Small LogoJanuary 3, 2008

Ron says I don’t clean, I just restack. In a sense, he’s right. I do clean. That is, you don’t have to be afraid to use the bathrooms here or eat off the dishes (although I wouldn’t recommend the floor) and if you stay over you’ll have clean sheets and clean towels. But if you use Lynn’s bed or the trundle underneath or the sofa bed in my study or even lay your sleeping bag down in the living room, you will have to maneuver your way around some of my stacks, mostly of books.

I made a new stack today by choosing items from some existing stacks. I wanted to pick some material to get me started on the reading programs I mentioned yesterday. It’s a short stack, just five books currently. I find that it is counterproductive to plan out my reading (or almost anything else) too far in advance because my mind works in holistic or evolutionary patterns rather than in linear fashion.

That holistic bent means that for Kate Sunderland’s short story challenge I’m choosing Option #5, the custom option. I plan to read five to ten short story collections in 2008. For starters:

  • The Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King, editor
  • The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, Laura Furman, editor
  • Animal Crackers, a story collection by Hannah Tinti, who was the teaching fellow in my Bread Loaf workshop in 2004.

I buy the two anthologies every year. As a reader I love a good story, but as a writer, process is as fascinating to me as product. What I especially like about the anthologies is the authors’ comments in the back about their stories. They’ll talk about the image or the thought or the random event that triggered the tale, the way a minor character from a novel in progress wouldn’t stop talking until she’d been given her own story, or the way they put an early draft of what they thought was a failed story away until one day it just seemed right to get it out again. I learn as much from that as I get enjoyment from reading the story.

I picked those two out of the stack in my study of the books I’ve bought since I returned from Bread Loaf. I’ve been diligent about bringing a new purchase straight up to my study and entering the data in my Library Thing catalog. The Hannah Tinti book I plucked from a stack in my bedroom. I acquired it at Bread Loaf in 2004, asked Hannah to sign it, handled it from time to time because doing so helped me remember how much I liked Hannah and how much of a help she’d been to me, but I’d never actually read it. What better time than now.

For my NaJuReMoNoMo project I’ve chosen two novels, both by Elizabeth Berg. I read Durable Goods more than a dozen years ago, but not the sequel, Joy School. The central character in both books is Katie, 12 years old in the first book and 13 in the second. The story that shook itself loose from my novel material during my time in Wyoming (remember Wyoming?) has as its central character a girl the same age. My great concern is that because of the character’s age the piece will seem more like young adult material than mainstream fiction, and I want to see how Berg accomplishes what I am setting out to do.

So far this post has been mostly meta, about what I’m going to do rather than an observation on something that I’ve actually done. I did read the first Hannah Tinti story. “Animal Crackers,” which lends its title to the whole collection, delivers on the assertion of the jacket copy that the stories are “dazzling” and proceed from the pen of a writer who has “fierce narrative control.” Told in the first person by a man who works in a zoo caring for the elephants, it is a series of descriptions of the other people he works with. There is no plot to speak of, and the narrator doesn’t tell us much about how he came to this juncture in his life, yet at the end I felt that I had read a story and not a series of anecdotes, and that I knew that the narrator was in the place he needed to be.

That’s fancy writing, I say.

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