Seven 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.
“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.
It’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?
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