Sunday, January 15, 2012

Long Post About Short Stories

In the last two weeks I have thought more about stories than in the rest of my life put together.

As you may know I have talked of writing a novel for years. The trouble is that I don't know how. So a while back I decided it was time to take a class and learn.

I looked into community college evening classes but needed something more advanced. I looked into the U of O's writing program. It was just what I wanted but they wouldn't let me take a class here and there; I had to be enrolled in the program.

I posted a question on Facebook: did anyone have an online class to recommend?

And like Pip in Great Expectations and many characters in Lucy Maud Montgomery's books, I got something I wasn't expecting at all: a benefactress. Two of them, in fact.

Two women from a northeastern state have read my writing for some time and decided they wanted to pay for an online class for me. From Stanford.

Such a golden peach hanging right in my face. How could I not pluck and eat it while I had the opportunity?

But goodness, how could I find the time? Well, after Christmas Ben would be in Bible school. Christmas would be over, of course. Emily could teach the writing class I was teaching at Brownsville. And Lisa the niece would be back from Poland and could help me out with housework again.

So I signed up for Short Story Writing. The novel-writing class was too advanced and also I needed prerequisites.

So I have had stories on the brain. Characters and the decisions they make. Point of view and narrative voice. Setting and plot.

And just a lot of thoughts, outside of the curriculum, on stories.

What is a story, really? Why do we tell stories, and what makes a story a story rather than an observation, a news item, a description, a list, a fact, an illustration, or a lecture?

I'm realizing that my concept of stories, particularly GOOD stories, isn't everyone's.

Here's what I consider good stories:
--Children's books such as A Bargain for Frances or The Biggest Bear or the Ramona books
--family yarns, such as Mom's stories of growing up in the Depression or my grandma's story about climbing the "vintboomp" (windmill) to see the "volf" or the Kropf/Knox stories about this house and the 75 cousins within 5 miles.
--novels such as Tom Sawyer and A Tangled Web and Great Expectations and All Creatures Great and Small and Pride and Prejudice and a thousand more.
--true-life stories such as Evidence Not Seen and Schindler's List.
--the Bible and the stories within it

So what is a story? It's characters, and they do something and things happen to them, and something about them or the situation changes, and it all looks pretty dark for a while, usually, and then things are put into place and clarified and resolved, and then the story ends.


I never thought of myself as a snooty reader until I came to realize that there is a whole universe of literature out there that seems to look at what I consider "good stories," the same way I look at the whole universe of Twilight books and most Amish novels and all those little paperbacks you see at garage sales, with pictures on the front of gasping ladies bent over backwards by hairy men with names like Flint and Torque, not that I'd ever read those books you understand.

And the whole universe that looks down on my beloved stories as just that tacky is the world of Fine Literature, as in highbrow, deep, college-literature course, New Yorker Short Stories.

Which we seem to study a lot in this class I'm taking. Somehow in high school and two years of college I never ran into stuff quite like this.

They come in nice hardbound books with impressive titles like Collected Short Stories of Jon Arbuckle or Great American Short Stories.

I feel a bit like the child saying the emperor has no clothes, because the truth is these "Short Stories" aren't actually stories, at least how you and I think of stories. They are pieces, descriptions, sometimes monologues.

Generally, you have a dreary, dark, depressing person in a dreary, dark, depressing situation. A few vague and dreary dark depressing things happen, or are done to him by other dreary, dark, depressing people, and then everything stops. Or sometimes nothing actually happens. Or maybe someone dies first, or things get a bit worse overall. No one learns anything. Nothing changes for the better. The plot generally involves alcohol, abuse, anger, alienation, infidelity, deception, and despair.

Or sometimes the entire thing is just one person talking, like a mother to her daughter, going on and on for two pages about how to do stuff around the house and occasionally running her daughter down in in a very destructive way, and then she stops talking.

That's it. Nothing works out, nothing makes sense, nothing is clarified.

This apparently qualifies as a "short story."

These writers certainly have something to offer in creating vivid characters in vivid settings with a vivid sense of emotion, enough to keep you awake at night, so there's plenty for me to learn from them in that regard.

But I'm realizing for the first time how important it is to me to have things work out in the end.

I am known for tying things into a neat bow at the end of all the essays I write. Most readers seem to appreciate this, but I've run into a few literary types who gently poked fun at me, like if I could somehow reach their Enlightened Plane of Being, I would realize it's so much better to leave it all dangling and vague and unresolved.

Which brings us back to the questions, "What is a story?" and "Why do we tell stories?"

I think we all live among fragments, sadness, conflict, just hard stuff.

And we long to make sense of it, to know that it has some sort of meaning.

But we don't get to see the end of the story and how it all works out for years and years.

So we love stories. True stories, after the fact, where the people were like us and the situation a lot like ours but it all worked out and the pieces fit together and even the sad things were redeemed in time. And made up stories, again, like our lives, where the writer looks back and sees the thread running through the whole thing and ties it into a bow at the end.

Maybe those of us who grew up on the Bible have a greater expectation for stories like this. There's the thread of redemption running through the whole narrative, even through famine and slavery and captivity and judgment and death, and in the end it all works out, and justice is done, and good rewarded, and secrets made known.

The same thing is true for shorter stories within the Bible--Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, and so on.

The Snooty Short Stories are presented as True Depictions of Real Life. And I'm sure they are, in their way. [Interestingly, though, they never venture into the Just As Real Life of a woman learning to use her computer or a husband apologizing to his wife or a child figuring out his math or a teacher putting in extra time for a student or a housewife finally having the nerve to tell the Jehovah's Witnesses to quit coming.]

Believe me, I get plenty of dark, depressing, dreary real life all the time, especially with all the times people look to me for answers and I have no idea what to tell them. The young man didn't get the job he was counting on, the creepy relative snuck off with the young boy at the family gathering, the person in charge won't listen to anyone, the other student won't stop when he's told to stop that, the in-laws think the parents are destining the kids to Hell....well, that was just in the last week.

The stories for this class feels like way too much of the same. In my limited recreational-reading time, I need true-to-life stories with some kind of redemption, resolution, and answers. Of fragments fitting together and things making sense, where I can close the book and go to sleep.

So, the class is worth it because I now know clearly how I want to write. I know that I will always be somewhere between Alice Munro and Barbara Cartland, very middle-brow, I guess, between the New Yorker and the National Enquirer.

I hope to write fiction that sounds like real life, but looking back, where there really is a thread running through, and you can see how things worked out, and it gives you a bit of hope and courage that someday your life will make sense as well.


  1. Rosy (from Plain City)1/16/2012 3:30 AM

    Yea for middle brow literature, and stories that are STORIES and not navel gazing exercises that make you weary as you read them!
    Life is full enough of drear without reading it for relaxation!

  2. It seems to me that what you've encountered here, Dorcas, in this online course is the collision of your own biblical worldview with the godless worldview of most of so-called "fine literature". You said of the stories in your course assignments, "No one learns anything. Nothing changes for the better. The plot generally involves alcohol, abuse, anger, alienation, infidelity, deception, and despair."

    That is a description of the human condition without Christ, is it not? Mankind is locked inside a box, and he cannot get out by himself. In fact, the major themes of modern literature are just that--despair, alienation, rootlessness, meaninglessness, and hopelessness. That's because without Christ there is no hope. There is no key to unlock and get out of the box, no way to escape the entrapment; thus all that is left is that list of negative conditions which you cited and I quoted above.

    It does not surprise me that you named the likes of New Yorker Short Stories and Great American Short Stories as being the works that you are studying which have the plot characteristics that you listed.

    Anyway, getting back to my opening sentence, when you think about what makes a good story, you do so from your own Christian worldview, don't you? You know that the Bible is full of murderous plots, deceptive characters, and other mention of gross accounts of treacherous lies, sexual seduction and rape, butchery, selfishness, and hatred. But you also know that the underlying theme of the entire Bible is the Story of Redemption which runs like a scarlet cord through its pages from beginning to end.

    Yes, the biblical short stories which you referred to--Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah--do have lessons and solutions! I suspect The New Yorker and literary critics would call these Bible stories "moralistic" but you and I know them to be the revelation of truth with a purpose and with a point. Their perspective is the exact opposite of the hopelessness, alienation, despair--the dreary, depressing darkness, as you said, of modern literature and today's so-called "good stories". Ack. You have described this clash in viewpoints very well, and I'm happy to see that the course has already helped you decide what you want to do about it.

    One more thing--as I read your post I couldn't help but think of the 20th century Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, (winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature) and his bleak outlook. He wrote a famous, short absurdist play called "Waiting For Godot" which is a perfect example of the paragraph you wrote regarding another story. You wrote:

    "That's it. Nothing works out, nothing makes sense, nothing is clarified."

    I had to smile when I read that because it reminded me of the two main characters in "Waiting For Godot" who did nothing but wait. Nothing changed. They just kept waiting. At the closing curtain they were still waiting. If you're not familiar with this play, it might be worth your time to google "Waiting For Godot summary" and read about the monotonous, pointless existence which this story portrays. Godot never comes.

    The fact that this author (Beckett) had such a huge influence on modern literature helps explain the proliferation of the many dreary, despairing, pointless themes which you have encountered. These stories reflect the culture of the hopeless condition of man, trapped in a box, unable to get out by himself. You have a Message of hope and deliverance to write about.

    God bless you and the two ladies who made this course available for you. It's very enlightening, isn't it? I really enjoyed reading your reactions because I went through the same thing years ago in college literature classes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

    ~~Ruby Isaac (As a reminder, we've met and chatted a couple of times. I'm Julie Nevue's mother.)

  3. Okay, _this_ is why I decided to study rhetoric instead of creative writing--I knew that as much as I am a child of postmodernism*, I wasn't up to the task of postmodern creative writing. I'm just too uncomfortable with ambiguity to make it a major part of my life work.

    That said, I was relieved to find that most of my colleagues who are in creative writing (here at the University of Missouri) do indeed write stories that I can understand, stories with development and a recognizable plot. (FWIW, you may find our online courses more relevant to your work. Our creative writing program is very reputable, but isn't burdened with the responsibility of maintaining an Ivy League status.)

    As the old saying goes, "Write what you know." That's worked pretty well for you so far, so don't let a bunch of snobs throw you off your game! The truth is that your (and my) life experiences have (in many ways) been far different from those who write postmodern fiction. To try to emulate them for the sake of emulation is to betray the truth of what you know. (Not that I think you would actually do that.)

    Come to think of it, I suspect the reason I don't read more fiction is because there's so little written that hits my sweet spot between low-brown and high-brow. So,yes, please! Shoot for the middle! :)

    *My favorite short definition of postmodernism is that it is a celebration of fragmentation in contrast with modernism's lamenting of fragmentation.

  4. Somewhere I've learned that the University of Iowa has an outstanding program for writers, including some summer classes. I think they also have a list of prerequisites that might be difficult to leap over. I'm a big believer in making a personal appeal to the person in charge in such situations. You were born in the backyard of this university and still visit there sometimes. If I were you, I'd see what's available from there and try the personal approach to get whatever is needed.

    I think the main thing people in such situations are concerned about is that students are able to handle the challenges of the course. You have to convince them that you are up to the challenge--something a published author with a track record like yours should have no trouble establishing.

  5. I agree with Ruby Isaac. She said exactly what I was thinking when I read your blog.

    Is it not true that the trend away from redemption in literature is a modern phenomen? What about writers like L.C.Douglas, Thomas B.Costain, Lew Wallace, Frank Peretti, Harold Bell Wright...they had a story and told it well, although I do not appreciate Wright's solution to troublesome people in society, but the presence of difficulty existed and it was recognized.

    Maybe you should just do what your gut sense is leading you to do? Just a thought. Sandra

  6. Hi,Dorcas: several years ago I attended a Christian writing seminar led by Walter Wangerin, a writer and former Lutheran pastor who once lived in our city. He said something like so many books in the world were beautifully written but their final message was hopelessness. He said so many Christian books had the message of hope but were poorly written and that we had to strive for excellence. You are a wonderful writer and I think people like to read your blog because it is hopeful, and humorous and gives us pictures of living that faith that some modern writers don't understand. Betsy in Indiana

  7. Whatever you do, "TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE"!
    If you write stuff to please the classes, you're sure to offend the masses! We read your stuff because it's you and we enjoy it. If you change, we might not like it anymore. And like some more folks are saying, we could do with more happy endings, or sense made of life.
    So now that you know what and how, go for it, Dorcas style!

    --PC in VA

    I want So Badly to write! Still waiting for some tips on how to make it work for a just-getting-by housemom. :) :)

  8. It's like the only scripture they've ever heard or taken to heart is the part about us withering away like the grass.

    They're thinking...first we're nothing but grass, then, we're not even that. lol

    Glad I'm not THAT smart! lol

  9. I also like Ruby Isaac's comments. Very pertinent! You keep writing as you do. I love all your writing - even your story written awhile ago.

    I would like to suggest an author of children's lit. that I've just run across - E L Konigsburg, as one of the best children's books I've read since C S Lewis. She is not, from her writing a believer but she has a unique story telling style. Thought while you were reading all the junk you might enjoy something fresh and exciting to read. But, the bottom line is you have a unique gift of story telling, true or fictional. I love it. Galilee Weldon

  10. Speaking of children's literature, probably my top favorite children's book of all time is "The Bronze Bow" by Elizabeth George Speare. It won the Newbery Medal for children's literature for 1962, and is historical fiction at its finest. Although it was written for young people, it is an absolutely fantastic historical novel with a complex plot which will enthrall readers of all ages.

    Perhaps you are already familiar with this book, Dorcas, because you have reared six children. It would be my guess that your Jenny and Emily would enjoy and find this book truly captivating. They would give you their honest opinions about it, too. At any rate be sure to put this one on your radar for future reading if you have not already read it. (I know you are extremely busy right now.)

    I believe that "The Bronze Bow" would serve as an excellent example and model for the type of novel that you have indicated you aspire to write. If I'm not mistaken, I think I have picked up on your interest in writing a novel with an Amish setting. Is that correct? I think you could do it, too. Absolutely! God has given you a gift for writing, and if this is His will for you, He will make the way clear to you and show you how.

    The challenge of writing an historical novel would be the hours and hours of meticulous, detailed research that would be required to create a credible, historically accurate setting. You already know how important that it because you have shared previously that you've found it--i.e., historical accuracy--missing in some of the stories that have been written about the Amish. So you're already ahead on that point because you know the Amish culture and have dozens of contacts and resources to help you fill in any missing links.

    So if this is your ultimate goal, do not lose sight of it as you wade through those requisite New Yorker stories. You will find the lessons of love, endurance, growth, and forgiveness in the plot of "The Bronze Bow" far more instructive and motivating than any story you mentioned in your post. The setting, historical background, use of descriptions, and character development of this classic novel will prove to be excellent examples for you, I feel certain.

    (Note: I did not mean to leave the impression that "The Bronze Bow" is about the Amish. It is not. It is set in Judea under Roman occupation during the time of Jesus' ministry there. But studying the structure and techniques which this gifted author used to portray the time, place, and issues of that day as brilliantly as she did could be very helpful to you.)

    By the way, you can buy this book as a used book for only one cent at right now. At least as of today there are more than a dozen copies of "The Bronze Bow" listed for sale at $.01, but then of course you have to pay the $3.99 shipping and handling. Also there are more than another dozen copies all ranging in price under one dollar plus S&H of $3.99. So if you are so inclined, go ahead and treat yourself to a copy of a model that will be a really, really encouraging inspiration to you whenever you get ready to use it!

    ~~Ruby Isaac

  11. Hello Ruby Isaac - Thank you. I LOVE Children's books that are well written. I know your comment was to me but wanted to tell you I will be reading it and it looks like she has others - whoopee!!! Thank you Dorcas for letting this forum be available and we all learn great and fun things.
    Galilee Weldon

  12. Hello Galilee - Well, actually my comment was to Dorcas, but your input was what triggered it. :) Thank you. Yes, you are correct--Elizabeth George Speare has published four children's books and three of them have won the Newbery Medal! "The Bronze Bow" would be suitable for about ages 11 or 12 and upward, depending on the comprehension skills of the child. But as I said, all ages love this remarkable novel, and you will not be disappointed.

    Now let's redirect our comments back to Dorcas. I'm looking forward to hearing more of her experiences and reactions to her online Stanford course. Even when a class is not what a person has expected or would have chosen, it can be extremely valuable in strengthening one's own convictions and decisions.

    ~~Ruby Isaac

  13. I don't know much about stories. I only know what I like and don't like, and sometimes I offend people because I call this or that story/novel "childish." I don't intend to be a snooty reader, but I have some as-yet-unverbalized criteria for what makes a story work for me.
    And resolution is a big part of that, or at least some redemption.
    Speaking of Bible stories, some are there that aren't tidily wrapped with a bow. Jonah would be one example, and it's still a rich story.

  14. Writing is an individual process and your works should be in your voice, so make sure while your taking your classes that you are writing what you feel conviction about and not what the instructor feels. Classes are good for getting the basics but never let anyone tell you what to write. I have written a novel (well, actually its a manuscript until its published) and am now in the process of finding an agent. While I send out query letters and the dreaded synopsis, I am starting my second novel. I highly recommend reading a magazine called "Writer's Digest". It is the best, in my opinion, in giving you all the tools to begin and stay with your writing career. They also offer classes. Check out their website at You can find so much information on every kind of writing. Let me know what you think and if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at or check out my blog at Good luck in your witing.

  15. A huge thank you to all of you for your wise, balanced perspectives and insights and suggestions. I'm continuing with the class but with much more clarity and less confusion. Again, thanks so much.

  16. this post. is. so. good!
    i amen-ed this line a lot:

    I never thought of myself as a snooty reader until I came to realize that there is a whole universe of literature out there that seems to look at what I consider "good stories," the same way I look at the whole universe of Twilight books and most Amish novels and all those little paperbacks you see at garage sales, with pictures on the front of gasping ladies bent over backwards by hairy men with names like Flint and Torque, not that I'd ever read those books you understand.

    i hate twilight books, and someday i will write about it. :) and the "schmutt" novel line- i died. :)