Short Stories

Are we heading in the right direction?

Well, I’m back. I’m not sure why or if the why even matters. Over the past few years, my relationship with social media, including blogging, has changed. I’ve decided I don’t need to be consistent, market myself, have a brand. Instead, why not simply indulge my interests, reading, writing and photography? If someone wants to read, fine. If not, I can write for my own pleasure.

During the pandemic, I started taking on-line classes, generally through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. They have been well taught and interesting and I have improved my writing and gained a cohort of writers I keep in touch with. This fall term I decided to take a break from creative writing classes and instead focus on a bit of creative reading. I selected a short story class because I’m weak in that area. I rarely find an affinity for the short story form. Perhaps I gravitate to novels because of the lengthy immersion, the relationship with the plot and characters that lasts for a few hundred pages. I find I put down a short story with a feeling of incompleteness. Is that all? I ask myself. My current class isn’t necessarily changing this but I have read some wonderful stories by Malamud, Toni Morrison, Paley and others.

I thought to challenge myself–100 short stories–a mix of contemporary and classic, an immersion to see if something sparks or if I will forever be a short story luddite.

Story #1. “Impulse” by Conrad Aiken

The book this story came from was itself a bit of an impulse purchase. In class we read “The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus, first published in 1977. Our reading came from an anthology, American Short Story Masterpieces, and I looked up the book and decided to buy it. Two weeks later my used copy arrived, a rather battered paperback that did not contain the story in question. No wonder! After double-checking I realized that I had actually bought Short Story Masterpieces, a 1962 edition, not American Short Story Masterpieces. Perhaps I should have paid more attention.

“Impulse” was published in 1950 and it feels both dated and timely. It is the story of a man, Michael Lowes, married with two children, who is struggling with debt. Michael’s not particularly likeable. His internal voice seems whiny, self-absorbed, deeply uninsightful. Fate is always against him, he thinks, regarding his bills, his need to move to escape them, his lack of close friends. Michael attends a night of bridge with his not-friends-but-acquaintances, deceiving his wife by pretending it is a surprise event, and the men get to talking about their ugly impulses, the ones they don’t act on because they would be socially unacceptable or get them into trouble. Impulses like petty theft or groping a woman they don’t know. On his way home, after too many drinks, Michael decides to act on one such impulse.

I won’t give away the ending, but instead reflect on what makes this story a “masterpiece,” at least to the anthologists Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine. I’d say strong insights into character-in this case not how a good man goes astray but how a mediocre man can slip over a certain line with so little ado. The plotting is tight. It feels as though an entire novel is compressed into a few pages. In fact, I could easily see the story becoming a novel-a typical mid-twentieth century novel of the downfall of a middle-aged, middle class white man. The story ages well-enough. Spend a few hours watching the news or on Twitter and you’ll find hundreds of Michael Lowes, declaiming their victimhood, when they’ve brought it on themselves.

Last checked out 53 years ago.

Have I walked away loving short stories more? Not yet. Ask me 100 stories later.

As always, all pictures are my own unless stated otherwise.

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