I was a teenage novelist. I wrote book-length stories with climactic moments that saw boys and girls slow dancing on high school gym floors or unlikely heroes draining last second shots to win basketball games on the hardwood. These were stories rooted more in fantasy and movie clichés than my actual experience.
Flash ahead twenty years, and I’ve still spent my share of time writing stories about young people. My title story from my first full-length collection of short stories, You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue, for example, opens with the line, “The gymnasium sweats.” Rather than rendering the glossy version of teenage life that I felt I was supposed to render when I was a teenager, this gym full of tension, heated by an “unseasonably hot” fall day, pushing a pair of boys with a history of sex and violence to their breaking point, when the gym teacher tells that that day, they’re going to wrestle.
I wrote novels because, as a young person, that’s what I understood books to be. Full disclosure, I still have several novels in some state of drafting, revision, or submission for publication. But when I went to college and took creative writing classes, then proceeded through two rounds of graduate school I came to appreciate the short story as a more manageable form. In the confines of five thousand words or fewer, the author bears greater responsibility to make every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word both carry its weight and sing.
To put a finer point on it, the short story form is how un-learned and re-learned so much about it meant to put words on the page, craft and revise scenes, and conceptualize a focused narrative. Moreover, the short story form is ripe for experimentation.
There’s a catch-22 in our current culture. To the casual reader, novels remain the dominant presence in fiction.
My forthcoming collection includes two stories with a collage-style format that focuses on shorter glimpses into characters’ lives—sometimes as short as a sentence—to render a complete narrative less by rendering “the whole story” in any conventional sense, than by mirroring the human experience and how so much of our lives are so consistently fragmented, with seemingly disparate parts impacting and intersecting with one another in unexpected ways. My story “Better” uses this style of narrative to render an entire lifetime.
There’s a catch-22 in our current culture. To the casual reader, novels remain the dominant presence in fiction. Just the same, factors like mobile devices and social media are facilitating shorter and shorter attention spans. So it is that the short story form feels so vital to me as an author today. If I can occupy a reader’s attention long enough to read a full story in a single sitting, this feels like a victory—be it for a full-fledged short story, or even a flash piece like “Interrogation”.
And if a story might enrich readers’ perspective—challenging them to empathize outside their personal experience, forget their own troubles for a matter of minutes, or give themselves over the vicarious highs and lows of characters I’ve created—then I’ve fulfilled a goal that feels more important than my own catharsis or vindication as an artist. If I can accomplish those goals, then the reader and I have reached across the divide of time and space to create a human connection. That’s about as much as I suspect any writer can aspire to.
ABOUT MICHAEL CHIN:
Michael was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. He’s an alum of the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University and the MA program in writing at Johns Hopkins University.
Michael has three full-length books forthcoming—You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books (September 2019), Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle (November 2019), and The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press (2020).
His chapbook, Autopsy and Everything After, won The Florida Review's Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest (2017-2018). He previously published two other chapbooks, The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press (2017) and Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books (2018).