This week I spoke with John McCaffrey, whose short stories have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including "Flash Fiction Forward" (Norton).
What makes for a great short story in your opinion?
JM: I have this idea about pizza that even when it’s bad its good – meaning I’d rather eat a so-so slice than a salacious salad. This is not a culinary predilection I’m proud of, and I’m certain one day my veins will rebel and close up shop for good as a result of too much mozzarella, but the fact is that the pleasure centers of my brain ignite (perhaps too easily) whenever bread, cheese and sauce pass between my lips. Which is sort of the same satisfaction I get when I tuck into a short story that contains the key ingredients for the genre, which I believe to be well-rounded characters, a moving plot line, and a consistent (even if not always evident) theme. Of course, just like the pie of your dreams, some stories stand out as exceptional. When I read these gems my first thought is how perfect they are – that each word in the piece belongs in the piece, and each word left out doesn’t. To me, the arrangement of words and sentences in these stories are as pretty and true as a Matisse line. I have some backing on this thought: Orwell, in his essay “Why I Write,” offered that the search for aesthetic beauty is a primal motivation for people to pick up the pen (or open the laptop) and write. I agree, and when it is achieved, I know I’m in the land of fictional genius. I’m also susceptible to liking stories that move fast but are not in a rush. Somerset Maugham hit this zen-like balance just right. His stories, particularly those like the immortal “Rain” that are set in the South Pacific, bounce from character to character, plot line to plot line, often at daring paces, yet the prose is delivered in such a confident and casual manner that when I read his work I feel as if I’m listening to an old chum spin a dandy of a yarn, while I sip gin and gingers and fan myself with a palm frond. Oh, also, great stories always seem like they really happened, even if they did.
JD: You teach story writing. How do you bring
out the storyteller in those who are not necessarily "naturals."
JM: Shouting, veiled threats, or, in extreme cases, bribing with candy. Actually, in my course, I always devote the first class to a group discussion on why they want to write, what they think the rewards will be, and how they will achieve their goals. Once they are sure this is something they want to undertake, we work to set up for each student a weekly (and realistic) writing calendar and pick word count targets for their stories. The idea is to remove as many variables as possible before they start writing – to control what is controllable. I think this works particularly well for beginning writers, who I often find get overwhelmed by focusing on the big picture (i.e. “I want this story to expose the trauma of poverty”), rather than chiseling away word by word, gaining small victories until the entire story topples over with completion. For those who may not be “natural” storytellers, my message is to use that to their advantage; that is, don’t work on being what you’re not, just find the most comfortable vantage point, the most honest voice, to tell a tale. To this end, I have never met one person in my class, really, in my entire life, who can’t recount some interesting thing (or uninteresting thing) that has happened to them. I remind my students of that when they are lacking in confidence – write the story just like you would tell it to a friend over coffee. That sometimes helps them break through; it demystifies the process.
JD: What's your writing process like?
JM: I write twice a day. In the morning, before work, I write fast for between 15 minutes to a half-hour on whatever project I am exploring at the moment. I write without pause, without worry about grammar, even without worry that what I’m writing makes any sense. My goal is merely to get words down on the page. Then, before bed, I try put in at least an hour of writing, cleaning up first what I accomplished that morning, and then moving forward with care and precision. A few summers back, I made a goal of writing 250 words a day, and would religiously stop whenever I reached the mark. This helped me stay fresh, and often I couldn’t wait to get back to it the next day. I paired this daily writing goal with finishing stories in the 2,000 word range. Using this formula, I was able to complete several stories that summer I was very happy with.
JD: How is writing a
novel different from writing a short story?
JM: I also work in the mental health field, and I often think that writing a novel is like being in long-term therapy, where you lay on the couch twice a week and sob about the time your mother made you wear a bib to school (not that that happened to me). Short story writing, on the other hand, is like being in crisis counseling – you just need a few sessions to get through a tough period. I’ll spin another analogy - I feel you must approach the writing of a novel with the determination of a marathon runner, prepare for it with diligence, and then once the gun sounds fight to the finish line. A short story is more a sprint, and a good sprinter runs on nerve just as much as legs. I also think that unlike a short story you can meander in a novel, take more sidetracks, since the reader has made a commitment to a longer work, and thus will conceivable go with you in your fictional travels – as long as you invite them nicely.
JD: What's the appeal of flash fiction for you?
JM: I like that flash fiction forces you to be economical in your writing; each word must have a purpose, and if it doesn’t it shouldn’t be included in the piece. It’s close to poetry in that regard, but it still must contain the elements of a traditional short story to succeed. The trick is to put in just enough details that the reader does not feel short changed about what was left out. For me, writing flash fiction speaks to my dreamy, drifter mentality. I can walk by a tree, think it fetching, and ten minutes later sit down and write out 500 words on the feeling and I have a story.
For more on John see his site, www.jamcaffrey.com. For more on the craft of writing, check out my book,
Bang the Keys . Until next week, I leave you with this question: what's your opinion about flash fiction, as a reader and a writer?