The Short Story Process by Jack Mauro
I am lately inclined to think that short story writers are either very clever or really, really fortunate. Because, if the stories in any way translate human experience, the collection creates itself. It's wonderfully pragmatic. You know you have one, not when a theme or motif is nicely traced and explored through ten or twelve stories, but when the tenth or twelfth story is done. The novelist can't enjoy this luxury because the novel, complex or basic in structure, pretty much has a core to maintain and a single reality to present. We writers all walk just a little behind the process, and beg the creative impulses to slow down and let us catch up. The writer of the novel, then, runs a long and exhausting race indeed. There is always the Big Picture to consider, as each chapter and character must in some way serve it. The story collection, on the other hand, gets to exploit an excellent thing about life, in that truths resonate with one another and offer their own connections. With stories – God bless them – the writer is allowed to only peer through a window blind, rather than throw the whole thing open. Metaphorically speaking.
The downside, of course, is that each story is utterly unconcerned with the rest of the collection, and good had better be good, no matter the form. If the writing exists, again, to explore human experience – and all good writing must – economy is as essential as soul to the short story. Given the messiness of human existence, and the immense importance to it of seemingly random occurrences, the short story writer is then no one to envy. The perhaps extraneous scene in the novel is all right; in the story, it can be fatal. Or the extraneous scene alone is, to the story writer, a universe in itself to be mined for riches. Oh, no, nothing is easy in this odd sphere, for anyone. And I would like to briefly splash around in this process, based on my own, new collection.
Did I intent to write a collection at all? Oh, yes. Why? Because there is so, so much to write about. There was no plan, except a foundation of setting of my beloved Knoxville, Tennessee. Then there came the sort of thrilling awareness of possibilities, or rather the urge to open my eyes wider and recognize the stories around me, or known from my past. Then there came Caroline, who would become the central figure in “Beautiful Man.” I saw her, a little lost, standing in Market Square, and I knew something was about to occur to her. She was stubborn, Caroline. Her course was not revealed to me, in fact, until long after most of the other stories were motoring along. But I have written long enough to know that failing to attend to a persistent character is dangerous, and the story is maybe my personal favorite.
I try to remember who or what followed, and things gets hazy. “Emilia” came out of the blue and in the middle of the night, only as an image I try to recreate in the story's closing paragraph. “Christmas for Mo” was also an early effort in the collection, and fueled by my absolute faith that, once I threw this family into the back of a horse-drawn carriage, they would each almost violently assert themselves (in lighthearted ways). So, too, with “Kerry Barry.” Here, I saw the boy and knew nothing about him. Until – and drawing on a less than admirable personal experience – I threw him into jail for a night. Here also was I compelled to challenge story structure. It seemed to me that confinement needed to define the story and his experience, yet people and a scenario outside of the jail became urgent, and had their way. Economy. It's not easy, my friends.
I can imagine that other story writers work on several at the same time. I cannot. More exactly, I dare not, because writing is as much a matter of taking in information as it is of translating it, and I shudder to think of what I will miss if I weaken my attention on anyone moving through my pages. I am occasionally lucky in that, as with “Emilia,” visual prompts stirred up in my brain help. Occasionally. The occurrence is not mystical, nor does it equate to a great story, by any means. But I trust it when it happens, as little as it gives me. As when, long ago, I was walking down Knoxville's Gay Street and saw in my mind a woman and a little girl on a corner. The woman – the mother? - was pointing at a building, and I knew she was lying to the child. That was all I knew or felt. It led me to “Faith,” my best story in Gay Street, my first collection.
Beyond anything else, however, it is character that must justify the work for me. More to the point, I can go nowhere if Caroline or Andy or Kerry is not breathing. In creating a story collection, this is the true criterion, simply because no story I write can have quality if this is not the case. I have in my time dreamed up exciting and interesting characters. When they fail to gain dimension in my eyes – and they often do – they lie flat on some shelf in the closet. This is why, in Beautiful Man, I chose to rewrite and add two stories that were actually chapters from an aborted novel. “Jack” would not go away because of Ruby, not Jack, and the odious Colin of “Cousin Mary,”, meant to be a bit player in the novel, was too vivid for me to discard. We wander in the dark a great deal, as writers; all the more then, I rely on those faces and voices in the shadows. They are not real, of course. But they represent human reality in a way I can hold in my hands, question, poke, and record.
Almost done. I want to dive a little deeper into that character aspect, though. A friend said that, in all my stories, it seems that the characters are not what they appear to be. This gave me pause, and made me feel a bit devious, somehow. Is it true? Well, maybe. Kerry certainly is not quite the charming, roguish boy people take him to be. Mo Lackland is by no means entirely the unyielding family matriarch even her family thinks her, and Ashley Willis, we discover, has more than a layer or two to her being. Stephen Kingsolver, my “beautiful man,” may be the most striking evidence of this claim. But I honestly now do not see a writer's agenda here, as it were, but a focus, and one I rather like. More to the point: in my life, I have seen that the true natures of people often go unseen, or are revealed only when circumstances allow. They do not change; they are simply exposed in another light. This is what stories permit, in their glorious limitations of space. This is what I urges me on, all the time, to capture as best as I can.
Book Blurb for Beautiful Man
Twelve short stories, all set in modern-day Knoxville, Tennessee, and each exploring the rhythms and currents of relationships, encounters, and the conflicts within characters themselves. From the reality beneath the surface of a hotel manager's charm, to the sadly funny and complex clashes between a family on a holiday carriage ride, Beautiful Man and Other Stories probes the fascination of lives as shaped by Southern, and all too human, forces.
Jack has been writing professionally for fifteen years, with work ranging from a guide to Internet dating (from Simon & Schuster) to liner notes for Oscar and Grammy winner Carly Simon. His first love, however, remains fiction, and of a very Southern kind. Beautiful Man and Other Stories marks Jack's return to the form after ten years.