Stories Can Save Us

(This essay is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)

May 31, 2011

But this too is true: stories can save us. . . . The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.
— Tim O’Brien, b. 1946
American fiction writer
from “The Lives of the Dead,” in The Things They Carried

I have sometimes joked that my six-word autobiography will read “She never finished anything.” I have many ideas, start many projects, drafts, collections, and lose focus rather than interest.

Today I finished something, finished a project I had set for myself at the beginning of the month: read 31 short stories by 31 different authors during National Short Story Month. I read haphazardly, almost, pulling volumes out of piles and opening them at random. I read sometimes for a particular purpose: a story about the end of the world on a day someone had predicted that event would occur, a story about a house and its owner on the anniversary of the day I moved into my house, a story about decorating soldiers’ graves on Memorial Day. I read a story by a writer whose reading I was attending that night, and some by writers who have read my work and encouraged me. I read a few stories I read before, because I loved them so much, and stories previously unknown to me by writers whose other work has enchanted me. I read a few stories I didn’t like, and a few that surprised me by offering pleasure I hadn’t expected. I read some that made me say I can’t write like that, and one or two that made me say I can do better than that.

“Stories can save us,” Tim O’Brien says, in the final piece in his collection The Things They Carried. The title story appeared alone in Esquire in 1986, the collection in 1990, when it was hailed as “essential fiction about Vietnam,” a war so different from those that had come before that it needed a different kind of writing, writing that was, according to critic Asa Barber, at once “controlled and wild, deep and tough, perceptive and shrewd.” I read it first in 1995, and it pulled the top of my head off, changing what I knew about the experiences of the fighting men of my generation, and the way I thought about and was able to write about my own life.

“As a writer now, I want to save Linda’s life,” O’Brien’s narrator says of the childhood friend who died before they were ten years old. “Not her body — her life.” My fiction is not autobiographical, and yet I weave into it the things I have carried — a dead cat, a lost love, a jar of mayonnaise shattered on the supermarket floor. My nineteenth century farm wife, grieving the four children who died of a summer fever, carries my grief over the children I didn’t have. My twenty-first century librarian, kneading her psomi while she considers changing her life, carries the courage that gave me the child I did have, and the grace that let me take so much joy in her.

I read 31 stories in 31 days. I’m taking a break from reading fiction to concentrate on writing it again. I have some lives to save — an emotionally restless math teacher, an apprentice undertaker, a teen mother, and a woman who goes to funerals of people she doesn’t know.

Thank you for reading, so much, so often.

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