I received my first print publication of a short story last month—six months after my debut novel came out. Read “The Opening of a New Spy Novel by an Author You Love” online at Calliope on the Web. Fans of post-modernism, especially the work of Italo Calvino, will find much to enjoy.
I was always told to focus on the short form before venturing into writing a novel. However, the short story has frequently eluded me. While novels and feature films feel intuitive, with their large and climactic narrative arcs, their dynamic and wide-open characters, short stories have felt less straight-forward. Where should one start a story? Where should one end it?
I recently read an Oulipo piece, “How to Tell a Story,” by Jacques Bens. In it, a writer character named Matthew fails to teach a class of college students the art of story telling. Afterward, he wanders around Paris contemplating what he should’ve said and as he does so, he concocts an “example” story, featuring a young and beautiful barrel organist. At the end of his wandering, the organist, now flesh and blood, visits him in his office, telling him, the author, that the hero of his story now wants to marry her, which seems a bit fast. Then she adds, “I must be missing an element somewhere.” Matthew responds, “Yes, something is missing, that much is clear. But where? And what?”
I often feel just as Matthew does after finishing writing my own stories, and even more often after reading those of the greats. While some of my favorites wrote primarily short stories—Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme among them—I invariably turn to a guide of some sort, be it critics or the authors themselves. Whereas with novels I almost never do. I read it. I comprehend it. I move on. Even when I do turn to a guide for the purposes of teaching a novel, the guide does not suddenly reveal the meaning I missed. Usually, it merely helps me form the right question or locate the proper page number. What is left out of the story is almost always included in the novel. Why is this? I do not know.
Some things I’ve found helpful over the years are the writing exercises in 3AM Epiphany, George Saunders’ wonderful analysis of Russian stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, and a recent series of instructional videos from Reedsy, entitled “Short Fiction Deep Dive.” I hope these help you in your own journey and that they save you some of the time I spent puzzling and shaking my head.
If COVID in 2020 was a roaring lion that broke down our door, maimed us, and left us collecting disability, COVID in 2021 has been a lamb braying incessantly. At least for us.
Last year, we continued to wear masks and practice social distancing in our respective schools, but with the advent of vaccines and boosters, life has largely returned to normal in our little corner of the world. In fact, this year marks our tenth year of marriage—and it’s been the fullest one yet.
Margot has gone from babbling to speaking, though often I suspect she’s less interested in communicating and more in shocking us. I’ve convinced the children that if you break the law, you go to jail and in jail one must eat bugs. The other day, after Charlie urged me to “go faster daddy!” to beat an on-coming train, I explained about the law again. “Should I break the law?” I asked. Charlie, whose current nemesis is any word that starts with the letter “L,” responded, “No, don’t break the wall.” Then, with perfect timing, Margot muttered, “I break wall. I eat bugs.” Then she stared down the railroad tracks as far as she could see and rolled a pack of Lucky Strikes into her shirt sleeve.
Thankfully, she’s also developing her emotional intelligence, which should balance out her criminalistic tendencies. Although, she is still working out the nuances. When she does something wrong and I get mad, she frequently asks, “Daddy, you mean?” No, I say. Then she brightens up. “Daddy, you happy?” Then I tell her no, not happy either, and she cocks her head to the side. “You mean?” She’s also learned to open doors, so now nothing is safe. We’ll hear her roaming the house like a velociraptor, her long curved talon clicking eerily against the hardwood floors, and then she’ll appear with my wallet, a pair of scissors, or the circular pin from the fire extinguisher. At least, I hope it was from the fire extinguisher… She’s become so adept at manipulating doors that she recently locked our daycare provider, Ms. Debbie, out of the house.
Charlie started preschool this year—and immediately started speech. After his first session, he told us excitedly that our neighbor was “Luh, Luh, Lucky.” R’s were also giving him some troubles so that his name sort of came out “Chawie Miwwa.” The dropped R’s didn’t cause too many miscommunications, other than people thinking he was from Boston. However, they did garner some unwanted attention at the grocery store when Charlie started belting out a song about his favorite Disney character, Forky. Grandmothers and priests turned with unbelieving horror; middle school boys with unrestrained glee; and our cart turned right back out of the grocery store. He also started the year with both limited letter recognition and unlimited confidence. When asked to spell his name, he replied boldly, “C-H-A-L-T-W!” What about his sister Bonnie’s name? “B-T-2-خ.” I didn’t even realize he knew Arabic! Numbers, on the other hand, seem to be his forte. When Susan introduced him to the coding game her classes had been working on for weeks, he immediately caught up with them, then asked, “Can I do more?” The next day I found him fiddling with our home computer, the screen a mass of numbers like a scene from The Matrix. Then yesterday, he came home from preschool with a pamphlet tucked in his backpack. It looked like recruiting material to me. Then I saw the NSA seal. “What’s this?” I asked. He shrugged. When I pointed to the letters, he rattled them off happily, “T-C-O. That spells dinosaur.” Then he chased Margot around the kitchen table, him a T-Rex, her a compsognathus.
Bonnie started kindergarten and has become our little reader. It’s exciting, miraculous, and terrifying. Finally, she can partake in the joy of reading! What magic! But also, how is she old enough to be reading?? How old must that make me? The first book she read was about a puppy, a little girl, and a fair amount of sitting—they sit, they sat, they sat over here, they sat over there—but it was still a book! Now she’s reading all sorts of things, deciphering words on her own, undaunted by the absurdities of English spelling, whose rules swing wildly and illogically from French to Anglo-Saxon to drunk to the work of a hoarder—who put all these extra letters in “daughter”? What were they, drunk?
She’s also started writing little stories. I don’t mean to sound patronizing. They are physically small. Mostly, they’re on the backs of the 3×5 index cards I use to plot out my own writing. When I read over her stories, I make sure to highlight what she’s doing well before launching into my critique. “This dragon bully is a great source of external tension,” I’ll say. “Uh-huh,” she’ll reply. “But your pegasus protagonist is missing subtextual motivation.” Then she’ll cock her head and say, “Daddy, I asked how to spell kangaroo.”
This school year, Susan traded in the trauma and bewilderment of first year teaching for the far less eventful exhaustion and frustration of second year teaching. Every day I’m reminded how much funnier, more interesting, and more important elementary school is than high school as Susan tells me all the amazing things she’s doing with her kiddos. Still, I wouldn’t trade her. I like teaching picture-less books too much.
In January Susan set out to read one hundred books, and she’s very nearly reached her goal. It’s been inspiring to see how many books she can devour. One downside is she keeps reading amazing books that I must also read as soon as she’s done. While she suffers from abibliophobia, or the fear of running out of reading materials, I have the opposing problem: stackcrashaphobia, or the fear of being crushed to death by my to-be-read pile.
Also this year, I published my debut novel, achieving a goal I set for myself some twenty years ago. How Everything Turns Away follows an FBI agent who must untangle an attack at a private school. If you Google my name, about 1.2 million people who are not me pop up. So, I went with a nom de plume: Steven J. Kolbe. The week the book came out, the most frequent comment I received from friends was that they couldn’t find my book. They, of course, were searching for How (something or other) by Steven Miller. I repeatedly explained that I had used a pseudonym. “Why?” they asked. “So people could find it more easily.” You live and you learn.
I’m currently working on the sequel and just finished the first draft thanks to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I also convinced one of my classes to participate and am proud to say five of them reached their writing goals—one wrote 15,000 words! I printed off fancy certificates on cardstock and only misspelled one of their titles…It was a good lesson in proofreading.
This year we purchased a minivan. It had to happen eventually. Because it is large and gray, we named it Leviathan, the mythological sea monster from the Hebrew Bible. Susan assumed the kids would call him “Levi” for short, but they all faithful say “Leviathan” or “Viafen” or “Lvthvllen.” We planned to take a trip to visit different state capitals this summer. I had a route all plotted out, then a funeral came up in Alliance, Nebraska, so we re-routed. Our stops included Denver, Cheyenne, Pierre, and Lincoln. At each city, we visited the capitol building where the kids excitedly ran up the long stone steps and then asked where we were going for lunch. By the time we reached our third capitol building, Margot was spotting them before we even did. She’d spy the dome rising above the more modern buildings and announce, “Capitol Boop-boop!” Ironically, we did not make it to Topeka. Maybe next summer.
We also stopped at Wall Drug Store, the Badlands and, of course, “Mt. Mushmore.” Walking up to that landmark on the morning of Fourth of July felt like making a religious pilgrimage. Clad in our red, white, and blue, we found the Kansas plaque and flag and explained the importance our state plays in contributing to the greater—“What? No, we aren’t in Kansas right now…We live in Kansas…No, our house isn’t Kansas…Yes, I realize that’s confusing. We’re in Nebraska…Sorry, your mother is right, we’re in South Dakota.” Well, we tried to explain it. Then we ate breakfast on the observation deck, those four foundational presidents watching over us, and life couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d written it for myself.
We hope your year has been full of love, new experiences, and hope. May God bless you in the new year!