Telling a story

Yesterday, I finished reading the final story in Richard Ford’s latest collection of short stories, Sorry For Your Trouble.

I don’t know how many people still read short stories. I’ve read them all my life, picking them up when I first encountered Ernest Hemingway. It seems to me I recall there was a brief renaissance in the popularity of short stories maybe 30 years ago, or even earlier. If my memory is accurate, then Raymond Carver was in the vanguard, but many other worthy practitioners of it. Among them, and the best in my mind, was Richard Ford.

Ford has also written several acclaimed novels, but I think of him as one of those writers better at stories than novels – Updike is another. There’s no shame in that. Writing a decent short story is probably more challenging than writing a novel because you’re dealing in the miniature.

In a novel, you have space to expand and develop. You can digress and add layers of depth. In a short story, everything must be precise to achieve the same effect. Richard Ford is great at this.

I started this collection, and for the first two or three stories, I was enraptured. He’s an old-fashioned writer in a way, naturalistic and easy to read. He tries none of the post-modern literary tricks, and there’s nothing show-offy in his prose. If I’m a writer at all, then I belong in the same school as him.

I didn’t warm quite as much to the stories in the middle and latter part of this collection. That’s not to say they were any less, but, like anything, we have different tastes. I’m hesitant to use the word ‘resonate’ these days because it feels such a cliche, but at a personal level, I could relate better to the earlier stories to those that came after it.

This is the essence of story-telling really. The best stories focus on character and personality, with the events coming forth subject to that combination. Sure, things happen to us externally, but how we respond to them is individual – and many of the things that ‘happen’ are because we are that individual.

I preferred those earlier stories because I could feel them more closely. They aligned more particularly with my experience perhaps, or a particular perspective. We respond to stories when they touch upon something that is in us already – perhaps hidden, perhaps unknown, perhaps neglected. Then we read something, and it reacts in us and feels like a truth we know without exactly knowing why.

But it takes good writing to achieve that. Like the best writers, Ford knows people. You can imagine him watching and observing and learning. Soaking things up. Imagination plays a part because observation is the starting point from which it takes over. Wonder leads us to speculate on what we don’t observe – what happens next? Why? And what if that happens instead of this? And so the materials for a story gather.

Even the stories I favour less are a joy to read because Ford is such a craftsman. He’s a complete pro, and that’s a compliment.

I began the last story, and for the first few pages, I was certain it wasn’t going to work for me as well as the earlier stories did, but slowly I found myself drawn into it.

What was it? Nothing in the story’s events was more than generally familiar – it was about a second marriage, then divorce, and the characters were well to do. I came to feel great affection for the main character, though he felt quite different to me but for one aspect. It didn’t resonate for the usual reasons.

I fell into it because I came to understand the leading characters’ innate humanity, so artfully and perceptively described by Ford. We’re all a collection of attitudes and beliefs and perceptions all wrapped up in experience and genetic inheritance. There is a multitude of variations between us – as many as there are different human faces. And yet we can draw an understanding by tracing those elements, or rather by taking what we see and tracing them back.

Ford just doesn’t give us different personalities and characters to interact with each other, he offers up human qualities that mesh and conflict.

I knew the people he wrote of. I understood their why’s and wherefores. They were complete and complex human beings. What they were and how they interacted made perfect sense. They weren’t characters contrived in the imagination of an average writer, but rather described as if from life by a writer whose starting point is human nature.

That’s why I read – to encounter such writing and feel illuminated by it. And that’s why I write – in the hope that I can do the same for others.

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