365 Short Stories: Week 4, Discontent

365I do this: read one short story on-line, each day, every day, and I am doing it for 365 days. Why? I need to know what’s going on out there and what I mean by that is this: I need to know what’s going on right here, as in, right in front of me on this here screen.

Ours was one of the last families in our little foothill town elementary school to purchase a home computer earlier in this century. It wasn’t until my MFA program, three years ago, that I swapped out pencil and pad for laptop to draft stories and poems. If you ever visit the place where I live and write, you’d see that there are hours of my writing/reading day where electricity eludes me.Yet, slowly, and with a certain amount of internal angst, I’ve come to love the world of electronic ink, how stories from all over the world can be conjured by a click.

So, when I’m all plugged in and charged up, I am digging what I read, the literary current, if you will. And I still yearn for the printed page, the paper in my hands. I straddle both worlds. So do many of the literary magazines I admire, so why angst about it? Why not save the unease for my characters?

This week, characters in the 7 of my 365 short story line-up are all about discontent.

Beginning with Mary Stein’s beautiful story “Vestigial Features,” about a woman’s quiet quest to feel herself fully-formed, and ending with A.K. Benninghofen’s “Torque” about the underlying tensions of mild-manner domesticity, each of the protagonists persist, torn in some way by the human condition. True of all good fiction, no? But something about the inner struggle, the doing it alone even when among others seem to ring true in the fictions that chose me this week.

In “People With Holes” by Heather Fowler, literally, people with holes seek connection with like-beings who also have holes. In “Jesus Doesn’t Love You and Neither Do I” the same author finds the metaphor for how we are alone with our holes even when among a townspeople. David Houseley’s character in “Toyota” stands alone by a window, looking out, coveting his neighbor’s latest acquisition while calling out to his disconnected wife to stand witness beside him.

How about this? “Some people can have arguments and discussions on the bus. They talk about money and shoes and bosses and medication and who has screwed whom and who is more righteous and when will they learn.”  Ever think about how public display of personal content is another form of loneliness seeking connection? Andrea Dulanto’s story “Winter Clothes” explores the mind of a woman ready to risk privacy in a public arena.SAM_0650

Finally, in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” the town character demonstrates an over-arching collective discontent, demonstrating the ache within a people, and the blind following of a community tradition.

On that note, I can’t quite say, “Happy Reading!” but I can say hope the sun comes back to Vermont soon.

You can read my thoughts on print lit mags here.

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365 Short Stories: Week 3, Short

I must have had a busy week or maybe I’ve got the flash bug that Robert Vaughan talks about in his 2010 interview at Lake Effect: Flash Fiction Fridays, because all of the stories from Week Three, we’re very short.

So, in deference to the form, I’ll keep this post brief.

What I gleaned from Robert Vaughan’s interview about flash is this…

Beadelaire: Father of Flash?

Beadelaire: Father of Flash?

1.) Origins: turn of the century, Baudalaire

2.) Word Count: some say 1,000 words or less, some say 14o characters (micro-flash)

3.) “Glimpse into a world or a fraction of a story that is as  finished as a story.”

4.) A growing category

5.) Every single word has weight.

6. ) “The piece has a line or a phrase that stands the piece on its head.”

7.) Connection to poetry, almost a cross-over

8.) “It’s of a moment. It comes through you.”

This week’s flash fiction featured “What Fills a Balloon” by Ross McMeekin who edits an on-line flash journal called Spartan, “Delta Thirty-Five” by Pam Houston, who can be seen reading from her “genre-bending” book Contents May Have Shifted* on Vimeo, “Winter” by Aimee Bender, “The Dauphin” by Marc Sheehan (winner of NPR’s Three-minute Fiction) and may be heard as a podcast, and coming in as the longest piece this week, at approximately 1,800 words was Amber Sparks, “Study for the New Fictional Science.”

Lake Effect: Friday Flash Fiction

Lake Effect: Friday Flash Fiction

And, of course you may hear half a dozen super short pieces by Robert Vaughan in the interview at Lake Effect.

My own thoughts on flash may be read here.

Thanks for peeking in.

* Pam’s book is marketed as a novel. Each chapters could stand alone as a short story. They’re very short. They fit in here.

365 Short Stories in 2013: Week 2, Family

It's+an+Ipad+made+of+trees+dearWeek Two of my New’s Year’s Challenge and I find myself looking forward to reading shorts on-line in the way I use to look forward to unwrapping the tiny wrapped packages in my Christmas stocking when I was kid. The big presents were great! But the little ones were shinier, extra sweet, and more and more interesting as I went further into the toe.

What I’m really enjoying about the challenge is that I stumble upon new (and old) on-line journals I haven’t checked out, which then leads me to art I haven’t seen, poetry I haven’t read, editor statements that encourage me.

Fiction is not dead or even dying and good shorts are available with a click and a scroll, or maybe you have to try out two or three before you read the one you want to share, for some reason, any: the prose, the content, the place, some fabulous twist, something dark on a rainy day, a good friend wrote it. This week, I rejected a few stories, as in, I read them but then didn’t post them in my group.

I heard a line in a movie this past week…

“You think its cool to hate things. And its not. Its boring. Talk about what you love, keep quiet about what you don’t”. —ZibbyLiberal Arts

There’s enough negativity out there already, and besides, it wasn’t that the stories I didn’t post weren’t good, I just didn’t love them.

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When I scanned the batch of stories I was compelled to review, a common theme I found among them was family: sisters in “Two Sisters” by Helen Rubenstein, father and daughter in “Sleeping Out” by Cassie Gonzales, a young boy and his father, in “My Father at the Mountainside” by Jacob White, a grown son and his parents in “The Red Room” by Paul Bowles, and a woman and her monkey in “My Monkey and Me” by Laura Burnes, again, sister and sister in “Firebug” by Katie Cortese–oh, the complications between sisters– and finally husband and wife in “Leftovers” by Nickolas Butler.

Once again, I was drawn to a different story each day, randomly, and as a group they held a common thread.

Here’s a saying: “There are only two things you can count on: death and taxes.”

But perhaps in fiction the two things you can count on are: death and family. Not in the sense that characters can always count on family, but that people can count on reading a pile of stories and run into family drama in more, rather than less, stories from the pile. We often write fiction about what we face in our lives. In life, we face our families, even if they aren’t near or even on the planet.

And what was the opening line in Anna Karenina again?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

And one last thing… a happy picture of the most recent addition to my family.

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365 Short Stories in 2013: Week 1, Death

DeathSeven days is as good a number as any to take stock of my New Year’s resolution experiment, a Facebook Group, 365 Short Stories in 2013, “a forum where I give a brief review of a short story that may be read on-line, one a day, 365 this year.”

One of the group members, a writing friend, asked how I choose the stories for a post. She queried, “Do you play butterfly and just land on one and then the next?”

My reply: “I have no system. There is no shortage of great shorts on-line. Usually one thing leads me to another, so, yes…the butterfly game, only it’s winter in Vermont so I think more about chickadees at the feeder.”

Fairly random. Which is why I was surprised that 3 of the 7 stories this week featured a dead dog. There’s irony in this. You see, every day for the past eighteen days, I have completed one small act of grieving for the death of my own dog, Finn. His nose prints smudge our glass and I can’t bear to wash them. I can still smell his scent on his collar which I have taken out and put away again at least five times, thinking I was done, or that the scent would be gone. When I do this, his name tag jingles, causing the cat to caterwaul at the door. Perhaps she just misses summer. Snow piles her hidey-hole under the porch. But I think not. Okay. Enough.

From a fabulous interview by Joel Lovell (deputy editor at The Times Magazine) with George Saunders: “ ‘If death is in the room, it’s pretty interesting,’ Saunders said, meaning that any story circling around the idea of death is going to be charged.”

Besides the dead dogs, stories I read this week featured a dying husband (“Dogfights”), a dying father (“Last Dog”), a dead child (“The Red Bow”), the death of innocence, (“Our Education” and “Cartwheel”, a dead horse, and a mother’s grave (“DYSPNEA”).

Then there was Ben Tanzer’s flash piece “Younger” which seemed to cling to life, (and didn’t they all), but without the mention of death, and yet, you felt in the clinging the preciousness of life in juxtaposition. Sort of, death off the page.

“…the little one though, he’s like a donut, a grimy, oozy, sticky, crying powdered donut that you just want to stroke and smell, and curl-up with at every moment possible.”

Then I thought about my own stories. Let’s see. Three published (I’m new to this). In them: a dead sister and a dying wife, a dead mother, the loss of a child.

Again, Saunders…

“But I would also say that I’m interested in getting myself to believe that it’s going to happen to me. I’m interested in it, because if you’re not, you’re nuts. It’s really de facto what we’re here to find out about. I hate the thought of messing around and then being like, ‘Oh, I’ve got pancreatic cancer.’ It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to even think of. But to me, it’s what you should be thinking about all the time. As a fiction writer, the trick is how to be thinking about it in a way that makes it substantial. You want it to matter when you do induce it.”

I realized he was not alone. Many stories I read have to do with death, or at the very least, any number of smaller losses, perhaps, our way of practicing for death.

Death Blog FinnIt’s winter in Vermont, we are surrounded by death. Even death is surrounded by death. I have friends that read the obits before the comics. Our parents seem to lose a friend a week. Our friends are losing their parents. The holidays are rife with metaphors: the darkest night, a dying light, a savior born.

So why, in 6 out of the 7 randomly chosen stories, wouldn’t a writer feature death?

“You want it to matter when you induce it.”

A question: Did they do it well?

Feel free to weigh in sign up, join in, share a thought…

365 Short Stories in 2013

An Idea, A Flash

Bone ChinaI never know how or when a story will come, or where I’ll be when an image or a phrase drifts into my consciousness and lands. Some people carry paper with them everywhere they go, or at least know how to use their Smart Phones to take notes better than I do. I’m not an organized person in that way. While many glimmers and snippets and great “prosey” lines fade by the time I sit at my table, I always trust that something will come. This strategy takes the pressure off the job of stewarding every possible good idea.

A couple of weeks before the holidays I was having tea at a friend’s house. She served lemon and lavender and mint tea in an heirloom cup and we sat on her couch in the afternoon light.We talked of daughters and births and becoming grandmothers. We basked in our good fortune. As I stepped into the blank winter air, I wondered what my life would have been like if my daughter had not made it to womanhood and to a time where she herself would become a mother. And I cried. Not because an imagined peril, the what-if, had brought me real sadness, but because it hit me that she would become a mother and have what I have had with her, but with someone else. I felt a loss in that.

I write fiction to play with the nuances of human psyche through characters. So here’s what mingled in my writer brain: tea, bone china, daughter, loss, and I sat down to create.

“Bone China” is the first and only piece of flash fiction I ever wrote. A friend once challenged me to try and write a story under 2,000 words and I knew one day I would. When I approached this story on the afternoon of that day, I didn’t know it would be the story that met the dare. Everything I wanted to say flew from my fingers and in fifteen minutes, it was done. A few tweaks the next day, and off it went.

From “Bone China”…

“He led her to the living room. The furniture quivered at the sight of her, or so she imagined. The leather was skin, the velour a caress. Her mind was slipping into old ways, how she used to love this room after lunch, with him, before work, the children in school, and she steadied herself with the piano. He took her arm.”

Thanks to Ross McMeekin, flash-fiction writer extraordinaire and editor of Spartan, an up-and-coming lit journal that features brief works of prose, for giving my inaugural “flash” a home.

If you like what you read at Spartan, join my Facebook Group, 365 Short Stories in 2013, where you can get a quick review and link to an on-line short every day of the year.