The Beauty of Brevity
- By Tara Laskowski
- March 14, 2016
In praise of tales that cut to the chase
Recently, in some old boxes, I found an array of stories, poems, and "books" that I wrote in grade school and high school. They were a range of terrifically bad to horrifically bad (from a Mother's Day poem to a 50-page, single-spaced typewritten "novel" detailing my entire fifth-grade trip to Disney World), but it made me pause and wonder: How did this happen? When did I go from writing stories to actually being a writer? Is there a difference?
I've got a collection of short stories coming out in May (yes, that was a shameless plug for Bystanders and, yes, here's the pre-order link) and I've always been drawn in particular to that form. Short. Immediate. Small moments. It's why I've stayed editor at SmokeLong Quarterly for six years, too.
I love writing and reading flash fiction. And I can tell you about the kinds of books and stories I read as a kid that made me fall in love with reading. Nancy Drew, C.S. Lewis, the Boxcar Children. Plus, I've already chronicled my love for the urban legend in another column. These were all the tales that made me want to read, but what were the stories that made me think I could write?
It was surprisingly easy to conjure a list. The ones that stayed with me. The ones that made me think, "Hey, I can do this. I want to do this." Here they are:
- "A&P" by John Updike
- "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates
- "No One's a Mystery" by Elizabeth Tallent
- "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger
When I decided to write a column on this, I worried I might need to come up with some other examples because all of these, with the exception of the Salinger story, feature teenagers prominently. But there's something about that, isn't there?
I wasn't necessarily drawn to these stories just because they were about teenagers — I've read tons of other fiction about teens that slide through my memory like water. I think it was more because they capture something else, something about humanity, about people, about love and loss and fear and loneliness and angst — all the themes that I'm constantly working like a loose tooth, obsessing over, in my own stories. They had an awareness and depth that lingered, but they were worlds that I knew and could relate to.
One of the pieces of advice writers get is: Write what you know. I think that advice is garbage for a number of reasons (and may be fodder for a future column) but maybe there's something to read what you know.
Those stories weren't about some far-off land or some historical movement I wasn't alive to witness. They were about the here and now, the concrete details I lived every day, the emotions and the experiences I was feeling. There was something exciting about that — that beautiful literature could be constructed from a grocery store encounter, could be set in an old pick-up truck or at the movies or in school or at the beach.
In my own writing, I'm often drawn to the ordinary, whether that's teenagers in grocery stores, couples looking a new houses to buy, or families at a backyard picnic. I enjoy turning over those stones to see the worms underneath, the small tensions or the white lies that began to create larger cracks that cannot be repaired. But I worry: In the same way I was drawn to stories with similar themes when I was younger, am I also just writing the same story over and over again?
I recently wrote a piece of flash fiction and sent it on to my husband, Art, who's always my first reader. As a caveat, I told him, "Warning: this is clearly a Tara story, with all the same stuff I always write about."
His response surprised me.
He said: "Yes, in the sense that there are certain themes you sometimes return to in your work. But I don't think this is a story you would've written several years ago. There are images and ideas here (especially with the images of a child) that probably wouldn't have occurred to you in the same way before you were a parent, for example. Certainly you have recurring images and interests as a writer, but you're growing as a writer, too."
I found that reassuring. My angst is evolving, I guess. Or more poetically, I'm deepening my obsession with the topics I write about, topics that started back when I was just an angsty teenager myself. Back when I was still a writer but maybe just didn't know it yet.
Tara Laskowski is a writer and editor in Virginia. Her collection of stories, Bystanders, will be released in May. She’s the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. You can see a picture of her sitting in the middle of the street over at www.taralaskowski.com.