by Rhonda Browning White
During my MFA days, I kept a journal of important suggestions and bits of advice passed down to me by professors, instructors, visiting writers and my cohorts; epiphanies, ah-ha moments, words to live by, definitely words to write by. I still turn to these one-liners, these brief explanations, these light-bulb statements that point me in the right direction when I feel lost or need inspiration. One such statement came from my mentor, author Robert Olmstead, who said to my workshop peers and me, “It’s not about what you write, it’s what you don’t write. Make the reader do some of the writing. Invoke, invoke, invoke. Make the reader conjoin A and C. Leave out B. Don’t burn words.”
For years, I had spelled out everything for the reader. I wanted her to understand. I wanted to explain. In that moment, I realized that the best fiction—stories I love and re-read, are the stories that allow me to draw my own conclusions. And sometimes, in the re-reading, my opinion and conclusion changes. These stories become, for me, timeless.
Since then, I’ve sought short stories in which the narrative and its elements are not spoon-fed to us, stories where we are allowed to develop a relationship with the characters and draw reflective meaning from their experiences. Here are two examples I’ve found in The Best American Short Stories 2010, which we can examine and learn from to prevent ourselves from burning words.
In her story “All Boy,” Lori Ostlund writes of Harold, a studious and introverted child who is audience to the breakdown of his parents’ marriage (Ostlund 263-78). His father is gay. We know, without being specifically told, that Harold’s mother fears their son may have homosexual tendencies, so she protects him from being ostracized by teachers and classmates by telling them, “I guess Harold’s just all boy” (Ostlund 275). Ostlund never points out these things directly, but lets the reader reach this conclusion and determine for herself if Harold’s mother is in denial of her husband’s and son’s tendencies, or if she’s merely operating in the protective role of mother. Ostlund never tells us until the last paragraphs that Harold’s father is gay. We are allowed to experience this revelation as Harold experienced it; gradually, by applying our own knowledge and societal frames of reference to what is taking place. We experience for ourselves what Harold is thinking and feeling, so much so that at the end of the story, we want to usher him back into the safety of the womb-like closet, where he is protected from the harsh realities of the world.
We suspect from the opening line of Tea Obreht’s “The Laugh” that the darkest part of the story is over. “They were talking about the funeral when the lights went out” (Obreht 246). Still, suspense builds throughout as we learn that Neal, our narrator, feels guilty over some instance that occurred between him and best friend Roland’s late wife, Femi. He loved her, I inferred, though no steamy affair ever made print. Throughout the story, Neal does everything he can to protect Roland; physically, when he follows him into a pack of wildebeests without a loaded gun; and emotionally, when he places heavy sacks of flour into Femi’s empty casket to keep Roland from discovering that hyenas stole her body. Neal came face-to-face with one of these hyenas, though a pane of glass separated them. But the hyenas’ laugh, not their vile golden eyes, was what tormented him. “It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth” (Obreht 257). Yet, when the story ends, it isn’t the hyenas’ laugh that haunts him, it is Femi’s laugh. Again, the reader is left to her own inference, her own conclusion, based on her knowledge—not of hyenas, but of humans and human nature.
It is what we leave out, then, not what we put into a story, that provides the reader with a satisfying, poignant or devastating twist. Leave out the B parts. Let your reader reveal what has been hidden, let him write what is missing.
Obreht, Tea. “The Laugh.” Russo 246-62.
Ostlund, Lori. “All Boy.” Russo 263-278.
Russo, Richard, ed. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2010. New York: Houghton, 2010. Print.