In a continuation of the last post...
At the end of Laura Miller's piece in Slate she argues that Helen Oyeyemi's stories escape:
"...the chorelike quality that has come to be associated with the average contemporary short story collection. Too often, the short story is left to writers’ writers, but Oyeyemi is a reader’s writer. It makes all the difference in the world."
In the post before this one I argued that short stories, like Jazz have been co-opted by academia--the MFA world--and made to be sterile, pompous and lacking in story or any demonstration the writer has lived beyond there own small world. They are written for the art of the sentence and elegance of narrative arc rather than to tell a good story that shows unknown or uncommon truths.
They are chore-like, according to Miller, because they are so fucking slow to start and once you push through an ungenerous opening there is often little there. In short, it is MFA enthusiasts writing for MFA enthusiasts. They didn't literally--or maybe they did--but figuratively have left the reader out in the cold.
This is absolutely not always the case, but it happens too much.
So, how to fix the problem. First: Go out and live. Work hard without hope of ever getting out of the drudgery of that life. Take care of people at the end of their lives. Be a journalist and see how the world works for everybody else. Give up the trust fund or savings for a year and live on your own grit. Let yourself be moved, affected, and beaten down by life.
As to writing better stories, Chris Offutt said that all short story writers should remove the first third of their story because most beginnings are pointless and slow. I agree. One way to avoid wasting that time, as I've noted before, is ruminate on an idea for a story for a while, days, weeks, and when you sit down to write, say to yourself You won't fucking believe this but... and write whatever comes into your mind without self editing.
I call this harvesting your blinks.
After you find the opening that brings the reader immediately into the story and gives them a sense of place, time and character, write one true sentence. Follow that one true sentence with another, and then another and another...
Within each of these true sentences, feel all that you have learned from your life's experiences. The joy of finding a twenty dollar bill on a Wednesday when you are broke and can't afford to eat or a pack of smokes and you have to work ten hours a day until payday when you'll get out of work too late to cash your check. The pain of realizing your children will never realize a better childhood than one of living paycheck to paycheck with you. Of feeling the anger that you have so much more to give the world and what it could do for your life if just one fucking thing would go your way, but knowing it never will. Of feeling the pain of a lover laughing at you after s/he screwed your best friend because all there is for him or her is the pain they can cause. The pain of seeing others for whom life has given so much and for whom luck and providence has shown brightly, knowing this will never happen for you and seeing these people disdain you as an outside to their good fortune. The pain of being told at age forty-five that society and government need to punish you because you are a taker for having had cancer. Of feeling so ashamed of yourself and how you look that you hide from the world wishing you were dad and hating yourself for lacking the courage to pull the trigger. Or knowing the person who hates you most and who abuses you out of cruelty and subtle mental illness will never stop and there is nothing you can do to get away.
With all of these pains, there can be joys, but there are also myriad truths that are not commonly known. Tell these stories and other stories so compelling that the reader cannot pull away from the first word.
In other words, write for readers. And do so with honesty.