Why It Works: Note to Self by Tracy Guzeman

So far in these ‘Why It Works’ posts I’ve been looking at short stories, which is odd because lately I’ve found myself writing more flash fiction. Then I came across ‘Note to Self’ by Tracy Guzeman, published in the Vestal Review, and I admired it so much that I wanted to tease it apart and find out exactly what makes it work.

(Warning: the following analysis contains story spoilers. You have been warned. You should probably just go read the story yourself – it’s short! – before we proceed. Ready? Okay, let’s go.)

This piece follows a lot of the advice people usually give on writing flash. It doesn’t use too many characters, it is sparing with adjectives (though the ones it does use are razor sharp), and it starts practically at the end. But there is more to it than that.

‘Note to Self’ starts with a conversation. It begins, “I ask the doctor if it is possible to choose what I am going to forget.” I don’t know about you, but I began reading with absolutely no preconceptions about the story and I honestly thought it was embarking on a surreal journey, that we were entering a world where memory modification was not only possible but necessary and even routine. The next few lines don’t completely disabuse me of this notion, but I am unsettled enough and curious enough to keep reading.

The basic form for this story is a list. I love list-stories, don’t you? This one is a list of memories, some for keeping, some for letting go. And each memory on the list gives us a snapshot of a life, enough for us to fill in the blanks of what is left unsaid and build the character in our imaginations. We know enough about what makes her ashamed and what thrills and delights her, and what grounds and humbles her to build a more complete picture of her ordinary life. Her office job, her medium-sized house in a middle class neighbourhood, etc. Guzeman skips over that because no one really wants to read it and anyway it’s not vital to the story. And in flash a writer must pare away all but the most vital information.

Going through the list, I still didn’t fully understand the premise. That is, until memory number five, and it all clicks into place.

To Forget: The first time you couldn’t remember where you were: surrounded by cars, any of them could have been yours; the noise in the parking garage amplified and muffled at the same time. Like being dropped on a foreign planet, in a new skin, you cannot recognize yourself. How can you travel so far away from your life so fast?

There it is. Revelation. Understanding. But not the ending. Not the resolution of the conflict. That’s for the last memory. The one that resolves all the ones that came before. The conflict was internal and it was there all along. The character’s desire to love and be loved well. (If you don’t believe me, go back and read through the list again. Each memory was so carefully chosen.)

And then, the final line that explains it all. The one that, as David Gaffney says it should,  rings like a bell.

‘Note to Self’ is that rare thing, a near-perfect example of its form. I love reading flash fiction, but I find when it is done well, as this one is, it’s best taken in small doses. That bell needs time to reverberate before I can start reading something new.

And that is what makes it so satisfying.

So who reads lit mags anyway?

Well, obviously I do. But here’s a confession. Until I started writing and submitting short stories a few years ago, I didn’t. Not one. I barely knew of their existence. Granta and The Paris Review sat prominently displayed on the counter of my local independent bookstore and I might glance at their covers, even scan the list of contributors (most of whom I didn’t recognize)but it never would have occurred to me to purchase one of their issues. Not when they sold for roughly the same price as a trade paperback. I saved my money for novels, the odd short story collection, books with the imprint of a well-known publisher reassuringly stamped on the title page.

It’s been a sharp learning curve. Now I have a far greater appreciation for the role lit mags have played and continue to play as launching pads for new and unknown writers. Unknowns like John Updike and Raymond Carver. Or more recently Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem and Ha Jin.

Of course, with the internet there has been an explosion of lit mags of varying quality. Now anyone with a wordpress account and a dream can start one up (ahem!). And if you can’t get a story published in The Kenyon Review or The New Yorker, and you aren’t too particular, you can rack up those publication credits pretty quickly.

The lit mags I read fall into two camps. In the first, I’ll admit it, are the places I think might take something I’ve written. I call it research. Some are online and some are print. In the second, though, are the publications I read for solely pleasure, because every issue offers beautiful prose that shines with pure competence. I take subscriptions out on these, a couple a year, just what I can afford. At various times I have subscribed to One Story, Room and Tin House, among others. And yes, I do dream of the day these two camps will merge into one.

So aside from other writers looking for markets for their work, who’s reading them? Perhaps no one. I don’t know. When I mention a lit mag or journal I’ve read recently or one in which a story of mine has appeared to friends or family, I get a puzzled Good for you! There are the rumours that circulate on writer’s blogs and in the twitterverse: so-and-so’s story on x was noticed by a literary agent/small press/major publisher. Like winning the lottery, I’m sure it happens, but the chances of it happening to me or someone I know seem slim.

But perhaps lit mags’ main audience is simply other writers. And perhaps that is as it should be. Sure it would be great for the producers of lit mags to have increased subscription rates if they appealed to a more mainstream audience. Then they might in turn be able to pay their contributors more. But that is beside the point. Literary magazines offer the opportunity for writers at all stages of their craft to learn from each other.

That’s what I’m attempting to do in my Why It Works posts. Break down the stories published in online lit mags so I can learn from them.

So who reads lit mags? I do and, if you’re a writer, I hope you do, too.

Why it Works: Making Guava Jelly by Sharon Millar

I found Making Guava Jelly by Sharon Millar by accident but it’s the kind of story that feels like it was written just for me. Like it was waiting within the virtual pages of The Manchester Review for me to click on it.  Maybe I related because I’m a mother. Or maybe because cancer has had its brush with my family.  In any case, this is a beautiful and important story to read.

She reached under the island in the center of the kitchen and unclipped her secret drawer.  Until six months ago, it held precious things; little velvet boxes filled with the girls’ baby teeth and soft locks of newborn hair. The drawer whirred open and slid onto her lap. For the next hour Rachel sat looking at women’s breasts until she heard the girls stirring upstairs.

I don’t want to talk about technique with this short story.  There’s so much to learn from it, in terms of craft, and we’d all be better writers just for sitting down with it and pulling it apart.  But what I want to talk about is honesty.

This story of a woman with breast cancer, a woman who keeps clippings of breasts in a drawer to pin to her shirt over her mastectomy scars when she is alone, a woman who chooses not just young and perky breasts but breasts of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages, is not afraid to tell the truth.  To examine what these floppy appendages really look like, what they mean to us in terms of both love and motherhood.

She hadn’t thought it would be hard for a grown woman to find pictures of breasts. But it was. It was very hard because she didn’t want the kind of breasts that men wanted. Perky silicone breasts didn’t comfort her. Olive breasts with large areoles called forth memories like silver filaments, delicate and bright. She remembered her grandmother pulling on her bra in the thick afternoon light of the bedroom in St. Joseph village. Her old-lady breasts brown in the swirling yellow light of the room, veiny and shriveled in their tenacity, set like amber across the years.

And of course there’s the obvious link, the cruel irony that breasts that can sustain new life can also hold the seeds of one’s death.  Making Guava Jelly doesn’t shrink from this either.  Rachel, the protagonist, has two daughters and she has to deal with the fact that they are witnesses to everything she is going through, to the effects of her treatments and to her gradual desire to untangle herself from life.

It’s easy to tell someone to go deeper with their writing.  The process is far from easy and sometimes the results aren’t either.  But that is where the important stuff happens.  Write where it hurts.  Write where it feels real.