Short Stories

I have a friend who wants to write a story. So does my father. I tried taking a short story class in college once. I thought that I could write pretty well, and so I wanted to take a creative non-fiction course, but for some reason couldn’t — perhaps it was full or at the wrong time or had a prerequisite. So to compensate, I took fiction instead. We were asked to write stories; I had never even been tempted to write a story, or tell stories, or to do anything with stories except read them. Even then, my experience of short stories was not much help; I had once tried reading Flannery O’Conner and decided to stick with epic novels. Still, I thought myself a competent writer: how hard could it be? Very hard, actually. I was terrible at it., which meant not so much that my stories were actually bad — they were about as good as I could have hoped, considering my utter lack of practice — but writing them was horribly self-conscious and painful. I only wrote one decent scene all semester, and it is… ornery.

My writing teacher said that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That is very obvious, but much more difficult than it sounds. I can never tell what the end is going to be — that’s part of why life is always so mysterious. It’s hard to live it in discrete narrative arcs, and so whenever it comes time to reflect and consolidate what the story of the trip or conference or whatnot is, I can’t say. I don’t know how the story ends. That may work for War and Peace with a hundred pages of epilogues, but it is hardly suited to short stories. They ought to be.. short. That means that they should conclude, and pretty soon. Not my strong point. All the same, there was that scene…

Donald Miller says that the stories he most likes are about someone who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. He’s been working with a pair of screen-writers to turn Blue Like Jazz into a movie, and that’s what they told him. He took this to heart, started looking at his life like the story for a movie,wrote another book about that, and had a conference in Portland a few months ago to share what he had found. Someone who wants something. And overcomes obstacles to attain it. A staple of narrative: what does your main character most want? Then the plot is in some ways clear — at the beginning someone comes to want something, and in the middle he encounters obstacles; at the end he gets it. It’s the Quest form of narrative: very compelling.

Often, though, we don’t know what it is we want: only that we need to find it, whatever it is. This is mostly when we’re looking for God: “there’s a god-shaped hole;” “our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Then we find God and realize that the story doesn’t end, only the goal is clearer. It doesn’t even fully resolve until someone becomes a saint. So we tell smaller stories — but the smaller stories find their significance in the larger story. Augustine and the pear tree finds its completion in Augustine and the City of God. The story of the pear tree would only resolve as a complete and full story when Augustine confesses and repents of it.

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