Friday, July 31, 2009

Short story sampler

Before I actually started writing a novel in earnest a couple of years ago, I made a number of half-hearted attempts. It's not that I didn't have a story to tell, but I couldn't imagine an ambitious enough narrative arc to serve as scaffolding for a rich, complex story with lots of characters and subplots and action. After a few pages, the story would kind of peter out and I'd lose interest. It struck me that maybe creative writing wasn't my thing after all.

Then one birthday I was given a volume of Raymond Carver short stories as a gift. I'd never actually been much of a short story fan. Just when you're getting interested, the story ends and if you're reading a collection of them, every few pages you have to get acclimated to new stories and situations. I've always been a big fan of James Thurber, however, but I always viewed his work as humorous essays rather than short stories, and the fact that you knew they'd be funny virtually guaranteed a reward for the effort.

But I found the Carver volume extremely compelling. He gave each story a sense that what happened before and after the scope of the narrator's reportage was at least as important as what was in the story itself. In fact, it's not what was happening in the story that was so interesting, it was how the characters thought and behaved in what were generally quiet though emotionally tumultuous settings that made them so rewarding.

Thus inspired, I decided to see if any of my scraps could be turned into a short story, and if any short story-length plots came to mind. I managed to complete one before getting involved in my novel, but have at least three or four more that are in various stages of completion, all of which I hope to continue working on when I have the time. Here are brief descriptions of them, from most complete to least:

Elevation - At 4,500 words, this one is complete. It's an idea that I've had for a long time, inspired by a friend of mine who, despite his success with women, has expressed to me that he wished it were permissible to approach a woman and come right out with, "I'd really like to sleep with you." In my story, a guy wants to do something similar, although he claims to want to do it for purely altruistic reasons. He believes women tend to devalue their own looks, so he wants to give out cards to deserving individuals that simply say, "You're very attractive." That's it, just give out the card and walk away. When he finally gets up the courage to do it, he finds it more intimidating than he thought. There are plenty of candidates, but he finds it hard to seize an opportunity. Eventually, on the subway, he finds himself seated across from four women whom he would not have initially thought to give a card. As he looks more carefully at how they look, how they're dressed, what they're doing, what they're reading, he begins to see more than he did at first. One in particular grabs his fancy. When she gets off the train, he follows her and fumblingly gives her a card. She challenges his intentions and he comes clean that he doesn't really know what his motives are, only that he's captivated by her. They decide to have a drink and get to the heart of the matter. The title comes from the main character's conclusion that there is indeed beauty to be found in those who are "unbeautiful" and his parting advice to the reader that "an unbeautiful woman will elevate you."

The Untangler - I've always been fascinated by knots, both the intentional kind and the frustrating tangles that seem impenetrable. I think that people tend to make their lives tangled as well, and wise people can help you untangle them. So the main character in this story is someone who has difficulty committing to women and he gets himself in sticky situations. His most recent ex-girlfriend had given him a set of wind chimes that became hopelessly knotted in a storm. The woman he's living with (to whom he hasn't been faithful) suggests he take them to her uncle, a retired handyman who is known to friends as The Untangler because he's very adept at untying knots and fixing thorny problems. As the old man works on the knots, he casually imparts to the main character a great deal of wisdom and insight into knots and life. By the end of the story, the wind chimes are in good shape, and his relationship will be, too. I have a few pages written here, but coming up with the wisdom will be challenging. I'm also researching nautical knots to inform the uncle's testimony.

The Triumphant Return of Chip Chumley & the Champions - Here's an example of a story that was intended to be a novel but it ran out of gas. Maybe it will be a novel someday, but it could also be a short story. When I come back to it, I'll see where I think it could go. It tells the story of a group of estranged friends who had been in a high school band together and have agreed to reunite to play at their 25th high school reunion. There's some funny stuff about music in here; I started writing it shortly after reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, so it's heavily influenced by that book's style.

The Second Chance - I have just an outline and one torrid sex scene written for this piece, which talks about a man who meets up with a woman he nearly had sex with 20 years earlier when they were in college. The woman is 15 years older than the man and had left school initially when she was 19 because she had become pregnant. Though the two were attracted to each other while in school together, she was in a very different place than he and wouldn't let their making out advance. Now in the present, he's in his mid-40s and she's 60, but the flame still burns. There is praise of older women here.

There are other scraps that may turn into something as well, but this is plenty to keep me busy given I'm still working on my two novels: one in 5th revision, the other still in progress.

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