Story 2: “Up the Down Volcano”

I promised I’d look at creative nonfiction on here, and I’m taking my second story post to do just this. I downloaded “Up the Down Volcano” to my Kindle from the Amazon Singles store (you can download short stories or essays from here for just a buck or two–this one was two dollars). This is an essay by Sloane Crosley, who wrote the excellent book of essays I Was Told There’d be Cake.

In the story, Crosley was sent to Ecuador to travel around and write an essay about it, and she decided that she would climb  Cotopaxi, a mountain near Quito. Crosley decides to go to Ecuador without any research or learning the language, as this will make her article hilarious… Well, she also goes to Ecuador without learning about altitude sickness, which greatly affects her.

This could be just a story about suffering and feeling ill-at-ease in foreign surroundings (forgive the pun); instead, Crosley infuses the story with her dynamic wit. E.g.–“The big selling points for adult ski trips, or the ones most regularly paraded out for my unskilled benefit, are hot tubs and mugs of warm liquid. Even for someone as lazy as myself, I am turned off by this gluttony of comfort,” or a line that I find particularly true, “At this point, the abandonment/confinement genre of film is so established in our culture that people who do leave the house without an EpiPen basically deserve what’s coming to them.” This enables her to make the thematic elements of the story a bit more carefully crafted–when and why do we give up on certain tasks or goals, and what does that make us think about ourselves? How do we place ourselves within an overall relationship to nature, and how do we let that guide us (or not)?

What’s striking to me about her style is its simplicity. When she wants to deliver information about Ecuador or the mountain, instead of offering encyclopedic information, she just drops it when it is necessary. We aren’t treated to paragraphs of information, but personal moments that, occasionally, tell us how tall the mountain is or the different symptoms of altitude poisoning. I think that any writer could take this minimalist “info-dump” style from Crosley and use it in his or her own work. Also, Crosley doesn’t embellish her story with a lot of figurative language or allusions–she only drops a few, such as Facebook and the recent film 127 Hours, to let the audience know when the story is situated, and she moves on from there.

After taking a course in story performance/live literature (you know, performances for live story series like “The Moth” or, specifically for the class I took, Chicago’s “2nd Story”), I wonder how Crosley would shorten this story for a performance. We get a fully rendered story in this iteration, but it seems to me that she could make a 5-, 10-, or 20-minute oral version of this story, focusing on specific elements, that might be just as engaging (or even more so) than this printed version. With personal essays, I always wonder why an author includes certain elements, why everything the author uses was important to the story, and how the author determined that.

Overall, I’d give the effectiveness of this essay an 8.5 out of 10. I feel that there are some elements that could have been dropped to make the essay more succinct, but I really enjoyed it.

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Story 1: “Cred” by Adam Levin

The first story I decided to write about is Adam Levin’s “Cred,” found in McSweeney’s 38. For those of you unfamiliar with Levin’s work, he wrote the best book I read all last year–The Instructions, a 1000+ page tome. It was also published by McSweeney’s, and if you can devote the time to it, it’s worth the read. It’s amazing. A-mahz-ing, even. As my favorite book I read in 2011, I knew I wanted to read more from this author, and when I saw this story in my magazine, I wanted to save reading it for this! It didn’t disappoint, and I find it fitting that, instead of being a 1,000 page book, it’s story less than 1,000 words.

Anyway, Levin’s short story is microfiction (I think… I’m not counting the words, but I think it fits under that moniker). It’s about a young man trying to decide if he should stay with his girlfriend or not because of the way her jeans make her lower body area look, and what people will think of him based on if he stays with her or not; he’s worried about if he can keep his “cred” if he stays with her. It’s one paragraph, stream of conscious style, and remains entirely in the character’s head.

For me, the story works well as a flash story. It is the inner thoughts of a character, his internal conflict, that gives the story movement, and we get a distinct voice in this young man. We understand what makes him tick–what others think of him–and how he lets that affect every decision he makes. He’s analytical and looks at various aspects and ways things may unfold.

As a writer, this story can be used to study how to create psychological interiority within a character and how to create a character voice. What makes characters tick, how do they assess their personal relationships, what about these relationships bother us, and how can that be added to a larger story? These are all questions that this story unveils, and they are questions that writers should ask themselves about their characters.

Levin doesn’t disappoint with this. Any issue of McSweeney’s is worth owning, IMHO, and it’s always good to support literary magazines. I recommend grabbing a copy of this issue.

Happy reading, y’all!

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New Year, New Blog: What this is all about

Admittedly, I’m a bit late with this post. I guess right off the bat, I’m not living up to my New Year’s resolution. However, how many people actually do what they say they will do in their resolution on January 1st? And, I actually spent an hour and a half at the gym yesterday, so I think that should cancel out this lapse.

Anyway.

What’s going on here? Well, I thought that I would create a blog where I read 365 short stories (or short pieces of creative non-fiction) this year and comment on them. They can be anything. Flash fiction, microfiction, short shorts, novella length shorts, or something in the middle.

Why?

Well, stories exist for different reasons. To inform. To instruct. To entertain. To provide escape. To provide relief. To provide catharsis. For writers, stories exist for all these reasons and for something more–they exist because, for us, they have to exist. We need these stories, these connections to ideas and different places and times, imaginary realms and allegorical situations. For us, they tell us about the human condition, offer an inroad to the psyche, give us a glimpse into the ego and the id. They are a science, an art, and–if done just right–thought-provoking. They can even be life-changing.

I will attempt to select random stories–and really, they can come from anywhere (suggestions welcome)–and comment on them as pieces of art as well as places for inspiration. Writers, while they must hone their craft and write constantly, have to do something equally important: they have to read. While I will still be reading for classes I’m taking and novels for fun, this will be my area for 365 short stories to be read by December 31st, 2012.

Happy New Year, and happy reading.

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