Sunday, May 13, 2012

Short Story Month: "A Short Story Writer's Primer" by Kathy Fish

The Quivering Pen has taken the brevity spirit of 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 Kathy Fish; her most recent collection of short stories, Together We Can Bury It, is available from The Lit Pub.  Pia Z. Ehrhardt had this to say about the book: “There’s a movie’s worth of character and plot and insight in every blooming one of these short fictions.  I finished this book feeling stuffed, dazed, and amazed by how much Kathy Fish gets done in such tight spaces.  It’s a thrill to be privy to what she thinks about, the wonder she carries inside.”  Kathy Fish’s stories have been published in Guernica, Indiana Review, The Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere.  She guest edited Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010 and has published two other collections of short fiction: a chapbook in A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women and Wild Life.

My Tattered Copy of Best American Short Stories 1998: a Short Story Writer's Primer

The first (contemporary) short story I ever read was “Appetites” by Kathryn Chetkovich.  It was the first story in the 1998 volume of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Garrison Keillor.  That story knocked me out.  I think I read the whole volume in one sitting.  I was 38 years old and falling in love, for the first time, with literary short fiction.

Up until then I believe I thought that short stories had been discontinued after 1890.  Like most people I knew, I read novels exclusively.  I read whatever was on the bestseller list.  I read The Thorn Birds on the train in to work.  I read the latest Stephen King.  In 1998 I was living with my husband in Australia.  I’d recently given birth to our fourth child.  My days and nights were given over to childrearing.  Slack-jawed from sleep deprivation and lack of adult contact besides the checker at the grocery store, I needed an outlet.  So I signed up for a creative writing class (something dopey like: Explore Your Creativity Through Writing!) held every Saturday morning above a health food store in Bondi.

That class turned out to be the most fun I’d had for a long time.  It completely woke me up.  I was the suburban housewife amidst the sweetest group of young hippies and surfer dudes there ever was.  We were given prompts and wrote exercises, but the instructor wanted us to keep in mind that by the last class we were to have completed a Short Story.  All I could remember of short stories were the obligatory stories we read in English 101.  Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain and so forth.  Homework.  Was I supposed to write something like that?

After one of the classes I went into a nearby bookstore and discovered The Best American Short Stories 1998.  Perfect.  Short stories.  American ones.  The best.

I still have it.  I’ve reread it countless times.  Its front cover has fallen off and there’s writing in the margins and sentences I’d run over with pink highlighter and exclamation marks all over the place.  On some of the pages there are scribbles courtesy of an impatient toddler made to sit on my lap while I read.  On the first page of Poe Ballantine’s story I’d written “HOLY SHIT” (the extent of my critical reading skills at the time) and that was pretty much how I felt about all the stories.  Looking at the book now, I feel the same rush of joy I felt when I read it in 1998.

I saw what a short story could be and what it could do.  I wanted to write stories this good.  I wanted to learn everything and to read every short story I could get my hands on.  This book was my primer.  Each story held a lesson or a revelation.

I’ll just mention a few here:

“Appetites” by Kathryn Chetkovich:  It’s okay to be funny.  The tender parts are all the more moving if there are funny parts, too.

“The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue” by Poe Ballantine:  The glory of specific details.  The holy truth that is childhood.  And my own childhood was worth writing about.

“Glory Goes and Gets Some” by Emily Carter:  Voice, voice, voice!  The truth is that there is humor in tragedy.

“Body Language” by Diane Schoemperlen:  There’s more than one way to tell a story.  You can be innovative and original.

“Flower Children” by Maxine Swann:  This is one of my all-time favorite short stories.  It’s so full of amazing details.  How language can sing.  It shows the way a story can subtly arc and shift right out from under you.  And whoosh, there’s that beautiful and breathless final paragraph.

The authors’ notes at the end of the book were also a revelation for me.  Most of the stories had gone through several drafts, some took years to write.  This didn’t deter me.  It thrilled me.  I felt a kinship to these writers who were all new to me then.  Short story writing was something worth dedicating one’s life to.  The world was complicated, baffling, and lonely.  But here was short fiction, offering me a way in.  And when you’re 38 years old and you’re just discovering this for the first time, it feels like nothing short of a miracle.


  1. I'm a lighthearted stone throw away from 38 but I thank you for all these recommendations and the personal story in between—hadn't heard of any of the writers and am looking forward to checking them out. Cheers from Berlin!

  2. Great stuff!
    I remember that issue, too!

  3. Loved this, Kathy, and I still have that edition, too!

  4. Great post, Kathy. "Flower Children" is one of my all-time favorite stories too.

  5. This is wonderful, Kathy. Makes me want to go riffle through and find that edition.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for reading. I really appreciate it. And David, thanks for having me here!

  7. I've always wanted to know more about Kathy. This is a fantastic post. I'm going to check my shelves to see if I have a copy of this collection!

  8. Love this! Thanks, Kathy and Pia. :)

  9. Kathy,

    I truly connect with this and with you. Details different but the substance is the same. Love this post, love you!

  10. Love! I had a similar experience, though I started later than 38. The whole world of short fiction opened up for me in Tod Goldberg's class, UCLA Extension in 2000. Literally (and literary) a new world.

  11. Alicia, Andrew, I was worried about this essay because I wasn't sure I wanted to reveal how late I am to all of this. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one and that such great writers as yourselves started "late" too. Thanks for reading and commenting! Thanks, everyone!