Don’t Short the Short:By: Mark Maciejewski
In my opinion the old adage “good things come in small packages” is never truer than when it is applied to works of fiction. The short story format, although less popular and lauded than its big brother “the Novel” is a very important part of the literary landscape. Over the years in fact it has grown to become my favorite mode of storytelling.
I think that the short story lacks popularity because it is roundly misunderstood. A short story is not a super condensed novel. It is its own style altogether. Expecting a short to contain complete narrative arcs like a novel is like expecting a photograph to be a feature film, you will end up disappointed. However if you allow yourself to be absorbed by the atmosphere of the photo and live the story that is contained in that frozen piece of time the emotional impact can sometimes be greater than all the frames of celluloid ever filmed.
Friends have told me that they do not read shorts for reasons ranging from “they seem childish”(huh?) to “They aren’t fulfilling like books”. I could not disagree more. Hemmingway, the master of the short story was able to paint the entire portrait of a man’s life as he relived it during the moment of his own death in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” This is one of the most poignant and moving stories ever penned and a must read for any fan of fiction. It would be a shame if we had been deprived of a masterpiece like this because it couldn’t be stretched out to novel length.
Hemmingway was once challenged by an interviewer to write the shortest complete story he could conceive of. Papa thought for a moment and responded with only six words: “For sale; baby shoes, never worn.” Allowed to germinate in the imagination those words tell a tale of loss as effecting as any 400 page tome.
I am in love with the short story format for another reason as well. I love the way the open ended nature of the short allows a readers imagination to run with the material. Rather than being spoon fed every detail of a character’s past and of their every thought as it happens, a short allows the reader to “fill in the blanks”. This leaves lots of room to take from the story something unique and personal. I read the 6 word Hemmingway story as a tale of loss. Perhaps it struck you as something completely other.
This point was driven home to me when I published “The Kindly Stop Café”. The comments I received ran the gamut. To me the story is about living with every parent’s worst nightmare, the death of a child. I intended it to ultimately be a story of hope and forgiveness. What surprised me were the varied responses it got. Some people found the story shattering, while some found it heartwarming and nostalgic while still others thought it was humorous. Part of me wonders if I didn’t do a good enough job making my point. But the point ultimately was to show a snapshot of a few hours in the life of a man whose recent past has been dominated by tragedies that do not occur during the actual narrative. Maybe the point after all is to give the reader a chance to think and feel and hopefully walk away feeling satisfied by a good story. Maybe true literary satisfaction is being able to savor whatever personal meaning a work holds for the reader. By this standard there is no format as satisfying as the short story.
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