protag is drying a dish and watching her children play through the window.
I wanted to do what they were doing, to sculpt such beautiful, powerful interior monologue that little else was needed.
Ever notice how your writing evolves with your choices in reading? Or vice-versa?
A few years of trying to be Bret Lott, and I found another, drastically different writer to emulate: Aimee Bender. Here, this wild woman of surrealism and the wonderfully bizarre. She did for fire-handed girls and fathers with soccer-ball sized holes in their stomachs what Lott and Olsen did for heavy-hearted mothers: she told their stories. Everywhere, in domestic fiction, deeply committed to reality, or in fantasy and surrealism, deeply committed to exposing a kind of reality beyond this present, seen reality, the aim is always, always, the story. Tell the story. Make it real.
“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.” So begins the first story, “The Rememberer” in Bender’s second collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. “Drunken Mimi” begins, “There was an imp that went to high school with stilts on so that no one would know he was an imp. Of course he never wore shorts.” And, the last sentence of the entire collection killed me. (You must read this book!)
Ultimately, I gathered courage from both Lott and Bender. Courage to fully imagine what was before me: the woman at her kitchen sink, the girl setting free her lover, devolved into a salamander.
And now, I’ve discovered another fiction writer whose work both emboldens me and humbles me. It’s the best thing for an aspiring fiction writer: work that challenges, that makes you see again the possibilities—what fiction can do!—and yet also chastises: if you’re going to do this, do it all the way. Fully imagine.
That work is Stacey Levine’s The Girl with the Brown Fur. In this short story collection, humanity is shown at its bleakest, most yearning, its most bizarre. Every character is an outsider; every character’s humanity is shown in its quest for comfort. For companionship. Reassurance.
Again, as with Lott’s pining mother, as with Bender’s mourning lover, the genius is in the rendering of human want. “Milk Boy” begins: “Everyone called him ‘Milk Boy’ because he was just like milk: thin, rushing everywhere, tinged with blue; he poured himself all around because he needed to; he was nervous and jiggled all day just like a happy little clown, as a matter of fact, he was a clown, laughing all his life, compromising himself, jerking upon the office floor.” And sometimes, non-human want: “Imagine being a bean,” Levine’s story, “The Bean” begins: “a pale supplicant, rimy dot, a belly-wrinkled pip, lying enervated on the kitchen chair, trying too hard all the time.”
Levine’s book is a must-read for writers. It is precise and bizarre in the most beautiful, frightening ways. It edifies the writerly soul.
So, I’m giving one away. It’s short story month and it’s spring: let’s just go crazy. I’ll give all three books away: Lott’s “How to Get Home,” Bender’s “Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” and Levine’s “The Girl with Brown Fur.”
Thank you, blog readers. Beautiful writers. Thank you for reading and for commenting and for, some of you, the extraordinary and heart-felt emails you send my way. Comment below. Please. Tell me your favorite short story or how you're feeling today or anything else you want to share. I'll put your name in the hat. Me and each of my kids will draw a name. Oh, happy May! Long live short story collections!