Minneapolis Convention Center | April 10, 2015

Episode 88: The Art of the Encounter: Structuring Short Fiction

(Arna Bontemps Hemenway, Caitlin Horrocks, Rebecca Makkai) Short stories are demanding in their precise elusiveness. While novels should be the journey into the coal mine, we are told, stories must be the multi-faceted jewel awaiting discovery. Not a long friendship, but a haunting encounter. In this panel, five writers who’ve found success from The New Yorker to Best American Short Stories discuss how to create, utilize, and refine short story structure to this end, especially at the stages of premise, conception, revision, and reader experience.

Published Date: July 29, 2015


Speaker 1 (00:03):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2015 A W P conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Arna Bonham's Hemenway, Caitlin Hors, Pam Houston, Rebecca mackay, and Rob s Spillman. You will now hear Arna Bonham's Hemingway provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:32):

This is the Art of the Encounter structuring short fiction. Can everyone hear me in the back? You here? Okay, good. Thanks for coming. My name is Arna Bon Thompsons Hemingway. I have to start off with some news. Unfortunately, that Molly Anole and Chanel Okta could not be here today due to some circumstances, but we're very lucky to have two wonderful ringers that I could call in Rob s Spillman and Pam Houston, which we'll talk about in a second. I'm joined today by Rebecca McKay, Caitlyn Horwick, Pam Houston, and Rob Spielman, and I'll get to their bios in a moment, but I thought I'd introduce them first the way that I was first introduced to them, which was as a reader. In some ways though, none of them have seen me very much and a couple of them have never seen me before. Five minutes ago, these guys have been with me through a substantial portion of my life.

Speaker 2 (01:29):

I remember finishing painted Ocean painted ship, my very favorite Rebecca Mackay story while sitting in a park in Pittsburgh, no h, Kansas. I kept having to get up and walk around the pond before sitting down and reading its incredible last section over and over again. I remember listening to a bootleg audio version of Pam Houston's Cas Are My Weakness while spending an entire afternoon single handedly trying to move a new fridge into the first house. I shared with my wife the reason it took all afternoon besides it really being too big for both the stairway and the doorway being that I kept having to stop and sit and listen to her sentences wrapped around me. And I remember feeling dizzy with wonder in the reading room of my M F A program as I looked up from the finale of Caitlin Hawk's, wonderfully strange vision of a story at the zoo. And I vividly remember as a college student having to ask an extremely beautiful young woman to pay for the movie on our first date because I'd spent the ticket money on an issue of house that Rob crafted seemingly just for me. There was no second date. Thanks Rob. No, it was worth it.

Speaker 2 (02:38):

I go into all this potentially annoying personal anecdote to testify that if it's one thing these panelists know, it's how to make or shape or select stories that haunt the reader, which I mean in the best possible way, their stories will weave their way into your memories and come out even with real things in your life. The question then for the rest of us is how does one do this? Well, we're here today to talk about one important organizing principle of that, how and its structure. Rebecca Mackay is the author of two novels, the Borrower in the a hundred Year House, as well as the forthcoming story collection music for wartime. Her stories have appeared in nearly every magazine worth reading, including Harper's Plowshares and Tenhouse, and though she absolutely hates me saying this, I'm going to say it anyway, she holds the modern record for consecutive appearances in the best American short stories in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Speaker 2 (03:34):

Her stories have also been featured. I know, right? Her stories have also been featured on this American Life and Selected shorts. Caitlyn Hors is the author of the Story Collection. This is Not Your City. Her stories have appeared in the best American short stories of Pinot Henry Prize's 10 House. One story in the Paris Review for this last of which she was awarded the Plimpton Prize for the best New Voice published that year. She's also had a story featured in the New Yorker on whose website you can additionally read a wonderful interview where she schools their fiction editor on how to write great prose and also somehow convinces them to link to a blog called Bev's Guinea Pig City. I'm not even making that up. It's a high point of their journalism I think. No, it's good. Pam Houston is the author of five books including the Story Collections.

Speaker 2 (04:20):

Cowboys Are My Weakness in Waltzing The Cab. Her stories have been selected for the O Henry Awards and have appeared in both the best American Short Stories 1999 and the best American short stories of the century, making her possibly the only person in history to have pleased both editors, John Updike and Amy Tan. At the same time, she has also been awarded something called the Evil Companions Literary Award, which makes me only a little afraid to be introducing her. She lives on a ranch in Colorado at 9,000 Feet Elevation, which is not as I originally misread on a ranch, 9,000 feet in the air.

Speaker 2 (04:56):

I'm one of those people who knows a little about a lot, but to read Rob Spellman's journalism book reviews, essays and columns is to realize that he knows so much about so many different things that you should probably stop saying you know a little bit about a lot because you really don't. In comparison, his work has appeared in Salon Book Forum, GQ details, the New York Times book Review, rolling Stones, spin Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair, among many others. He's worked for Random House in the New Yorker, but of course at least greatest in my mind. He's founder and editor of Tin House Magazine and just because his time management skills weren't impressive enough already, he's also editor of 10 House books. He is simply put responsible for the publication of some of the best short fiction published in this country every year. Finally, I'm Arna Bonum Hemingway. I'm the author of the collection LG on Kinder Clavier. My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2015, a public space, ecotone and the Missouri View among other places.

Speaker 3 (05:54):

You're not stopping there. I he just won the Penn Hemmingway Award.

Speaker 2 (05:58):

Thanks. Thanks. We'll try to have this panel be a prompted discussion with a q and a at the end. So I guess we can start with this question of how do you think you experienced structure as you're reading a story, which is kind of another way of asking what you think structure needs to do for a story. Rebecca, you want to go? I can

Speaker 3 (06:25):

Go first. Yeah, I think I notice structure most in the end. I am someone who pays a lot of attention to the ways stories end, and for me, it really makes or breaks a story. I think for most of us it does, and yet we'd spend I think the least amount of time discussing it in workshop, in reviews, in even just a book club. Oh, we don't want to talk about the ending in case anyone hasn't finished it yet. And that's really where it lands. We judge, we judge fiction on its ending to the same extent that we judge a joke or sex on its ending. It doesn't matter what's come before, it's all you need to know. So I notice it most then partly because I'm most tuned into it and I think I notice a lot of the ending, what's changed, what's been reversed.

Speaker 3 (07:12):

There's often a very ungrounding element at the end. Either we're moving forward or backward in time, maybe we're moving in perspective, maybe we're moving in the story's relationship to the reader at the end and what the author's contract is with the reader revealing, for instance, an unreliable narrator right at the end, which then makes me look back at the whole, and I tend to think of structure in very Aristotelian terms. I told Arna to shut me up if I only talk about Aristotle today. But that's really the way I think about story structure, his ideas of pate, meaning moments of reversal, that there's often one very close to the beginning of the story and one somewhere near the climax of the story that affects its outcome at reversal. Meaning Oedipus was a peasant, now he's the king of thieves. Later on, Oedipus was the king of thieves. Now he realizes he's married to his mother and gouges his eyes out major reversals. That both points one leading us into the ending and often it doesn't become clear what those reversals are, what the really important ones, and they're usually two have been until everything is echoing in those last few paragraphs. So

Speaker 4 (08:20):

Just before I start, I want to say that I just got here, I just flew in about an hour ago and I was feeling the typical a w p dread of being in the same building with 13,000 people with the same prevailing anxieties. And I was walking over here trying to get my game face on, and honestly, if you had told me this, many people would come to talk about the short story. That's a good enough reason to just come to a w p at all. I'm feeling very cheered up by your presence here specifically as a lover of short stories. I mean, short stories are my true love and just that there's this many people who wanted to hear us talk about it when there's another panel on sex right now is awesome and everyone loves the police. They didn't all know that.

Speaker 4 (09:08):

But anyway, structure for me, when I was asked to be on this panel about 30 hours ago, I was really excited because I thought, well, I get to talk about something that's actually very meaningful to me, which doesn't always happen here. And for me, I mean, I can't overstate how important structure is for me and my own particular idea of structure as it applies to my own work. It's the thing that makes me feel safe once I understand, and I really think of it as geometry. I am not good at Aristotle and I don't know that much about it, but I think really in terms of physical shape, of concrete, physical shape. So one story, and this is true when I read and I write the question was really about reading. But if I think of some of my favorite stories, like for instance, Welty, no Place For You My love.

Speaker 4 (10:03):

To me that story is a boomerang. It is a story that traces the art of a boomer, the Ark of a Boomerang or Mary Gates gill's story mirror ball is of course a mirror ball in its structure. But I think of whenever I read a story and I'm thinking about how it works and how to teach it to students or how to think about my own work and relationship to it, I'm thinking, what is this story? And really any shape, any geometry of the physical world, I can then apply to the story. So I think of some stories as Spirograph flowers. I think about Spirograph flowers all the time. When I read, I don't know if you remember Spirograph, but there were a lot of different shapes and they were quite particular. And I love Spirograph. And so I think of that. I think about Slinkies a lot.

Speaker 4 (10:55):

I think about Slinkies walking downstairs or two slinkies tangled with each other. I think about Venn diagrams, which is probably the only thing I ever retained from my logic class that I took in college because that has been useful to me. Venn diagrams, some stories seem like Venn diagrams to me. I think of Rubik's Cubes. I wrote a whole book that in my mind is a 12 sided Rubik's cube and I think of Rhombus and Trapezoids and I'm clearly a frustrated geometry teacher or something. And really when I'm reading to try to stick to that half of the question, it helps me to unlock the mystery of the story. If I can imagine its structure in actual physical geometric terms. Sorry, my mom had a pretty good answer to

Speaker 5 (11:52):

This. She's not a writer, but she's a very keen reader and we were exchanging emails about totally mundane things. Hey, I'm going to Minneapolis, going to be on some panels. One is about structure. She's like structure, huh? Maybe thinking that did not sound scintillating. And she wrote me this email. As a reader, I just want to be blinded by the brilliance of invisible structure that is clearly there. Smart mom, I like copy paste. Thanks mom. And again, invisible structure that is clearly there. And I love that so much because I think for most conventional short stories, and so of not talking here about kind of hermit crab stories, something that is very clearly a story in the form of a shopping list or borrowed forms, but something that is in paragraphs moving down the page. Hopefully you're not necessarily thinking about structure all the time as you're reading it, as you're encountering it, but it still feels inevitable. And another, I think really a useful way to think about structure. I thought I was stealing this just from the writer, Todd Kenco, but it turns out there's also a Ted talk from Andrew Stanton where he makes the same metaphor and it is the joke metaphor. So knock interrupting cow,

Speaker 6 (13:10):

My daughter loves that too.

Speaker 5 (13:12):

That's like where my joke development stopped is childhood. So I mean, it's not a good joke. I'm not saying it's particularly funny, totally great, but it's got a clear order, it's got a clear development and everything in it has to come in the order that it's coming to work at all. If you say move first, it's not funny. There's no reveal, there's no surprise, there's no payoff. If interrupting cow shows at the beginning before the knock, then it doesn't work. Part of why it's so infuriating to listen to a really bad joker tell like, oh, oh, what I forgot to tell you is, oh, but what you need to know is this, and I got this wrong. They're bad at telling the joke, but they're messing up the order and they're messing up that pleasure of sort of step by step by step, getting everything you need at the moment. You need it for that ending or that reversal or that change to really land. So structure is joke I think is useful

Speaker 6 (14:08):

From an editor's point of view. Since I see every possible form known to mankind, I can tell you for me, it starts with language that the language dictates the form. I see an incredible amount of very clever stories that are, I wonder if I could write a story in the shape of an oak tree. And it has nothing to do with the language of the characters. It's a stunt, it's a prompt. David Baker on an earlier panel today right here on rejection, said one of his pet peeves are prompt stories and poems that you can see what we were just talking about with the invisible, it's incredibly visible. That's all you see is the structure. What I look for is a marrying of language and form so that this particular story could only be told in this form. And that's dictated for me by the language.

Speaker 6 (15:12):

The language of the characters is what I want in a short story is how James Wood puts it in how fiction works. You want to be a co-creator of the world, so you want to be, as a reader, you want to be co-creating the world and get to the inevitable point together. You don't want to be like, oh, this is the shape of a triangle and it's going to lead to X or whatever it is. If you have that feeling that you know exactly how everything is going to unfold and leaving no room for the reader to co-create with, then you lose me. So for me, it starts with language. It starts and ends with language. I can smell immediately that a story is a stunt, that there's no skin in the game. It's like, oh, you're really clever, that's great, high five gold star, but I want to be sucked into your world and feel that there's some kind of emotional payoff to the stunt

Speaker 2 (16:20):

These days. A lot of my thinking about structure is shaped by my teaching teach at Baylor University, and in my intro classes, I try and get students to think of this sort of idea of basically what they've been describing, the invisible hand that the readers should feel always in control without ever being able to see how they're being controlled. Not to know what the structure is necessarily, but to know that there's one there. And then when you get more advanced classes and more towards graduate level, I tend to start talking about this possibly silly idea I have that's related to that, whereas Rob is saying language, I think of just straight content. Somebody told me that when I'm explaining this, I should say objective correlative to make myself sound smart, but that's Elliot thing. I don't actually know what that means, but what I am talking about is I do in much what Rob said, at least as a reader, I think a lot about how the form comes out of the content for me, especially the emotional shape or the emotional content so that the form not only feels inevitable, but feels like a deep expression of something that's at the heart of the story itself instead of this sort of separate thing, if that makes sense.

Speaker 2 (17:34):

That's sort of how I think about as

Speaker 6 (17:35):

A reader. Absolutely.

Speaker 2 (17:36):

So how do you try and make that happen in your own stories? When in the process are you thinking or not thinking about structure? What's that process like for you or Rob for editing, working with a writer?

Speaker 4 (17:53):

I'll go. Yeah, I mean, I wanted to just tack on something that you said. I mean, I think for me, I read too many stories where language is simply a conveyance for content, where language is the dump truck that has picked up the content and is carrying it to the reader. And so for me, I mean, just to be clear, I don't write a story in the shape of a Rubik's cube or a series of Venn diagrams because I think it's clever. I write a first draft and then try to understand what shape the story wants to be in. And for me, that's very story specific. I might make up a different formal idea, a different geometric idea for every story I ever write or I might not, they might repeat themselves. So I'll just give you a couple of examples about how structure was revealed to me in my own work, how this works.

Speaker 4 (19:00):

I was asked to contribute a short, short to an anthology recently, not recently, a couple years ago, and it had to be under 750 words, and I don't generally write that short. So I had a little incident, I had a little scene that I thought could be a little story, and so I tried to make it fit into 750 words and it went to a thousand words. And so I was like, okay, I'll try again. So I tried to pick something that was even smaller that I could get into 750 words. And so I tried again and I failed again, and it was a thousand words, and it was approaching the deadline of this anthology. And so I tried one more time with something I thought was super small and could possibly fit into 750 words, and it was a thousand words. So after about three weeks of writing, I had three a thousand word pieces and nothing for the anthology, but because I had written them in the same moment, and in a way in the same spirit, I noticed that they really spoke to each other, that they were interacting with each other and they had some of the same metaphoric, even thematic concerns.

Speaker 4 (20:06):

And so I came to understand that what I had written was a triptych. I had written a three paneled story, so that was sort of an easy one that got revealed to me a time years ago. Before that I wrote a story called Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology, though it wasn't called that yet. I didn't have a title, but I'd written a story about a trip I took to the Amazon. And the story was about all the sort of biology, all the natural science of the Amazon that I had discovered, and its sort of metaphoric potential. And then it was also about these three really bad blind dates I'd had or my character had had in the San Francisco Bay area. And those two things seem to be sticking together in the story. And one of the things that happened to me in the Amazon on my trip to the Amazon, which the story was loosely based on is that a 15 foot grand Cayman, a giant alligator jumped into our canoe because the guide was making baby alligator noises and calling the Grand Cayman to us.

Speaker 4 (21:18):

And so this big Mama Cayman put her paws, her feet, her alligator feet into the front of the canoe, and the guy who was sitting in front of me wisely catapulted himself over my head. And so here was the Cayman snapping her jaws, and I was taking pictures, and then I sort of realized I had backed my lens all the way up anyway, and then she went back down in the water and everything was fine. But that became the climactic moment of the story. If a giant came and jumps into your canoe, you can hardly avoid it as at least the active climax of your story. And I had another story in the same collection that had a really early climax, and I was nervous about that. I was nervous about having two stories that had this climax in the first third of the story, but the three bad dates in San Francisco had to come way at the end of the story for them to make sense metaphorically with all the natural world stuff.

Speaker 4 (22:15):

I don't think I'm explaining this very well. But anyway, so it was a problem. It was a structural problem that I had to solve. And so I thought to myself, this story is really about biology. And I remembered my high school biology textbook, which was the last time I took biology, I'm sorry to say. And what I remembered about the high school biology textbook was that you could read the chapter or not because there was a nice little summary of all the salient points of the chapter. So all you had to do to get an A on the test was memorize the little outline at the end of each chapter. And so I thought, what if this story were a chapter of a high school biology textbook? And so all the stuff that happened in the Amazon was the chapter, and then the three dates were the lessons.

Speaker 4 (23:03):

And so I called the first half of the river, I called the second half of the lessons, and in my mind, now, did a reader notice this? I don't know. And then I called it three lessons in Amazonian Biology, so it would sound like a chapter. So in my mind, the way I solved what to me was a giant work stopping problem of that story was to think of this particular structure, the structure of a chapter in a high school biology textbook. And I titled it that way and it solved the problem. But what I said at the beginning, and what I want to say is that it's like each story to me wants to find itself that way. It wants to find its structure no matter what that structure is. It's not like I think to myself, oh, I want to write a story in the shape of a tree or whatever. It's like I want the structure of the story to come up and announce itself to me so that it then seems inevitable, basically.

Speaker 7 (24:01):


Speaker 5 (24:06):

There was a panel earlier today on finding structure in nonfiction that I was at, and most of the panelists, they were sharing their war stories, they were sharing the book that it took them four times to write or the essay that it took them three times to figure out what the structure was and kind of overhauling it over and over again. And these were really sort of thoughtfully prepared, insightful descriptions of these individual journeys of pieces. And then during q and a, someone raises their hand, it's a big room, it's very quiet, so the moderator has to repeat the question and the moderator goes, so the question is, do we have any advice on how to find the structure for your piece without writing three full book drafts? And the answer was kind of no. I mean they answered it, but I mean, there's kind of only two ways to go about this. I mean, you can start your story saying, I want to do this as a chapter of a biology textbook, and maybe it'll work and maybe it won't. Or you just start writing and you try and figure out what is the structure that this is trying to take on? What is going to best serve this material? And that takes kind of however long it takes,

Speaker 3 (25:08):


Speaker 5 (25:09):

If you have to discard it or change it, it's not that you did it wrong the first time that maybe that's the version or the thing you needed to try to get to where you were going. I did at one point, I had a draft that in hindsight was sort of a stunt draft. It wasn't quite like story in the form of an oak tree, but it was in these very short sections. There was this sort of repeated refrain that was starting all of them. And I realized I did it. I'd written a couple stories in a row that were sort of love affair abroad, gone wrong. I was so worried about repeating myself or I was so worried that I was embarking on the same story that I felt like if I used this structure, the scaffolding that it would end up being something different.

Speaker 5 (25:47):

And I ended up with a story where that particular form did not serve. What I ended up doing as a workshop was very quick to tell me. I remember readers immediately sort of just jumping on this strange, what felt like a strange disjunction between the content of the story and this container that had ended up feeling increasingly artificial as the draft continued. And it was something where I was like, yeah, this is not working. Let me break it apart. Let me restructure it. Let me find something that fits better. But I don't regret that first structure, that first container, because I think it did help me get to a different place with that story than it would've ended up otherwise.

Speaker 3 (26:22):

For me, I think the magic point for me thinking about structure is about a third of the way in, and I think that goes for novels too. We're not really talking about novels today, but for a novel, a third of the way is where I'm going to stop and do a full on outline, which I think is more important for a novel than for a short story. But about a third of the way in is kind of where I've started feel out this world. I starting to know what the story's about, and it's not that I need to sit down and plot out every single thing that's going to happen from now on, but it's the point where I might draw out that little free tag pyramid and put my events on it, figure out where the climax is. If you don't know what that, it's the arc that people draw on the whiteboard.

Speaker 3 (27:03):

And I feel there's that famous CL doctor I quote, it's about novel writing, but that it's like driving a car at night. You can only get as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole drive that way to which I always add, but you have to know where you live, right? You have to know you can't just take off into the woods. So at about third of the way through, I need a sense of where the story is going to land, where it's going, what it's going to be about, what the final turn might be, what does this character need to learn by the end? That said, if then I get to the end of the story and it lands exactly where I thought it was going to land, I have totally failed because it means I've learned nothing by writing this story.

Speaker 3 (27:47):

And if I have not learned anything by writing it, you're not going to learn anything by reading it. There's not going to be any kind of revelatory moment in there. It's just going to be me sitting out to prove something I already knew. So I want to kind of know and then surprise myself somewhat. An example, Arna brought up a story I wrote that's called Painted Ocean Painted Ship, and that's a story where I really thought I knew where it was going to land. I even had the closing line, and it was this couple that had split up and they were getting back together. And way early I'd scrolled down and I wrote out this line that it was going to end on this line of if he was dumb enough to take her back, she'd be smart enough to accept. And then I got there, and that was just not the end of the story.

Speaker 3 (28:28):

And so instead of changing what I actually did was wrote past it. And I have another two paragraphs on there where something kind of cataclysmic happened that I myself did not see coming. And I think one of the reasons that story worked for me personally is that my surprise in writing it, I think comes through hopefully when people are reading it, I didn't show my hand or because I had no idea what was going to happen. So there's that. And I want to add, I'm really anxious to hear what Rob has to say. I will say that of all the short story editors that I have worked with, Rob is the only one who will edit me on structure. And I really appreciate that because you get edits on language, and if there are any editors here that I've worked with, I'm really sorry, but I love you all, but you get all these edits on language and like, oh, I don't know, the sentence doesn't make sense to me. And he's the one who'll go in and be like, in this climactic scene, this revelation happens too fast and I need you to pull out this moment, or I need more in the day, Newmont or I need less leading up to this point. And that's really fascinating to me and I really appreciate it. Well,

Speaker 6 (29:33):

Good, thanks. Yeah. For me, I think I'm latching onto your word surprise because that's what I'm looking for, but it's a combination of the invisible structure that is there though we want to get to a point in the story where we are actually sort of surprised by how things are unfolding, but we also want to feel that the writer is in complete control. I think that comes in editing where you really shore up, and I think in the writing process, you just really have to go through a million drafts and try it from just all sorts of different ways. And I teach as well, and what I try to do is discomfort my students because when you're writing, especially the more familiar material you're working with, if you have a story that you've just been working over to death or it's based on real life events, there's an inevitability that builds up. So I try to get them to think about it from as many different angles as possible. Let's say if it's a confrontational story, write the story from the other person's point of view where they're absolutely 100% and you are wrong.

Speaker 6 (30:54):

If you've been writing something based on your own life, let's say with your mother and you've just worked it to death, write it from your mother's point of view. And she's absolutely right, and you are a Laos, but make it convincing. That's what we want structurally. I don't know. I think with it's kind of intuitive, it's like the joke if the move comes too early, it's a pacing thing where you want to prolong the pleasure or extend the pleasure as it were. I see a lot of stories that try to go for a big reveal, a big aha thing when that's actually not what the story is about. You feel like they need to put in a rim shot, kind of like, and then I realized I was, and it's like, oh God, an oak tree. Yeah, it's an oak tree. I'm an oak tree.

Speaker 6 (31:53):

If you look at a lot of great short stories, the reveal happens in the first line or the first paragraph. So it's like, it's not about the reveal I was shot in Vietnam. That's not the reveal. The reveal is what is it like to be shot in Vietnam and go on after that. It's not Theri shot, I was shot the end. No, that's nothing. That's where the story starts. And I think a lot, especially beginning writers feel that they need to have that sort of danon kind of thing when actually what's is what happens after you corner your characters? What happens after you make them uncomfortable? I think Robert Stone is one of my favorite writers that way is that he traps his characters where they have to face themselves and their demons, and a lot of writers would stop there. They would stop at the trap like I've trapped my characters. But that's where it really just starts. That's what it gets at, what it is to be alive. So structurally I find that really interesting where you can pin your characters as quickly as possible and then go

Speaker 2 (33:16):

The helping by Robertson is a really good example of that if you're curious to read. Yeah, I would say it's so interesting to hear you guys talk because I say that a lot. You have to get away from this idea from any idea that you know what the story's about. I think things started really changing for me in my own writing when I sort of realized that you should think of structure as a vehicle of discovery rather than as the discovery itself. And I think I sort of have a weird approach to it, I think is maybe I'm not good at structure, but I think about really early on, and I think really specifically, not so much about structure, but I think the specific manifestation of structure, which is about time. I think time for me is synonymous with structure and a lot of when I'm working on stuff, and usually for me when I start, what I'm really doing is thinking about structure.

Speaker 2 (34:09):

What I'm really doing is thinking about a question I have about time. So in various stories, I wrote novella where I think the basic question for me was it's about a young couple with a child who's dying of a terminal brain tumor. And the question was, when you have this known finite amount of time, how do you find meaning loving a child as a parent? But I also did, a lot of my stories are about Iraq, and a lot of the questions I had about that were actually about time. I kept wanting to write about the explosion of an I E D, and every time I wrote, I sort of failed. I was unhappy with it because it came out just as this war story or hemmingway wannabe heming, not me.

Speaker 2 (35:02):

And the straight up with really came from just like I realized I had this question, which is how do you show a human being's entire life in this span, this majestic span of time in the moment they step on an I E D? And that's where the structure of that came out for me. But I think that idea of thinking about time, Alice Monroe is great at that. She has a story, it can never, I always forget which one it is that it's like three fourths of it is perfectly linear, and then the last section jumps forward like 20 years. But yeah, no, another story I worked on was just, I had this question which is can you tell a story that's with two halves that are separated by 30 years and what kind of emotional crux, what kind of heart of a story of the things I was interested in could be expressed that way, but that's sort of how I think about it. I was sort of thinking along those lines where I was wondering if you guys could pinpoint a moment or maybe a period in your life either as a reader or writer, an editor that you began to understand or think about structure in short stories differently than you had before. And if so, what was it that changed that for you?

Speaker 3 (36:19):

I can start partly just because you brought up Alice Monroe, but I think I would've thought of this anyway. I think the moment that the single moment when my aesthetic most clicked for me and when I understood the most about writing was reading Alice Monroe's story Post and Beam, which basically, I'm not giving anything away here, but it's a long in the moment story about newlyweds. And then in the last sentence, she basically says, this was all a long time ago when they lived in North Vancouver in the Post and Beam House when she was 24 years old and new to bargaining. And suddenly in that moment we've zipped ahead in time to sort of telescope back at this moment. And instead of just being this in the moment story, she's built an echo chamber. It's an element. There's another element that it is bouncing off of.

Speaker 3 (37:11):

Even in that one sentence, it's a strong enough magnet to pull everything from the rest of the story and to make it mean something different. And I think about Monroe, especially as Arno was saying, in terms of time, she does that with time. Making a story mean more by giving you a memory that goes with it, a future event that goes with it and creating space that way. But there are other ways to do it too. And I think about Grace Paley's statement that every story is really two stories in some way. I think that's always true, whether it's literally two plot lines or the story of the past and the story of the present or the external story and the internal story. For me, I find the meaning of stories in the space between those two in the ways that they echo off of each other.

Speaker 3 (38:01):

So I think about that going into a story I often think about, I have one idea, first story, is that enough? Do I want to pair it up with another idea so that these can bounce off of each other so that they can create something, some kind of alchemy that wasn't there with just the one thing. And I think, I don't know what it was, it was just the magical moment for me that everything kind of clicked to see what she'd done in just one sentence, but taking this space and putting something way out here so that now the story isn't just here, it exists in everything between the two elements that she's given us. That's about content as much as it is about structure, but it became the way that I think about my own writing.

Speaker 6 (38:49):

I just want to echo think about the ticking clock. I think that is really important to have a sense of time and put pressure on your characters that lends itself to structure. Kurt Vonnegut says that every character needs to want something, even if it's a glass of water, and that people forget that they have these characters just sort of floating around with no desires. And that's one level of the story is getting the cup of water. And then you can tell a much bigger, deeper story that way. I'll give you a concrete example of this. Say I'm just dying of thirst right now and the water fountain is up there and I need to walk up there and get a glass of water before I faint, but there are five people I've slept with in the room that I have to navigate through. My wife is on the sex panel, so I can say that right now.

Speaker 6 (39:49):

So I'm walking to get that glass of water, but I'm telling the story and I'm dying. I'm dehydrated. But I can tell you my entire life story in that story, but the ticking clock, the driving engine is the cup of water as it were. The moment it changed for me was reading David Foster Wallace's Girl with curious hair, which is a very in the moment story, and it keeps you, you're riveted. This is heinous Republican, just total creep, but you were really, you're with the sky and you cannot believe that you're invested in this guy and it ends with him reaching for the hair of the young girl who's running away from him. And the last line is in this is what I did. And at that moment I was like, oh, it's not about what he did, it's about you were in the sensibility of this incredibly heinous character for 20 pages and you were totally invested in his world. So it's not about the this is what I did, it's actually he got us to be in the sensibility of someone that we wouldn't necessarily be in. So it was like, oh, okay, that's what stories are about taking you into another world. It's not the DaVinci code, it's not is the albino going to get the whatever?

Speaker 4 (41:17):

Well, my story, that is my piece of literature that that sort of took the top of my head off and made me see possibilities in terms of structure and a lot of other things too. Is Russell Bank story, Sarah, a type of love story

Speaker 2 (41:34):

I was going to make you talk about that. I was buying on your

Speaker 4 (41:36):

Notes story too. Yeah, if you haven't read that story, if you've managed to miss that story, please read it. I'm not going to talk too much about it because one of its strategies is to lie to you repeatedly, and if I talk about it, I might wreck that for you. And honestly, one of the great sadnesses of my life is that one can only have the experience of reading Sarah Cole a type of love story the first time once it is a dazzling story of structure and faints and dodges and deceit and reveal. It's just, I can't say enough about it. But one thing that I wanted to say that I think bear's saying, one reason why I think about geometry and think about shape and structure early is because it makes me feel secure when I don't want to think about the about ness of the story, and I don't want to think about traditional narrative arc.

Speaker 4 (42:42):

I'm a problem solver and I have a pretty good analytical mind, and when I'm writing early drafts, what I'm trying to do is keep my analytical mind at bay as much as I can and invite the subconscious into my process as much as I can, which is not my tendency. I tend to be a control freak and tend to solve problems before they've even happened. That's my personality. And so when I'm writing, I'm trying to go against my own grain and invite the subconscious in. So if I'm thinking about a story as a series of interlocking rhombus that keeps me from thinking, oh, well these people have to be together or not at the end of the story, it keeps me from the sort of mundane questions of the story and it allows what I think of as kind of the metaphoric soup to kind of ferment and boil in there. And the about of the story reveal itself to me. So I'm thinking about the geometry of the story and then at some point in the writing narrative arc, I think of it as the sleeping dragon of narrative arc. It wakes up and asserts itself because the story still has to begin and end and it has to get somewhere.

Speaker 4 (44:00):

So there's a kind of exciting moment in the story. That's kind of the moment where I think, okay, I've got something here where that narrative arc, that dragon is awake and rising and pushing against trapezius or whatever my geometry, and that's creating a kind of nice tension sometimes. And sometimes, as you said, the form has to break at that moment. It can't hold up, but that's okay. It got me to that point. It got me a certain distance into the story without me trying to problem solve the worst thing that I can do when I start problem solving, I may as well just get up and go for a hike because nothing good is going to happen. So it got me to that point and then perhaps there's another form will take over that will solve the problem, or sometimes that tension holds and the story runs all the way to its end with that narrative arc rising and the geometry hanging in there. And that can be good too.

Speaker 5 (45:07):

I mean Alice Monroe, who's already been said is such the structural genius in the way that time is used. It's sort of endlessly worth kind of trying to parse and think about. Louise Errick was someone that I read really, really early and I think helped me understand just what a short story was. And I love what Rebecca pointed out about the famous doctoral cope, about the headlights. You still need to know where you're driving, you still need to know where home is. And I think reading the endings of some of the sections or stories depending on how you see love medicine, that was the book that made me realize like, oh, that's where home is that ending moment where there are things and things you don't, but the reality is established that I feel interrupting cow does not need a reality beyond that joke, interrupting cow is done when the joke ends.

Speaker 5 (45:54):

We don't need to believe that interrupting cow goes home for the night and pours a scotch and thinks about things, but a short story. It's such a hard moving target to hit because that sweet spot of feeling a certain sense of knowledge or of understanding or of satisfaction, but then a sense of that it is unresolved, that it is still out there in the world, that there is still a question, that there is still a reality, that there is still a life that is continuing. I mean that balance of the known and unknown I think is, it's what's so fun about writing and reading short stories, but it's a really hard mark to hit. And Errick was probably the first person where I realized that was a mark that I needed to aim for.

Speaker 6 (46:36):

I just want to add, yeah, if you haven't read Helping Robert Stone just run out and read it right after this. It's a great example of what you were just talking about. It ends in this moment that is ambiguous. You can read it, it's unresolved, and that couple is still lingers for me. I'm still devastated every time I read that story. And I just wanted to add one more thing about time and another way to think about structure is almost vectors. Let's talk physics. Let's move to physics. I love, it's like a list of classes I failed. Yeah, well, it's as simple. It's more momentum than anything. I love stories where you're going in one direction with unbelievable inevitability and then it shifts. I'm thinking about James Salter's last night. When you're reading story, you are so hooked and you are so in the boat and you're being emotionally manipulated and then there's a swerve and you're just like, you can't do that. And it is like, oh, he did it. I hate reading stories where you're on that track and that's where it lands. You're just like,

Speaker 2 (47:46):


Speaker 6 (47:47):

You've been pointing us. You have all these roadmaps and signs and you were leading us to this point. And there it goes there. I'm like, thanks. I mean, I could have stopped after one paragraph I think of Lord Jim, I don't remember how many of you read that, but I'm going to spoil it for you right now. Just first a hundred pages, you're going one way and then it takes a gigantic swerve on page 1 0 1 and it's really satisfying.

Speaker 2 (48:17):

I was just going to say, Rob, you should get ready to receive about a hundred interrupting Cal the day after stores.

Speaker 2 (48:27):

I'm ready, probably like three from me in the shape of a cow. I was just going to say, yeah, I think I won't add to what Pam said about Sarah Cole type loves three, which was one of those moments for me. But I think one of the big ones for me was reading this Nobakov story Spring and Falta, which sort of was once a very, very famous widely indulge story. And it's still somewhat, but it's, it's not taught much for variety of reasons. It's dense, it's difficult. The bachov being the bachov doesn't really care if you're having a good time, but it's also heartbreaking, probably tied for the most heartbreaking story I've ever read. And it's also the ultimate proof of Rob's language structure theory, because spring and Falta is a story that seems all at once to have no structure that lies to you directly about what structure it's in.

Speaker 2 (49:33):

And that has this er structure, like this genius structure that you only can see after the last line of the story. There's nothing like it out there. And I think part of what you realize after you finish that story, so first of all, it has the best first line title pairing I've ever heard. So the title is Spring and Alta, and the first line is Spring and Fial is cloudy and dull. And you're like, yes, keep reading. And then goes on this epic in the Bachov paragraph with just these run-on sin run that are descriptions of this sad funicular of this. Oh, once Great resort town just makes sound like just the worst, this tepid breeze and this foreigner walking around in it. But the sentences are very long and they're very exactly, they pack every single detail possible into it, and it almost like is stalling time and it stays this way through almost all this story.

Speaker 2 (50:38):

And it's, my students hate it. They just hate it. They hated it at Iowa and my graduate workshop, and it is just me who sort of loves it. But the reason why I love it is you realize at the end, and I'll sort of spoil it for you because it's not a spoiled type of story, you can just read it endlessly, is you realize after the end that the reason he was doing this is because what the story is about is this desperate attempt to preserve the time when one of the characters was alive. And is, especially for someone who can be as chilly and cerebral as Nabokov, is really this penetrating just knock you flat story. And I think part of what I took from structure in that was I saw the way that the heart of that story was manifested in every structural choice you make.

Speaker 2 (51:29):

Sometimes in my writing classes, I'll say every choice in fiction is about control. This is sort of a reductive way to think about it and not that poetic, but every choice you make is author fiction is about control, controlling the reader's experience of the story, controlling the story, but to an end to express maximally the heart of the story, not to have the most efficient structure, not to have a structure that's going to keep Rob Spielman reading in the SLU pile. No offense, that's good too. But I think several things about that story just blew me away, one of which is that there was something higher to go after. I used to think a lot about structuring the first part of my story so that editors would keep reading or so that I could be more like the Rebecca McKay, so I could be Rebecca McKay Jr.

Speaker 2 (52:22):

But I was going to say, speaking of which, I was going to say that, and I think what really helped me going forth is I immediately then as we do, tried to imitate with really bad results, but I always encourage students to, I go the opposite way of everyone's tired of reading Carver Imitations or Wallace Imitations, whatever, and I actually encourage people to imitate and to push it even farther, because eventually when you're on the 28th imitation, you're not actually imitating. And I'll just add a really quick example about that and probably also slightly embarrassed, Rebecca, but so I was really like Rebecca McKay fanboy, and I would read the essays in the back of all her Best American, the Best American Short Stories, the book have little essays in the back that the writers contribute about how they wrote Historian, and for that Painted Ocean story, she wrote about the story basically that she just said.

Speaker 2 (53:19):

But she also wrote, I think in there that it was part of a doomed series of stories that you've based on inspired by great works of literature because it's deeply in conversation with the rhyme of the Inmar. So I said, Hey, I'm going to be j

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