I had published a memoir, written and abandoned another, and penned more personal essays than I could remember. But I was tired of writing only from my lived experience and wanted to try my hand at short fiction. Writing is writing, I thought and yet, when it came to structure, voice, and content, I found the transition from nonfiction to short fiction more challenging than I’d expected.
What makes a story work? What holds it back? I realized I didn’t really know. To help answer these questions, I turned to my friends: Kimberly King Parsons (Black Light), Dantiel W. Moniz (Milk Blood Heat), Mary South (You Will Never Be Forgotten), Xuan Juliana Wang (Home Remedies), and Ashley Wurzbacher (Happy Like This). They are short fiction masters whose debut collections have, individually and as a group, broadened and inspired the genre.
What follows are my questions, and their brilliant answers.
What was the first story you ever wrote? What sticks out to you about the experience?
Mary South: I wrote my first stories in an undergraduate creative writing class. Instead of writing a story any way we wanted, we were assigned “imitations.” That is, we were to pick a writer from a list provided by the professor and craft a story in that writer’s style. I chose Flannery O’Connor and, later on in the semester, Joyce. Although the fiction I wrote for a long time wasn’t very good, I think this exercise was important for my development. It not only gave me the confidence that I am able to successfully modulate a voice different than my own, but I also found out what fun it is.
Ashley Wurzbacher: Like Mary, I wrote my first “stories” in an undergraduate creative writing workshop. I put “stories” in quotation marks because I think my true answer to this question depends on how you define story. My process of learning what a story is, could be, and can do has been a long and ongoing one. I remember being asked “What is a story?” by my MFA thesis advisor, Gregory Spatz, and I struggled to answer. I had plenty of Flannery O’Connor quotations and other craft wisdom to draw on for my answer, but I felt that those (I’m thinking specifically of “complete dramatic action”) only went so far in expressing the almost endless possibilities of short fiction.
Xuan Juliana Wang: I’m pretty sure I wrote my first “story” in middle school. It was supposed to be a personal essay about homecoming, but I wrote mostly about walking behind one of my uncles as he carried my enormous suitcase on his shoulder through the train station. Looking back, I can define this as my first “story” because the circumstances surrounding this image weren’t necessarily true. I experienced a meaningful moment I wanted to write about, there were details I knew were important, and the rest I made up just to get the reader there to see the suitcase.
Kimberly King Parsons: I wrote songs and poems from middle school on, but I didn’t write my first story until I was a senior in my undergraduate program. It was probably really a prose poem, though I called it flash. I’d read so much fiction before attempting to write my own that there was a huge gap between my taste (impeccable!) and my ability (none!).
Dantiel W. Moniz: Like everyone else is saying, my definitions for “story” were murky as a beginning writer, but I’ve been making up narratives for most of my life. It’s how I articulate what I think and feel.
How did you learn structure? Was it something you were taught?
Parsons: There wasn’t much emphasis on structure in my MFA program. Before I took a hard turn and switched to fiction, I was a Faulkner scholar writing literary criticism. I think I actually learned a lot more about structure in that program, pulling stories apart and poring over texts at the micro level. Synthesizing findings and making cohesive arguments in your own words means you have be really comfortable with the work you’re handling. I think there’s this weird thing that happens where every story—every single one!—has its own unique structure. Each story “teaches” you how to structure it, and the only way to “learn” that structure is through the very act of building.
South: I agree with Kimberly. We discussed structure in my MFA, most specifically in terms of the relationship between plot and momentum, but I think it’s best learned by close reading. Even if you’re going to artificially impose a structure, as I’ve done before—there’s a story in my collection that’s formatted as a Frequently Asked Questions page on a hospital’s website—the story is always built line by line. There’s a great poem about calligraphy called “Writing” by Howard Nemerov, and in it the speaker states, “Still, the point of style is character. The universe induces a different tremor in every hand… A nervous man writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.” A character who is gloomy or in a meditative mood may need longer, cyclic paragraphs—like the narrator in Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters—whereas clipped paragraphs might suit a more on-the-go, distracted protagonist. Structure can reflect the psychology of the text, or it’s just one element that interlocks with other elements like voice, and so on.
Wurzbacher: I love these answers! I’d also echo what Kimberly and Mary have said about the particularity of every story’s unique formal and structural needs. Reading craft texts is valuable, but in some ways I don’t know what it would mean for a program to “teach” structure. Most craft essays are just analyses of published stories and the distinctive formal and structural moves they make, right? The writer of the craft essay picks a few key texts, coins some sexy terms for whatever they see going on in them, and then close reads them in the manner Kimberly described, “pulling [them] apart and poring over [them] at the micro level.” So if you know how to do that close reading, if you understand the need to treat each story on its own terms, if you understand the close interrelationship between form/structure, time, and content, maybe that’s the closest you can come to really “learning structure.”
Let’s talk about the relationship between a story’s content (what it’s about on a literal and emotional level), its visual form (what it looks like on the page), and the sonics of its sentences. Does any one element come before the others for you? Can a story work with one element alone?
Moniz: I build a story at the level of the sentence. What a sentence sounds like—the rhythm of it in my inner voice and out loud—matters just as much as what it means. If I’m deciding between a certain word to use, most often I go with the one that just sounds right to me. Usually when I look it up in the dictionary, it’s pretty close to what I meant. I’m not sure how that magic works, but it does.
Parsons: I 100% agree with Dantiel on this—it’s about the sentence level, and for me the auditory component is particularly important. I’ve always been attuned to sonics, but I didn’t realize what I was doing until I learned about acoustic consecution from writers like Christine Schutt and Garielle Lutz. They taught me how friction between words comes from drawing the sounds from one to another, extruding those sounds from one sentence to the next.
Wang: I love Dantiel and Kimberly’s take on this, and it’s worked out like that for some of my stories. Sentence by sentence, the voice and the sound. Other parts come to me without a form at all. I meet two strangers and intuit their story from their interaction. Or, I am suddenly inspired by algorithms, or a Skymall catalog or a brochure about sliding doors. It’s as if an interior confession was looking for a way to get told without embarrassing me.
South: I’m nodding along to these answers quite enthusiastically! When I learned about consecution, it shifted my goals as a writer. Like Kimberly, Lutz’s work impacted me. Her “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” was revelatory for me and changed how I approach writing a sentence, crafting a story. Watching Diane Williams edit her literary journal NOON was also revelatory, and it made me want to approach fiction with that kind of care and scrutiny, leaving only what was necessary and sonically compelling.
I’m curious about your relationship to voice, both in regards to individual stories and across a collection. I’ve heard that consistency of voice helps cohere a book-length short fiction collection, but I can see the value in showing a range of voices.
Wurzbacher: Every writer has their own signature, go-to authorial voice. Once you’ve been writing for a while, you figure out what yours sounds like, and it becomes your default. But different stories call for different points of view, and different points of view call for different voices. As writers, we’re always balancing our own voices with the quirks and nuances of our characters’. One of my pet peeves as a reader of short fiction are collections where most of the stories are written in the same voice, even when they’re first-person stories that ostensibly have different narrators. A tonal sameness can be a unifying force in a collection, but it can also be boring and implausible, given that the stories tend to be about different characters with distinct personalities, experiences, and, of course, voices.
It can seem like writing in third person is a way around having to craft distinct voices for our characters—an excuse to relax into our own writerly voices. But even in a well-written close third, the narrator’s voice can and arguably should be inflected by the voice and personality of the character whose experiences they’re narrating. I think that variety of voice is not only enjoyable but called for in a story collection. If I only wanted to hear one voice, I’d read a novel with a single narrator. That said, the distinctions between different characters’ or narrators’ voices don’t have to be drastic. They can be very subtle.
Moniz: I agree with Ashley that there should be degrees of difference between character, narrator, and author. I think my voice and my specific rhythms remain much the same, but filtering my voice through a narrator or a character is where the difference becomes apparent. My work will probably always be recognizable as “the way Dantiel writes” but each character/narrator comes to life in distinct ways, which creates the range.
Parsons: It’s walking that line of “how would I say this” and “how would this character say this.” This is my favorite part of writing a collection and maybe also the most challenging—how you get to create all these different voices while making sure the center holds.
South: I think this is how I approach it, too. You can only write a story in the way that particular character would think. Third person can be liberating for that reason, though even close third hews to that in terms of author vs. narrator vs. character.
What makes for a compelling story collection? What do you look for in a book-length compilation of an author’s work?
Wurzbacher: I appreciate variety in a story collection, whether that variety comes from a range of different voices or from a range of settings, structures, or subjects. I get bored when all the stories are set in the same place, are written in similar voices, engage with similar subject matter, and stick to the same basic structures. I want to see what else the writer can do. I love collections that manage to be both varied and cohesive at the same time: they have clear, shared thematic concerns at heart but explore them in a lot of different ways, through a lot of different formal avenues.
Moniz: Honestly, if the sentences are singing and there are deeper questions beneath the questions being posed, I’m in for wherever the author is going to take me. I look for complete immersion from story to story to story. I want to be able to feel characters living past the last sentence, and I like a collection that makes me have to do a little work.
Wang: Story collections, to me, are like a coat full of pockets and I’m just rooting around looking for some trinket or tasty snack I can eat. I’ve always found my way to story collections in this way: I read a story I like in a journal or anthology and immediately hunt for the writer’s collection. Then, I read stories in order of the titles I like most. There’s no better way to discover the scope of a writer’s ambitions and obsessions than to read their collection.
South: I love this idea, that story collections are full of little trinkets! I’d say that I similarly gravitate to collections that are formally innovative and playful, and that showcase a range of voices and styles—partially because these are things I want to do myself. I find it fun to experiment, to see what registers or conceits I can explore. But I’m also just down for whatever the story collection wants to be or tells me it is.
Parsons: I love what Juliana said about plainly seeing a writer’s obsessions more quickly in a collection. I feel like writers can sometimes hide behind one type of story or voice or constraint in a novel, but a collection lays everything out. I’m nosy, so I like seeing what people are curious about and what turns them on.
Something I feel like doesn’t get enough press are the projects we start and abandon. What are some stories that haven’t seen the light of day, and what, in retrospect, have they meant to your writing life?
South: I’m highly interested in abandonment. I’ve discarded a lot of work. In my collection, I think only three of the stories date back to my MFA. I wouldn’t call this “failure,” though, as I think I’ve learned why those stories weren’t successful and why revision wouldn’t improve them enough to be viable. I think I’ve gotten better with each story I’ve thrown out. That said, I set aside a novel draft while I was doing promo for the collection, and when I returned to it I was shocked by how much I disliked it. A humbling moment, but, hopefully, it was one that made me better. I restarted it last year and it’s thankfully much improved, though I’m afraid of jinxing it. There’s a fascinating discussion to be had about the tension between career and art, the desire to publish and the desire to make something perfect. Sometimes the goals of career and the needs of art align, but often they don’t. When I get frustrated with myself for not writing faster or more proficiently, when I’m stuck, it helps to remind myself that making art doesn’t necessarily work on a timeline.
Parsons: Once, a very sweet editor was kind to me about a half-baked idea I had, and I ran it into the ground for four miserable years. It was a huge relief to put that book down, but I’m also pretty adept at mining projects for parts. A story that didn’t make it into Black Light became the voice of my novel, lots of dialogue from failed stories ends up in other characters’ mouths, sometimes a plot comes from some peripheral action in another project. Nothing ever feels like a waste to me, even if the only lesson I learn is how or why not to tell a particular story.
Wang: I’ve abandoned projects. It’s still difficult to talk about!
Moniz: I keep everything. As everyone here is saying, nothing’s a waste. I love what Mary says about the tension of art and career in living a life. The novel I’m working on now is technically a drawer novel, something I’ve started and stopped a dozen times. I understand having to leave a project behind, to use the scraps as fertilizer for other, more viable projects. But I really hope I’ve had enough growth and new understanding about who I am as a writer and what I want from my writing life to make it work this time. I feel like it would be easier to leave it alone, but since I can’t, maybe there’s something still there for me.
Wurzbacher: I’ve abandoned a number of stories, and/or “finished” stories but then decided they weren’t of the caliber to be included in a book-length collection. Those stories tend to be subject to raids later on as I go back and look for valuable images, sentences, or snippets that could be transplanted into more fertile narrative soil elsewhere, as Dantiel described. And like Dantiel, I’m currently working on a novel that was abandoned for quite a long time. It’s completely different than it was when I began, so I’m in a sort of Ship of Theseus situation. Is it the same book if all its component parts have been replaced or revised, or is it an entirely new book? I don’t know.
I’ve buried the lede: you’ve all debuted collections relatively recently (some of you in the midst of the pandemic). What was surprising about the publication process for you? Any advice on the topic?
Moniz: So much! The jumps from reader to writer to author are so wide! Starting with getting into my MFA program, the publishing industry was a steep learning curve for me. Once you step behind the curtain, you realize how small a world it really is, and that there’s just a degree or two separating you from anyone else. I think the biggest thing to realize is: you can’t count on anything in this business—not reviews, bestsellers, Most Anticipated lists, or awards. So much of what we do is a result of luck and timing, as well as talent. I would say, control what you can control, which is making the book the best it can be with the help of your team before it enters the world.
It was also helpful for me to define success on my own terms. What would that look like for me outside of external accolades? I wanted to find a readership, for my book to set me up with people who would look out for the next one—even if it was just one person. That helped a lot in keeping down anxiety, which of course is normal to feel. Also, remember that social media is usually just a highlight reel. Even if you don’t see it, other authors are going through it, too.
South: I’m maybe not the best person to answer this, as I got kind of bummed out after my collection came out. It was at the beginning of the pandemic, March 10, 2020, just as everything was shutting down, though I was lucky to have one in-person event with the generous and brilliant Alexandra Kleeman. But, you know, I got over being bummed out! Not only because people were confronting actual life-and-death situations—every evening at 7 p.m. I’d hear New Yorkers banging on pots and pans out their windows, honking car horns, cheering and hollering in support of front-line health workers, and that was this deeply moving reminder of what was at stake—but also because there was this swell of support in the literary community for authors dealing with releasing their books during the pandemic. I’m incredibly grateful to the people who asked if they could help, offered to do an interview, the readers who reached out with a kind note, the booksellers who put in so much extra work on behalf of authors to shift to online programming for events. Some really lovely things happened for the book. I have a friend who, whenever someone would say, “Life is short,” used to respond with, “Life is long!” A literary career—a writing life—is meant to go on for a long time, hopefully, so thinking about it more expansively made the difference.
Wurzbacher: I was fortunate to be able to do several in-person events before the pandemic hit, but once it did, all of my remaining events were canceled. This was early in the pandemic, before we’d all realized how easy it could be to convert literary events to a virtual format. It’s been fascinating to see how booksellers, conference organizers, professors hosting classroom visits, and writers themselves have evolved and adapted to virtual programming since then. Although it was disappointing at first to miss out on so many face-to-face events and interactions, I feel grateful for this push to explore virtual alternatives. I’m sure they’ll stick around post-pandemic, and I’m glad for that.
And I’d echo what Mary said about feeling moved by the kindness people showed when her book came out—I felt that kindness, too. The nice notes and support I received, the invitations to visit workshops and classrooms, the chances to speak to book clubs and students who’d read my book, all those things meant a lot to me. They’ve inspired me to be more effusive and forthcoming when it comes to letting other authors know I’ve read and loved their work. Why keep that to yourself? So despite the isolation we’ve all experienced recently, I feel more motivated than ever to connect with other writers, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to do so as a part of this roundtable! Thank you, Allie!
Dantiel W. Moniz is the recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction, the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Emerging Writer Award by the Key West Literary Seminar, and a Tin House Scholarship. Her debut collection, Milk Blood Heat, is an Indie Next Pick and has been hailed as “must-read” by TIME, Entertainment Weekly, BuzzFeed, Elle, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, One Story, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and elsewhere. Moniz is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kimberly King Parsons’s collection Black Light was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award and the Story Prize; it was also a finalist for the 2020 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters First Fiction Award, and the Oregon Book Award. Parsons is a recipient of a National Magazine Award and fellowships from Yaddo, the Oregon Arts Commission, Columbia University, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She lives in Portland, OR, where she is at work on a novel (forthcoming from Knopf) about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.
Mary South is the author of You Will Never Be Forgotten, which was a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize for a Debut Story Collection and longlisted for The Story Prize. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, NOON, Guernica, and elsewhere. She has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Sewanee Writers Conference, VCCA, and the Black Mountain Institute, where she will be a Shearing Fellow in the fall of 2021.
Xuan Juliana Wang was born in Heilongjiang, China, and moved to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. Her first book, Home Remedies, was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize.
Ashley Wurzbacher’s debut short story collection, Happy Like This, won the 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award and is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her novel Both, And is forthcoming from Atria. She holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at the University of Montevallo.
Photograph of Dantiel W. Moniz by Jason W. Moniz. Photograph of Kimberly King Parsons by Ronnie Parsons. Photograph of Mary South by Nina Subin. Photograph Xuan Juliana Wang by Ye Rin Mok. Photograph of Ashley Wurzbacher by Alyssa Green.