Writing Lessons

The Short-Story Writer’s Freedom

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By Edith Pearlman

November 25, 2013


 

I do short stories only. I’ve found that the form’s brevity usually requires few characters, few incidents, one theme, one crucial scene. But in her headlong trip from beginning to end, carrying the reader with her she hopes, the short story writer can dispense with things a novelist must include—motivation, say. She can make short work of setting—all she has to do is select a few essential details. (It can take a week to find twenty of those details in order to throw out 17.) As for a conclusive ending, a tying up of the loose threads—that’s not necessary; it is often inadvisable. Enigmatic is our middle name.

The short-story writer has been given a special kind of freedom, first seized by the writers of fairy tales and passed on through the ages. She is free to do a Chekhovian vignette, free to do an Updike-like piece of a life, free to restrict her tale to a single afternoon in a New York park, like Grace Paley. Since she wants the story to suggest what is not said, she must offer hints, not posted up on the wall like a declarative sentence but instead slipped into a dependent clause or mounted on the back of a metaphoric verb or clinging to a noun she has been pursuing since the last equinox. We trust our readers to take these hints. Some of them won’t, and reject us. A few of them do, and become our fans.

Edith Pearlman is the winner of the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award and the author of four short-story collections: Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, How to Fall, and Binocular Vision, which was nominated for a National Book Award this year. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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