Atomisation of the Short Story
On teaching the short story
Although I love to talk at length on my passions, sometimes oblivious to the social cues and niceties that ought to stop me, I have never been over fond of delivering lectures to large numbers of people. Without the personal connection and the back-and-forth of conversation, I find it intimidating. Fortunately, then, there has only ever been two settings in which I have been called upon to do so. While participating in meetings with London socialists, and during my one course stint teaching a creative writing class on the short story at the university level.
However, having said that I find the lecture format difficult, I would not also say that I find it wholly bad. There are features of it I enjoy, and especially the discipline of tailoring a presentation to a broad audience such that it will interest those at one level of experience, while engaging those at another. The mean between these problems (disengaging novices and boring experts) is an interesting one, requiring a consideration of the subject that can produce both a greater clarity of thought and new insights. By testing ideas against an audience, additional angles can be brought to light.
It is in the limits of teaching the short story that I came to such a realisation. But first, some background. I was initially surprised to be asked to teach. It is not a skill I have especially honed, and I was concerned that I would not so much as be able to design a course. Fortunately (or not), I inherited with the course a ready made syllabus. This taught the short story in lessons divided by ‘elements’. That is, the constituent features as broadly understood of a short story. Perspective, characterisation, plotting, setting, etc. And it was through the limits of that structure I came to some conclusions about writing. At least, I came to them for the first time at an explicit rather than just an intuitive level.
Between lessons I would pepper classes on particular short stories. I sometimes chose pieces from small press anthologies and experimental podcasts. A humorous second person horror story and a character portrait of a depressed man that never directly tells the reader that he is depressed. A Lovecraft story about a haunted musician. I did so not only because of the quality of these works (I still regard them highly), but to encourage student experimentation. And what dawned on me was that these lessons were far more enjoyable than the more formal, subject-by-subject ones.
In time, the subject-by-subject classes changed too. Over and over again I felt myself needing to link up the different parts. I wanted to talk about ambient story telling, how a plot or character can be conveyed by a setting (that is how the depressed man is revealed to be depressed, through his lived environment) or a setting can be a character, with its own personality and continuity in the story. Or more literally, a living setting as we might discover in a fantasy or science fiction (think of the space ship Moya from Farscape). I wanted to talk about how perspective (as with the podcast) can actively make the reader a character, a conceit even used by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. Or how a short story might not have characters at all.
All of this reached its crescendo when I discuss the topic of the use of ‘time’ in the short story. Suddenly I was met by a subject that could not be discussed without bringing to bear all of the other subjects directly to fill out its content. That was the only subject lesson that felt more like the story lessons in its richness and scope. Time is relevant to characterisation (the subjectivity of it, aging a person), plotting (how to pace a story appropriately), perspective (how modes of narration shape the experience of time for the reader) and setting (how you can show time through environment, its alterations over the course of a fiction).
In short, what I discovered is that the ‘elements’ format trained the writer to think of the story as a set of disconnected requirements. But each element was in fact suffused with every other element, so that each choice delimited and shaped every other choice. To produce a work that functioned as a totality meant not thinking primarily in terms of whether to write in first person present tense about a suburban house homing a buss driver with a fear of heights, but thinking more completely about the relationship of all of these choices to the sort of story and ideas the author seeks to convey. Does her fear have a connection to the type of person she is, the life she leads and where she does so?
Do I consider my lessons a failure? Perhaps it would have been better had I already grasped all of this and set about constructing an original course about those relationships and dynamics that make a short narrative work. But there was value in discovering that focus in a group of enthusiastic first year degree students. At the culmination of the year I organised my one-to-ones so that over the course of a day I could talk to each student for an hour, instead of the 20 minutes alloted. (My concern was that after greetings for 3 or so minutes and goodbyes for 3 or so minutes, I would be left a pitiful 14 for constructive discussion.) I was pleased by both their work and the way they thought innovatively about the experiments the relationships of elements allowed.
Perhaps another reason I organised these longer sessions, which annoyed my fellow teachers whose time restraints limited them from offering their students the same, was because it returned me to a more comfortable setting for teasing out ideas. The conversation. While there is value in tailoring a lesson to a group, there is also immense value in tailoring it to a person. I had students who wanted to break every narrative rule, and students who wanted to craft a honed piece of genre fiction, and while in every instance the relationship between the elements of their stories was paramount, it was so in unique ways.
The subject-by-subject approach glossed over these unique goals, and while I eventually found a way in which to talk about story writing that more honoured individual ways of writing, it was in discussing each student’s own project that I accomplished the most. More in a single hour than I felt I had through the rest of the course, in fact. This is what I found in those lessons: the remarkable versatility of the short story form, something my students frequently recognised already. Many began solely wanting to be novelists, which is my own favourite form of writing, but I do consider it a success that more than a few decided that the short story was their own favourite form, that it was perfect for the types of narrative experiment they wanted to perform in their writing.
I learned how to better think about the short story with the group, and the process of developing a lesson in lecture format was part of how I learned this. I learned, that is, that shaping the delivery of ideas to a broad audience can either result in a reduction of those ideas, or a rethinking of what those ideas contain that can be applied with nuance and depth to a wide range of perspectives. Taking on the individual elements of story writing resulting in something that looked like teaching the short story, but conveyed very littler, but thinking about the connections between those elements resulted in ideas about storycraft that could be applied and reapplied to diverse writing projects.
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