John McManusThe other day I heard from a friend who recently became a fiction editor at a journal I admire. Do you have an unpublished story you can show me, she asked? A smart writer would be able to say yes, because—especially after having had to say no on similar occasions in the past—a smart writer would keep a stocked arsenal of short stories lying around for times like this.

But I don’t learn from my mistakes. My new collection had used everything up, and since its completion last year I’d been working on a novel. How long did I have to throw something together? One week, said my friend. I recalled that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days. He spent the whole time high on cocaine, a drug I’ve put behind me; on the other hand, Jekyll and Hyde is a whole novella, whereas three thousand words would suffice for my purposes.

I opened a file containing what I’d believed was a list of story ideas. If/then, read one item on the list, in full. Shard, said another. CBCPCISH, offered a third. I vaguely recalled this act of abbreviation. It was inspired by the nausea I got just to imagine anyone else ever laying eyes on my notes. Let me digress to talk about archives. These days writers are always selling or donating their archives to libraries and foundations, as if a willingness to let other people view their notes and first drafts is a normal human feeling. It’s not. When the time comes, I’ll be donating my archive to a bonfire.

Since the notes weren’t much help, I tried the junkyard. That’s the area of my hard drive where failed novels live. I’ve written something like twenty of them, which might feel like a monumental waste if I hadn’t been able to repurpose so many of as short stories. Generally my favorite stories I’ve written are the ones where I’ve pruned at least ninety percent of a text away. Only two stories from my second collection can I bear rereading: “Cades Cove,” which began as a novella and wound up two pages, and “Mr. Gas,” which was a 350-page novel that seemed more worthy of existence once I got it down below twenty pages. I’m confident no copies exist of the originals. If any did, I would delete them, then hire a computer expert to eliminate any remaining digital traces, then send unsolicited rejection letters to all worldwide institutions that collect archives.

My method of story-writing probably qualifies as the most inefficient manner ever devised for constructing anything. Still, it works. Therefore, I’m trying to resist the temptation to take the novel I’m close to completing after fifteen years, cut 325 of its 350 pages, and turn it into a short story. We’ll see. I’ve got four more days.

A Short Story Story
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John McManus is the author of four books of fiction: Stop Breakin Down, Born on a Train, Bitter Milk, and his latest story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, forthcoming from Sarabande Books in October 2015. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, The Oxford American, and Electric Literature, among other journals and anthologies. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Creative Capital Literature grant, a Fulbright Scholar grant, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award. He grew up in Blount County, Tennessee, and now lives in Virginia. McManus is a professor of creative writing at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and he also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Goddard College. He is contributing editor for Fiddleblack, a literary journal dedicated to creative writing with a strong sense of place.

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2 thoughts on “A Short Story Story

  • May 9, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    I like your method, too. I’ve been writing for free for decades. I remember we used to sit in the mental ward and we noticed we patients gave each other the advice, entirely free, much better we got from the professionals. One day, right toward the end of “group” on the locked ward (yes, we were sitting in a circle) the counselor picked on the shyest patient to speak, a woman not much younger than me. She wore a johnny and a pair of jeans. She raised her hand, as if she were at school, then lowered it, realizing she wasn’t. Then she said, “Where’s my paycheck?”

    Love ya’ll, Julie Greene

  • May 9, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    I love your blogpost! Your words are a complete inspiration to me. (I thought I was The Only One.)

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