Reading With Purpose

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I’m am currently mired in the revision process for the science fiction story I’ve been working on since August. The good thing is that I’m on my second draft and I’ve completed revising three chapters. Unfortunately, I have five more chapters to go! I can get her done. I must.

Also I seem to have stalled in my quest to find outlets to submit my fantasy story to. Not sure why. Who am I fooling? I know why! Resistance. I am experiencing the resistance that Steven Pressfield wrote about in his book The War of Art, which I’m currently reading (more on this book in a future post). My Gotham Writers’ Workshop instructor bade us read this book and I have finally cracked it open. So far so good. The main takeaway: Resistance is the enemy of creativity and personal progress and it must be defeated whenever and wherever it rears it’s ugly head.

So in the meantime, while I marshal my forces in my never ending struggle against Resistance, I try to read with purpose. Previously, I wrote about the Gotham Writers’ Workshop courses. Once I started taking classes, I purchased their short story collection Fiction Gallery. This collection is full of great stories written by some of the great authors of short fiction. The purpose: to help you the writer be a better reader. By better reader I mean to become better at reading with purpose. That purpose is to understand technique, theme, character and mood; then be mindful of how the authors used these effectively so that you may use these more effectively in your own writing. After finishing some of these stories, I wrote down a synopsis, what I thought was the theme, and the writing style (i.e.- POV, tense).

The stories in Fiction Gallery are split into six distinct categories: Starting Out, Longings, Those We Know, The Job, Strangeness, and Sunset. The authors within each category are a diverse set of masters from different time periods brought together to give you a fine cross-section of successful short story technique.

Starting Out is composed of stories that focus on child protagonists. A few standouts in my opinion: Anton Chekhov’sA Trifle From Life.” A short tale of a young boy who learns the hard truth that adults are not always honest and will throw little kids under the bus if need be. ZZ Packer’s Brownies deals with a young group of African-American Brownie troopers learning to not judge a book by its cover and to not always assume the worst.

The section on Longings contains stories that deal with characters who long for true love. Sometimes that longing leads them down the most interesting and detrimental paths. There’s “Labors of the Heart” by Claire Davis, where an overweight man falls for a woman who has given up on men. Talk about a challenge. Lou MatthewsCrazy Life” is about a teen Latina who stands by her gang-banging man, even though she knows she shouldn’t. I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle‘sAfter The Plague“. Who said relationship turmoil would end during the Apocalypse?

The category, Those We Know, has stories about people who learn that the people they thought they knew best aren’t really known at all. Dorothy Parker’sHere We Are deals with a couple on their honeymoon already suffering from marital strife. For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story by Anthony Doerr starts off with two young sisters as teens; one, tall and popular destined for notoriety, while the other sister is short, drab who sinks into the shadows. Their paths, of course, diverge only to reconnect for a reunion that’s more like a confrontation. My favorite in this category is Hannah Tinti’s Home Sweet Home.” Two suburban homes are effected by a double murder. As we follow the detective’s investigation, we learn about a chain of events and the relationships of the occupants of the two homes. We learn the identity of the killer, but the relationships of the characters are way more interesting.

The next category is The Job. The tales in this section deals with characters dealing with their occupations both positively and negatively. Daniel Orozco’s Orientation is a satire about a new employee being shown around their new place of work. John O’Farrell’s Walking Into The Wind is about a man trying to gain respect for his most hated of professions. Edwidge Danticat’s Night Women deals with a woman trying to shield her child from her chosen line of work. Ethan Canin gives us The Palace Thief. A story about a Roman classics teacher at an exclusive boys’ school who’s mission to teach morality and ethics to the future captains of industry seems to fall on deaf ears, forcing him to question his life’s work.

Strangeness is next. This section has stories in which characters’ normal lives diverge into the Strange. Jose Luis BorgesThe Book of Sand deals with a book buyer solicited by a bible seller with a strange book that should probably go unread. In Charles Baxter’s The Next Building I Bomb deals with a protagonist who finds a scrap of paper with a bomb threat written on it. Is the threat real or is the protagonist’s imagination running away from him? In The Secrets of Bats by Jess Row, the strangeness of an American teaching in a Hong Kong school is surpassed by a quiet student’s ability to echo-locate and why. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Third and Final Continent is the story of a Bengali man who comes to America to work in a university while adjusting to life in a new land. If that isn’t enough he lives in the home of an eccentric 103 year-old woman and is an arranged newlywed.

The final category in the book is called Sunset. In this section, the stories deal with aging and going past one’s prime. John Cheever’sThe Swimmer is about a man who decides to swim his way home through all of the swimming pools in his upscale neighborhood. He may be trying to prove he still has his great swimming skills, but in actuality he may be trying to avoid the fact that he’s old and his life is in shambles. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour is a classic that deals with a woman who received bad news about her husband. But instead of grieving about the tragedy, she oddly finds freedom in it. Thom Jones’ I Want to Live is about a woman battling cancer. No punches are pulled. The disease’s progression is shown warts and all. The last story in the book is Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by the great Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s an early science fiction tale of an old scientist who gathers a group of his aged friends for a drink of an elixir made from the Fountain of Youth. With the prospect of becoming young, will the test subjects use their newfound youth to redeem their past selves?

These themes are a good cross-section of great short story ideas. Coupled with interviews of some of the authors at the back of the book, Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery is a great source for reading with purpose and understanding some of the authors’ process and their views on writing. You don’t have to be a student of Gotham to get the book.

So remember whenever you’re reading, try to read with purpose. Be mindful of theme and style. And when you’re done with reading a story, take a breath, sit with it for awhile then write down what you think is the story’s synopsis. What are you waiting for?

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