It’s a Long Story

But would it work better as a short one?

It’s a Long Story

Harriet the Spy travels with a notebook. Her creator, Louise Fitzhugh, likely did, too. My own is pocket size, accompanied by a pencil stub. “Be one upon whom nothing is lost,” exhorted Henry James.

For me, noticing and eavesdropping are almost as natural as breathing. Out-of-context dialogue and comment, the unwitting improv theater of passersby, the open curtain, the open window: Material for stories is everywhere. You never know what you’re going to encounter. You also never know what you’ll forget — in one eye and out the other, in one ear and out the other.

Write it down, save it in your pocket, a scrap of a potential tale.

Now we have technological aides-mémoire. I can’t quite imagine Henry James with a cellphone; it’s scary to think of Harriet with one. To me, snapping a purloined photo seems more transgressive than scribbling a note. Color me old-fashioned.

But there’s an exception to every scruple: Last week, on a subway platform, I saw a woman leaning on her scooter, her cello leaning on her. I couldn’t resist taking a surreptitious picture.

The neighborhood listserv has supplanted the town crier, the telephone party line, personal ads, the laundromat bulletin board, and the classifieds as sources of potential material. My community listserv’s full-force daily deluge is overwhelming, so I subscribe to its curated email featuring just a few entries each day. Before breakfast, before taking on the newspapers, I ease into the morning with this e-digest.

I keep a list of my favorite postings. The tone is more often hopeful than desperate, but certain problems and themes recur in this long-running community conversation. An author could populate an anthology of stories inspired by posts ISO lost treasures and talismans. This personal favorite was posted last fall by a member who’d met with a mishap while raking and bagging leaves:

“ISO metal detector. Do metal detectors detect nonferrous metals specifically gold as in a wedding ring? If so does someone have one I could borrow or rent?”

His follow-up post provided the next chapter:

“Thanks to those who suggested where to rent, but more to the person who suggested I get a pro to do the search. I got a very nice guy and within 30” of starting to look through the leaf bags, I had my wedding band back.”

One hopes he also recovered his spouse’s goodwill.

By contrast, here’s a recent, more noirish story prompt:

“I can sharpen anything: knives, scissors, garden shears, clippers, lawn mower blades, food processor blades, and much more. Reach out about anything you want sharpened. Leave the knives & tools that need to be sharpened in the labeled box on my porch, wrapped securely and in a bag with your name & number. Let me know when you’d like to pick up so I can leave your items on the porch.”

Sorry to shiver, but where might this saga be going?

Heartening, in these fraught times, are frequent posts seeking help with the celebration of happy occasions:

“Where to find peppermint stick ice cream for our friend’s 82nd birthday?”

Pure Proust; doesn’t this query stir sensory memory? Read it and taste the remembered flavor of the spicy-sweet, cold, melting mouthful on your tongue. No wonder the post elicited enthusiastic suggestions and referrals.

Another anthology of stories could be inspired by listserv queries about pets. So many lost and found, so many ISO foster or forever homes. A hard-hearted woman, I’m not one to write those stories (I even outsource houseplant care to my husband), yet the following plaintive post calls out. If only the late, great Leo Lionni could step in and do some ghostwriting and drawing:

“Freshwater catfish and several snails seeking a new home. We would be happy to give away our whole set up to someone who wants to start this hobby, but hope to find an established home for the fish and snails.”

It’s hard to find the right placement for mollusks and crustaceans. (We cared for the school hermit crabs over one vacation.) Surely, someone must be out there. But it’s not me, babe. No, no, no. It’s not me.

These samples are only the cream that’s risen to the top of my listserv story prompts and they’re free to a good home. I haven’t used any. For quite a while, I’ve been writing longform fiction rather than stories. Alice Munro’s recent death and the subsequent flurry of homages remind us that she preferred the “tension” of short stories to the “flab” of novels. Her stories are relatively long but, as required in a great tale, every word in them counts. Anyone who’s attempted it knows that writing short — at least, writing short well — is not often quick.

Perhaps writing a novel is a cross-country drive. With luck, the trip accommodates losing your way and finding it again, unplanned stops, detours, and course corrections. Yes, it’s about the journey, not the destination, but the risks include running out of fuel or becoming so engrossed in roadside attractions and distractions that you never arrive.

Writing a short story may be more like setting yourself the challenge of a bicycle ride, a solo Century, a hundred miles up and down steep roads, negotiating hairpin turns, stopping to fix a tire, pushing on to the finish.

Moving between the long and short written forms requires changing gears. I don’t shift easily, whether driving stick, bicycling, or writing. I haven’t written a short story since before the pandemic. But I’ve just completed revising my novel-in-progress and hit pause. Maybe while I’m at this creative rest stop, I’ll review my pocket notebook. Maybe I’ll dare to try a story.

“A woman walks into the subway with a scooter and a cello…”

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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