Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is There Anybody Alive Out There?

During his shows, Springsteen often ramps up the audience with a call-and-response of the question, "Is there anybody alive out there?"  It's not a question asked of a too-quiet crowd, but more of an introspective curiosity:  Is this experience bringing out your zeal for life?  Are you, right now, totally present and grateful to be precisely where you are?   The answer for me in those moments, of course, is a resounding "Yes!"

It reminds me of the Howard Thurmon quote, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

However, as I don't want my mark on this world to be "guy who follows Springsteen all over the globe", I try to channel that desire through other, more practical outlets.  Thus, it serves as the subtext in my response when people ask me the question, "Why short stories?"

Mind you, this question is usually followed up by a nervous, I-hope-I-haven't-offended-you repositioning, such as, "I mean, why not a novel?" or "You should write a screenplay."  Though I do, time to time get the blunt "Short stories?  There's no money in that."  I appreciate the honesty more than the sentiment.

So, I'll address the question in the same way I am sure other writer friends - playwrights and poets alike - respond when someone infers their path is a poorly thought-out detour into obscurity:  short stories make me feel alive.  Not that novels and other forms of literature don't, but as a reader, I am rarely more engaged than when I stare down twenty or so pages from T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, or John Updike.

The title of my book, in fact, comes in part from a passage Kurt Vonnegut wrote about short stories in the preface to his collection, Bagombo Snuff Box:

“While I am reading, my pulse and breathing slow down. My troubles drop away. I am in a pleasant state somewhere between sleep and restfulness.  It proves that a short story, because of its physiological and psychological effects on a human being, is more closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation than it is to any other form of narrative entertainment. What you have in this volume, then, and in every other collection of short stories, is a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.”

The novel remains a daunting proposition for me, as a reader and a writer.  That feeling of "I can't put this down,"no matter how compelling, is just an impracticality with two busy kids, a business to run, and dinner to cook.  I still tackle novels, but find myself reading more non-fiction and, when hungry for a good original story, more inclined to disappear in the pages of a collection rather than an epic.

As a writer, I see writing a short story as penning a song rather than an opera, a ballad instead of a two-act musical.  That may be lazy, that might lack ambition in some people's eyes.  To me, it's about craftsmanship - trying to shape something I can keep my arms around - and the pleasure of creating a small, good thing.  It's certainly not about making a splash in a hot market, or cozying up next to a trend that is overcrowded with genre-hopping hopefuls.  Short stories are a niche, and not nearly as popular a niche as they were back in Mr. Vonnegut's heyday.  I don't write to set the world on fire.  I write to set my world on fire.  If I am lucky, and just good enough, I hope to do so for you as a reader with some of my stories as well.  But I can't guess what ignites a spark for you.  I can only set myself on fire and hope you are curious enough to get close enough to the flame, and that you then feel the heat.

So, why short stories?  Because I like the effect that they have on me as a reader.  I like the effect that I hope mine will have on my readers.  Because they make me feel alive.  And being aware you are alive -  divinely, drunkenly, serenely, hungrily alive - is the state we must be in if we are to leave our mark upon this weary old world.

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