photo via Black Balloon Publishing
I’ve been dipping in and out of the stories in Kevin Clouther’s debut collection, We Were Flying to Chicago, over this long weekend, and they’re fantastic. In the title story, Clouther takes on the collective consciousness of a group of airplane passengers, from the long stretch of time they’re stuck on the runway waiting to take off to the moment they finally reach Chicago—not their final destination, but they’ll be stuck there, too. It’s a portrait of boredom and frustration that escapes both in its own telling, approaching a kind of abstraction even in its particular details. In this guest essay, Clouther considers Anton Chekhov’s own eye for detail, and the vividness of his stories.
I rarely think about Anton Chekhov’s stories while I’m writing, though I often think about them as I’m living, which ought to be higher praise. There is a celebration of existence in his stories that is more than earnest or unembarrassed—it’s triumphant, as if the writer is grabbing the reader by both arms and insisting this person lift his or her grubby head to look, if only for a moment, at the world as it actually presents itself. Here is Chekhov (translated beautifully, as always, by Pevear and Volokhonsky) in “The Man in a Case”:
It was already midnight. To the right the whole village was visible, the long street stretching into the distance a good three miles. Everything was sunk in a hushed, deep sleep; not a movement, not a sound, it was hard to believe that nature could be so hushed. When you see a wide village street on a moonlit night, with its cottage, haystacks, sleeping willows, your own soul becomes hushed; in that peace, hiding from toil, care, and grief in the shadows of the night, it turns meek, mournful, beautiful, and it seems that the stars, too, look down on it tenderly and with feeling, and there is no more evil on earth, and all is well.
I forgot that I ever looked at a street like this until Chekhov reminded me: I love when writers do that. The transition from the third person to the second is a gesture I would be reluctant to make, but Chekhov does it so readily, and with such confidence, that I trust there is something universal here. The last endless sentence does so many things I wouldn’t dare, like the accumulation of abstract adjectives—”meek, mournful, beautiful”—and frank consideration of “evil on earth.” He doesn’t shy from discussing the soul. Committing the pathetic fallacy doesn’t bother him, either.
It all reminds me of the last four lines of “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” a gem from the other end of the same century (would Chekhov have read Wordsworth?):
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
26 May 2014 | selling shorts |
photo via Kseniya Melnik
Kseniya Melnik was born in the northeastern Russian city of Magadan, which also serves as a home base for the characters in the stories that make up Snow in May, her debut collection. Their experiences span late Soviet and post-Soviet history; she jumps back and forth over decades from one to the next, but it’s not jarring, because each story is captivating in its own way, immersing us in an equally compelling interior drama. Another side effect of that immersion is that you won’t notice how long some of these stories are—for, as she explains in this essay, Melnik has learned to give her stories the space they need, and we’re the ones who benefit from it.
Ever since I became serious about writing stories, my drafts have consistently come in at over what is considered the page limit for the standard American short story—twenty-five pages, or about 7,000 words. This seems to be the magic number, at least according to most contest rules, literary journal submission guidelines, syllabi of college creative writing workshops, and MFA application requirements. The stories in The New Yorker mostly adhere to that length or less, and the compact stories of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, John Updike, and Lorrie Moore still wield great influence around the workshop tables of America.
For many years, I chopped my stories down to bare bones to submit to contests and journals only to see the drafts grow back all that meat (and some descriptive fat) in the next revision. Even in the MFA workshops, where the submission guidelines were expanded to “as long as it needs to be,” my drafts were the longest in the class.
I always turned in my forty-pagers with a plea for help to choose what to cut. Usually, my classmates’ suggestions were superficial—fifty words here, a hundred there. To fit into that key length of twenty-five pages, I would have to re-imagine the scope of the story, cut scenes, whittle down characters. An occasional recommendation was: write a novel out of it! But I was convinced that what I had on my hands were definitely short stories and not summaries of novels or even compressed novellas.
19 May 2014 | selling shorts |