BWS 09.09.15: Lana Pesch

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Originally from Saskatchewan, Lana Pesch is a Toronto-based writer and producer. Her short fiction has appeared in Taddle Creek and Little Bird Stories: Volumes I and II. She was also long-listed for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize, and won the Random House of Canada Creative Writing Award at the University of Toronto in 2012.

Moving Parts is Lana’s first book, a collection of short stories. She stopped by the blog this week and shared some insight on the form in this guest post.

How Should a Short Story Work?

For my birthday last week, I woke up to a copy of Neil Gaiman’s new book, Trigger Warning, which my husband bought for me.

In the introduction, I read: “I grew up loving and respecting short stories. They seemed to me to be the purest and most perfect things people could make: not a word wasted, in the best of them. […] My favorite collections would not just give me short stories but they would also tell me things I didn’t know, about the stories in the book and the craft of writing.”

That’s when I really woke up. My passion was re-ignited in the way it always is when I know I’m at the beginning of something good.

I’m not familiar with Gaiman’s work, but I’m excited about this book because of that introduction. Because I agree with him. I’m ready to dive into this collection of “short fictions and disturbances” and be told things I don’t know, both about the stories and the craft of writing.

Over the course of writing my first book, I repeatedly encountered the question: How should a short story work?

The short answer is, there is no single, correct, or short answer. But here are a few thoughts.

Any story, I think, should make us wonder and question. A good story should leave its reader affected somehow: shocked, enlightened, itchy, comforted, disturbed. A great story will resonate and linger after the book has been put back on the shelf, or the screen turned off.

Short stories take us on journeys with selected brushstrokes. They can cover a lot of territory, and can—should—be complex and provocative. And while comprehensive in scope, they should remain economical in size. Not a word wasted, in the best of them.

From Zsuzsi Gartner’s note from her work as judge for Grain’s short fiction contest in 2012: “A great short story casts a long shadow, sings a song itself, is embedded with the atomic particles of other stories past and stories yet unwritten, and yet is wholly itself.”

Gartner goes on to say that a story should contain multitudes, entire universes. And, why not? We are all made of stars, after all.

Stories connect us. They make us feel less alone. We recognize ourselves in characters who are struggling, striving, or longing for something or someone. Characters who are fundamentally seeking acceptance, recognition, love, or a sense of purpose and belonging. Characters like us. Watching how a character goes about his or her business might be something we can relate to, or the experience can open up a whole new world and tell us things we didn’t know. As Gaiman goes on to say: “We authors, who trade in fictions for a living, are a continuum of all that we have seen and heard, and most importantly, all that we have read.”

No kidding.

I’ve read a lot of short stories and continue to discover new authors. The stories I reread are the ones that inform my own writing. The stories where I find new things every time I read them. Stories that leave me thinking: What just happened there? How did the author do that? Why do I need to read this again?

In The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Ben Marcus writes a brilliant introduction that includes this nugget: “Stories keep mattering by reimagining their own methods, manners, and techniques. A writer has to believe, and prove, that there are, if not new stories, then new ways of telling the old ones.”

Cheers to that, Ben.

I’m fascinated by human behavior—the extremes of good and bad, and the spectrum in between. We are a flawed species, constantly making mistakes, learning by failing, and coming out the other side. The stories in my book were written and evolved over time. Years. While experimenting with style and form, I was writing about characters and ideas that I found curious and was trying to understand. How do we arrive at one decision and not another? What informs those choices? What are the consequences of our actions?

In the September, 2015 issue of The Walrus, Lisa Moore singles out four Canadian authors (Russell Smith, Heather O’Neill, Irina Kovalyova and Guy Vanderhaeghe) who are reinventing the short story. “Traditionally,” she writes, “the Canadian short story is staunchly based in realism, with a narrative arc that ratchets up through conflicts and semi-resolutions toward a crisis, and epiphany, and a tidy conclusion. The shape is almost hard-wired in our collective brains. But a new crop is working against these constraints, with wider plots that spread into the lives of characters who may be only tangentially linked to one another. They spread out over time, too, rather than adhere to the traditional shape of action, epiphany, denouement.”

I feel in some ways I too am part of this new crop, perhaps with one foot lingering in the traditional camp.

Moore also writes: “Reading one [a short story] is the literary equivalent of stepping off a diving board and plunging into thin air. In that brief moment, everything can somersault. You can experience a wild heavy ride that can change you.”

And hopefully, I would add, shape us into becoming more compassionate human beings.

Gaiman’s introduction to Trigger Warning ends with an apology. He states his belief that a short story collection should be the same all the way through, not so “hodgepodge” and “willy-nilly”, and how his collection fails in this manner: “For this failure,” he asks, “as for so much, I request your indulgence and forgiveness, and hope only that somewhere in these pages you may encounter a story you might otherwise never have read.”

Well said, in my opinion. Now I hope you will please indulge and forgive me, as I say the same thing about my own book.

Lana Pesch visits the Brockton Writers Series on our sixth birthday, Wednesday, September 9, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Irfan Ali, Sarah Henstra, Sabrina Ramnanan and a special guest talk by Nancy Jo Cullen, “What to Consider if You’re Considering an M.F.A.”

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