Wendy Rawlings is a gifted short story writer—her pieces have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, and her first collection, Come Back Irish, won the Michigan Literary Fiction Award. Her latest collection, Time for Bed, shows off the skills she’s honed through years of practice. Here, Rawlings shares just what went into crafting these bedtime stories.
I remember being told in a writing class that novels took place out in the world, short stories in rooms. You didn’t even have to leave the drawing room for a story to occur, one textbook claimed. I guess this distinction between the world and the room was supposed to make me feel better, but I had some questions. Couldn’t a story take place out in the world? Did a story really have to be that small? And what in god’s name was a drawing room?
I love the short story as a genre more than any other because the challenge of writing one can be the challenge of trying to put as much of life as the writer possibly can into a very small container. I think of my fourth grade teacher instructing us to fill and bury a time capsule on Flag Day in 1976. What could we possibly put inside that would in any way at all convey to future humans what being alive at this moment felt like, even a little bit?
Writing Time for Bed is my attempt to make a time capsule out of words, so that some future selves (my own included) might understand a little bit of what it was like to live in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Into the tiny container of a short story I attempt to render the surreal experience of watching the the 9/11 terrorist attacks unfold, the weirdness of having one’s mother to come out as a lesbian at age fifty, the horror of living in a world where gun violence is nearly as common as the common cold. In doing so, I hope to counter the argument that only novels stride down Fifth Avenue.
On that note, here are five collections that inspired me to write more short stories.
Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter. I can’t really say much about Salter’s themes or plots because it’s his sentences that send me into ecstasies: “His index finger is the color of tea, his smile filled with bad teeth.” Not his mouth, but his smile. I think about Salter’s sentences and images every day, and I thought about them every moment I was writing the stories in Time for Bed. Stories are just sentences stitched together harmoniously, and my story, “Restraint,” is dedicated to Salter’s memory. Everyone who wants to learn how to write well should read him.
Open Secrets by Alice Munro. If James Salter can teach how to write sentences, Munro is the master of setting up and executing psychological plots as complex and layered as life itself. So many of the stories in this collection trace the trajectories of people trying to recapture love that has eluded them. In one story, a woman elaborately disguises herself and moves from Canada to Australia to spy on her estranged husband and try to win him back. The premise sounds broad, but Munro renders tiny details so convincingly that she wins me over completely. I love the way Munro can move with such fluidity from omniscience to deep inside a character’s consciousness and back again. I wrote my story, “The Shift,” as an homage to her storytelling.
A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien. These stories from the 70’s and 80’s connected me in some deep way with the true terror of being a certain kind of human in a certain kind of body at a particular time in history. In O’Brien’s case, the stories explore the limitations and taboos and even illicit thrills of being a Catholic girl and woman in Ireland in the 20th century. Two stories from the collection, “Sister Imelda” and “Paradise,” have stayed with me for many years because of their startling imagery, woven into the DNA of each story from beginning to end. To read O’Brien is to see the way every image in a story can be connected in a deep way to every other image.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. I first read Moore’s work when I was a graduate student and honestly didn’t know a short story was allowed to be funny until I laughed out loud while reading her story, “How to Be An Other Woman” in Self Help. But her real tour de force, in my opinion, is Birds of America, which contains a story called “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” which traces the experience of a Mother (as she’s referred to) struggling to come to terms with her Baby being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The story manages simultaneously to be funny and horrifying, and at the same time to critique the clinical language the medical community uses to try to distance itself —for better and worse—from the trauma of illness. I wrote my story, “Coffins for Kids!” with Lorrie Moore’s ability to see the absurd in even the worst circumstances in mind.
The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley. Was there ever a writer so attuned to the joys of compression and the distinctive inflections of voice? Every single story in this collection offers pleasures for the ear; the dialogue crackles and leaps right off the page. If a story can keep a diamond’s worth of sparkle in every sentence, Paley’s slim volume contains a treasure hoard. I can remember reading her paragraphs out loud just to listen for how she gets from one sentence to the next. Paley has been unfairly pigeonholed as a Jewish writer or a woman writer, but to me she’s just a great writer. The density and compression of her prose can present challenges, but a reader’s extra effort yields rich rewards. I don’t know that I’ll ever write anything as witty as Paley did, but I’ll probably die trying.
Wendy Rawlings is the author of Come Back Irish and The Agnostics. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Kenyon Review, the Cincinnati Review, Tin House, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama.