Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible that all of the weeks have the same number of days. Last week for example had five, but one was for Harvest Festival and one was for teacher training & so tacked itself onto next week’s half term holiday. Another was for being lost in a maze with a two-year-old & someone else’s three-year-old. Or at least that’s how it started before the three-year-old ran away from me. Then I was lost in a maze following elusive glimpses of a small child who, it seemed, was going to take me round in the same crazy-inducing circle, time after time. I offer it as a metaphor for parenthood for someone to use in a short story.
I’ve been reading lots of short stories recently. I’m loosely following along with the Iowa How Writers Write Fiction MOOC again. Loosely meaning I’m a week behind; meaning I’m listening but not actively participating. Anyway, I’m enjoying it for the reading recommendations alone.
Last night I reread ZZ Packer’s ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ from her collection of the same name. I remembered it well considering I last read it over ten years ago, which I think is a very good sign in a short story. And opening my copy of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was like entering my own little time machine. I went to hear ZZ Packer read with Anne Donovan at the Royal Festival Hall & my ticket — 19.30 on Tuesday 6 April 2004, £6 — is neatly tucked inside the book which she inscribed to me. There’s also a yellowing page of The Guardian with Julie Myerson’s review in which, I notice now, she gives the narrator of ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ the wrong name.
I can remember seeing ZZ before the reading. This was probably the very end of those years in which I spent my afternoons writing in the Festival Hall. I smiled and she smiled back. I was too nervous to speak to her until I took my book up for her to sign after the reading. She looked really nervous too, wandering around the Festival Hall, but the smile was a perfect exchange.
(The very best note I have from eavesdropping in the Festival Hall — which is what I spent much of my time there doing — is a snippet of a conversation about ecclesiastical embroidery. Well, one woman said to another, with the air of someone making a piercing observation, it’s a very specialised field, ecclesiastical embroidery. I offer that as a gift too, should anyone want to use it.)
Other short story recommendations:
William Maxwell’s ‘The Thistles in Sweden’ in his collected stories All the Days and Nights or available in you have a New Yorker subscription. Strange and lovely & imbued, as everything I’ve read by him is, with such a sense of kindness. It’s a story based so heavily on description that it shouldn’t work and yet it does.
Laura van den Berg’s ‘Where We Must Be’, which I have the impression that everyone but me must have read. A story that it would be impossible to forget (though a title that I just can’t seem to remember).
Anything by Grace Paley because I listened to this interview with Ursula K. Le Guin during today’s run & she’s worried that Paley will slip from view — and that simply can’t be allowed to happen. Read her. Pass her books to strangers in the park.
Bonus tip: I might have mentioned Tol Morris’s list of 53 ways to improve your short stories before but I found it useful and funny and wise, and it sent me, at last, to read all the Flannery O’Connor stories I thought that I’d read but that I’d possibly just imagined I’d read.