Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thank you, short story writer

by Mike Crawmer
It’s been just over four months since I turned the big 6-0. Approaching that milestone filled me with dread, but I survived all the hoopla and those inevitable birthday cards with their lame jokes about digestive indiscretions and sexual functioning (or lack thereof).

When compared to most sexagenarians, I suspect I’m rather fortunate. I have most of my hair, and I can eat almost anything without worrying what it will do to my “system.” My eyeglass prescription hasn’t changed in 18 years and my doctor mutters in amazement at the vitality of my major organs.

As for getting out and about, I can’t recall the last time I bar-hopped til the 2 a.m. closing bell. But, as many of you know, I spend an inordinate amount of time bicycling. I think nothing of pedaling 25 miles on the city’s streets and trails after work. Then there are those weeklong vacations cycling 350 miles around the Finger Lakes.

Still, my never-very-good memory isn’t getting any better, and my knees are wont to complain a bit too much. Then there’s this recent problem with books: no matter how exciting or enthralling, fascinating or interesting, five, six, or ten pages is all I can manage before the eyelids droop, the book drops to my lap and the snoring begins. Sad but true: Reading puts me to sleep.

Back in the day I could devour even the most long-winded book (fiction, history, social or political commentary) in one, two or three settings. I conquered “Crime and Punishment” and “Anna Karenina” in no time, and during semester break one winter read the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy—all while working a full time job.

Not any more. Except, that is, for a good short story. I’ve been reading a lot of them lately, in Granta and in anthologies I’ve collected over the years. Bless the short-story writer for being able to create in a few thousand words a world populated by characters that are quirky or gutsy, foolish or brave, anguished or heroic, idiosyncratic or just weird, but almost always intriguing and, best of all, not sleep inducing.

Not all short stories leave me marveling at the writer’s mastery of his or her craft. Some are irritating or just plain self-indulgent. Some seem more experimental, almost like a game the writer is creating for his or her own amusement, like a Dennis Lehane story I read recently that was written in the second person. What seemed interesting and a bit provocative in the first few pages became tedious and irritating by the end.

Still, the short story can be a thing of beauty. Within a dozen or so pages the reader can fall into and out of unique world, remember all the characters and the plot (if there is one!) and the storyline. And not fall asleep (usually).

Until I find another “Bel Canto” (the last novel I couldn’t put down), I’ll pick up a short story for my fiction fix. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the restorative powers of the nap, but I really just want to read to the end of something without falling asleep first.


Annette said...

As someone who WRITES short stories, let me say THANK YOU!

Oh, I love to write (and still love to read) novels, but my appreciation for the short story is growing. As a writer, you can experiment with a new voice or technique. Sometimes it works, sometimes not (as evidenced by the Dennis Lehane story you mention). And you haven't invested a year or more to find out which it is.

And as a reader, I love to keep copies of Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock stashed in my car or in my purse. If I'm stuck waiting somewhere, I can pull it out and might actually finish an entire story.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I've gotten much, much more picky about fiction as I grow older. In high school, I would read ANYTHING! Now, when I'm browsing, I got through 10 or so before I pick up one, and only one in 10 of those do I end up finishing.

They say two prime indicators of aging are close-up vision and short-term memory, and meditation has been demonstrated to improve both. That's what I'm counting on!

Anonymous said...

Great post Mike. I tried to write a short story this summer and failed miserably because it requires an economy with words that I have not mastered, or even grasped yet. They are fun to read because you have to fill in some of the gaps yourself. ....a good brain exercise for the elderly! Sorry, couldn't resist.

Anonymous said...

Mike -
I'm a short story buff, too, but my taste leans more toward Alfred Hitchcock than The New Yorker -- I want a plot and characters, not just pretentious writing. I haven't reached the big 60 yet, but I keep on getting closer. I haven't noticed many mind changes -- that might be in part because I have ADD, so I've always been a space cadet (mind like a steel sieve). I still read anything that's available, including the ingredients in ketchup if there's nothing else available.

Joyce Tremel said...

Mike, I have the opposite problem. I can't go to sleep until I've finished the damn book. Maybe I should try short stories.

I keep telling myself I should try writing one,too.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about ketchup bottles, Gina, but I have read backs and sides of cereal boxes in desperation! And I must confess--like Joyce, I too have been kept awake reading til the end. Just can't remember the last time it happened. Also, I figure if I stayed out of my plush, ultra comfortable livingroom lounge chair I'd stay awake longer--maybe I should move to the straight-backed wooden chair when reading. And, Brenda, I agree--I think writing short fiction is terribly hard, but what's this about "good brain exercise for the elderly"?! Exactly whom were you referring to...hmmmmm! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Ah, just as youth has changed--I've seen kids who are thirteen who look like they're twenty-one--so has that deadly term, "elderly." We don't get old as young as we used to. So a man in his prime at sixty would be considered middle-aged, with elderly way down the line.

No one under 50 is allowed to comment on this.

Joyce Tremel said...

I agree, Cathy. I don't look anything like my mother did at 50. When I see pictures of her at my age, I can't believe how old she looked. It's just like those t-shirts: 50 is the new 30.