A Lifetime of Little Fictions: Why and How to Read Short Stories
So often there are weeks or even months when our hectic schedules prohibit the indulgence of tending to our thoughtfully curated reading lists. Night after night may pass while that perfect new book you rushed out in the rain to purchase does nothing more than sit unopened, dust collecting on your nightstand.
If that sounds exceedingly specific, it's because I am describing my personal experience, knowing that at some point, you’ve likely been there, too.
Enter the short story. While it is not intended to replace the novel, it certainly does stand on its own as an intellectual escape. Short stories are also as a unique window into a variety of perspectives from many different writers’ characters.
For the person who loves to read, short stories are a perfect intersection between a demanding schedule and self-care, and an investment in what brings us abundantly alive. As such, they are an excellent option for the modern, busy reader. Because of length constraints, the writer of a short story must drench the entire piece with a masterful plot and a clear voice. Each sentence must resonate, and each word must intentionally summon meaning.
Even if you are in a season of life that allows more ample time for luxurious reading and writing, short stories can still serve to enhance your experience by offering a more richly varied repertoire. You can dabble in various genres with ease, embracing thoughtful women’s fiction, a romance that highlights raw relationships, creative and intelligent fantasy, or a mystery that leaves you curious and keeps you engaged. Perhaps the last four novels you enjoyed were historical romance, but one whimsical fantasy short story could potentially open your eyes to an entirely new genre you adore.
Reading short stories as a writer offers an irreplaceable form of training. When you read a novel, it is easy to pick up on overall plot and tone, but it is very normal to miss some of the more subtle, but equally important, distinctions in craft somewhere in the length of the book. When reading a short story, you are much more likely to take the entire story in at once, on both a macro and micro level.
So where do you begin?
Start where you are!
Some of your favorite, contemporary writers and novelists are very likely to also have a collection of short stories.
· The extraordinarily talented Nora Ephron (you probably know her as the playwright behind When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle) wrote a collection called Crazy Salad, Some Things about Women. The stories she has included in her book are hilarious, charming and distinctive.
· For Harry Potter fans, J.K. Rowling actually has a collection of short stories titled The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
· A favorite writer of mine is Emma Straub. I find her to be witty, relatable, and heartwarming, with a touch of whimsy. You may know her for her best-selling novels The Vacationers and Modern Lovers. She also has a collection of short stories titled Other People We Married, and it is a very enjoyable read.
Ready for more?
Some of the great, classic short stories were penned by literary masterminds such as O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. I love these stories for their place in history, as well as for how they are still relevant. A great place to explore this particular type of story is AmericanLiterature.com.
Pick up a literary magazine such as The Paris Review or Harvard Review at just about any bookstore. In such magazines, you will find a range of wonderful stories penned by both established and emerging writers, and that is exactly what I love about them. Although their consistent quality is predictable, very little else is. The writing, the plot, and the characters will vary dramatically from volume to volume.
For quality, current short fiction that is free of charge, check out 2 Elizabeths, which is equal parts short fiction and poetry publication, and passion project, curated by myself and my business partner (who also happens to be my mother). You will notice that most magazines which publish short stories focus primarily, if not solely, on literary fiction. Our publication is distinctive in that it is focused on genre fiction. We will begin accepting story submissions in November and will begin publishing them in December of 2016.
Modern Love is an absolutely beautiful, compelling podcast, which features short form literature (more specifically, essays revolving around the topic of, you guessed it – modern love) read by noteworthy personalities and then a word from the actual writer as well. The stories are personal, real, and enthralling. Additionally, since Modern Love is a podcast, you can easily multitask (read: commute) while listening. A favorite episode of mine is number 18, “A Heart Outrun”, as read by Colin Farrell. Every time I listen to this particular episode, I am left with a feeling of deep, ardent gratitude for the love I am blessed to experience in my own life.
Author Phillip Pullman once said “After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” I could not agree more, as stories function to enhance communication, heighten understanding and learning, and to create an intimate connection between two people (the writer and the reader) that would otherwise be impossible. Short stories can serve to enrich your life in their own unique and poignant way. They are an accessible and wide-ranging, intellectual escape, as well as an insight into another’s viewpoint. They are important, and they are pleasurable.
Pour yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of Merlot (or two!), and sit down to read. Choose a great short story, and relish the opportunity to embrace the entire plot, from beginning to end, in one sitting. Perhaps try out a new-to-you genre. Enjoy a new or a well-known writer’s captivating work, and feel your metaphorical cup being filled, the strain of your day resurfacing as joy.