- "A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked"On Forms and Influences
essay, prose writing, influences, experimental, avant garde, flash fiction
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[End Page 134]
The traditional literary forms—the novel, the short story, the poem—although they evolve, do not disappear. But there is a wealth of less traditional forms that writers have adopted over the centuries, forms that are harder to define and less often encountered, either variations on the more familiar, such as the short-short story, or inter-generic—sitting on a line between poetry and prose, or fable and realistic narrative, or essay and fiction, and so on.
I think of myself as a writer of fiction, but my first books were slim small-press books often shelved in the poetry section, and I am still sometimes called a poet and included in poetry anthologies. It is understandable that there may be some confusion. For instance, my collection of stories titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant contains fifty-six pieces, including what could roughly be described as meditations, parables, or fables; an oral history with hiccups; an interrogation about jury duty; a more conventional, though brief, story about a family trip; a diary about thyroid disease; excerpts from a bad translation of a poorly written biography of Marie Curie; a fairly straightforward narrative about my father and his furnace (though ending in an accidental poem); and, scattered throughout the book, brief prose pieces of just one or two lines as well as one or two pieces with broken lines. [End Page 135]
When I began writing "seriously" and steadily in college, I thought my only choice was the traditional narrative short story. Both my parents had been writers of short stories, and my mother still was. Both of them had had stories published in the New Yorker, which loomed large in our life, as some sort of icon, though an icon of exactly what I'm not sure—good writing and editing, urban wit and sophistication? By age twelve, I already felt I was bound to be a writer, and if you were going to be a writer, the choices were limited: first, either poet or prose writer; then, if prose writer, either novelist or short-story writer. I never thought of being a novelist. I wrote poems, early on, but to be a poet was somehow not an option. So if, eventually, some of my work comes right up to the line (if there is one) that separates a piece of prose from a poem, and even crosses it, the approach to that line is through the realm of short fiction.
In college, when I told one intelligent friend of mine, with confidence and exuberance, that my ambition was to write short stories, and specifically, to write a short story that would be accepted by the New Yorker, he was startled by my certainty. He was also somewhat scornful, and suggested that maybe this should not be the full extent of my ambition. I was so surprised by his reaction that the Manhattan street corner where we were talking is engraved on my memory: Broadway at 114th Street. My fixed ideas had been shaken.
Although I now did not have quite the same confidence in the New Yorker, I did not immediately see an obvious alternative to writing short stories, so I continued to work in that form and develop in that direction for the next several years, though the subject matter of the stories gradually moved away from the most conventional. I found the writing difficult; it was pleasurable or exciting only at moments. I worked on one short story for months and months; I spent about two years on another one. I followed the oft-repeated advice, which was to combine invented material with material from my own experience.
My reading might have shown me other possibilities. In addition to a healthy diet of the classic short-story writers, such as Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, John Cheever, Hemingway, Updike, and Flannery O'Connor, I was already reading writers who were more unusual formally and imaginatively, such as Beckett, Kafka, Borges...