National Short Story Month to heart and condensed its celebration down to seven days. All this week, I’ll have guest posts from some of the best writers of contemporary short-form fiction...and one dead author who will report from beyond the grave. Today’s guest is Eugene Cross, author of the short story collection Fires of Our Choosing which was released earlier this year by Dzanc Books. He was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, and received an MFA from The University of Pittsburgh. His stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine (which named him one of “20 Best New Writers” and his story “Harvesters” a “Top Five Story of 2009-2010”), American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Callaloo, among other publications. His work was also listed among the 2010 Best American Short Stories’ 100 Distinguished Stories. He is the recipient of scholarships from the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the winner of the 2009 Dzanc Prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service. He currently lives in Chicago where he teaches in the Fiction Department at Columbia College Chicago.
Breaking Rules and Breaking Hearts
With Tobias Wolff
For a long while short story collections made up the lion’s share of my reading list. I purchased them obsessively. I assigned and taught them to my students. I studied them. I was working on a collection of my own and it seemed important to immerse myself in the form. After all, the short stories I’d been given as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh were a huge part of why I chose to pursue writing in the first place. It would be impossible to replicate the magic I experienced upon reading a Lewis Nordan or an Alice Munro or a Ray Carver for the first time, feeling as though I had in some way discovered them. And no matter how you classify a book such as Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (novel, short story cycle, novel-in-stories) the thing I was certain of was that by its end I was at least as invested in the family histories of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines as I was in my own, if not more so. Good stories do this to you: make you care about people who never really existed in situations that never really took place. Or maybe they did, and that’s what we see. Ourselves alive in those characters, living out those conflicts.
The Night In Question. It’s an amazing book every creative writing teacher this side of anywhere has plundered and pilfered, Xeroxed until its spine cracks so that it opens easily to those gems many know it for: “Powder,” “Firelight,” and the brief, incomparable, and seemingly-perfect “Bullet in the Brain.” However, one of the lesser talked-about stories in the collection, “Lady’s Dream,” is one I return to again and again.
In seven pages Wolff tells the story of Lady, the embattled wife of Robert a self-absorbed, boringly serious man who has stolen not only her youth but her identity, both the sweet and sassy Southern girl she used to be and the woman she would have become. He’s stolen her life, and Wolff shows this to us in the most heartbreaking of ways, allowing Lady to fall into a dream so that we may see her both as she is and as she once was.
A dream! A cardinal sin that I dissuade my Intro to Creative Writing students from, but which Wolff employs in such a way that the story, Lady’s story, can literally make you weep. Only seven pages and it’s about everything: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, bad love and regret and last chances and stubbornness. Wanting what we know is not right for us. We have the sense that Lady, this willful, wild, beautiful girl could have any man she wanted and in the end she gives her life to Robert, one who is only using her to rebel against his father. Her life, everything she could have been, becomes a casualty of that war.
The story begins with the two of them driving, married already for years, Lady slipping into her dream. And yet, when in that dream she warns herself against choosing this man, we somehow feel there might still be hope.
No, she’s saying, no. She’s talking to him and to the girl whose life he seeks. She knows what will befall her if she lets him have it. Stay here on this porch with your mother and your sister…Gladden your father’s eye yet awhile. This man is not for you. He will patiently school you half to death. He will kindly take you…To be changed. To hear yourself, and not know who is speaking. Wait, young Lady. Bide your time.But she does go with him, and we know this, have known this since the beginning, and still we care, hope that she’ll resist. It’s a magic trick that Wolff pulls off. Simultaneously showing us Lady and the woman Lady has become, somehow showing us how her life could have been by showing us how it was. It’s a cautionary tale, one I took great comfort in anytime I felt I’d been close to heading down the path Lady had taken, of being with the wrong person and feeling myself changed. This is what great writing can do, what a great story can do: show us ourselves as we are and as we hope to be.