The Masters Review Blog

May 27

New Voices: “Euphoria” by Heather De Bel

When an accident reveals an affair between Lydia and Dean, Abby’s boyfriend, Abby spirals into a drunken depression. “My mother thinks it’s my job to pick her back up,” Lydia says. New today in New Voices: “Euphoria” by Heather De Bel, a striking tale about the things we can’t find the words to say.

It scares me to be like my mother. She is not as happy as she pretends to be. Ma has been talking with me a lot about helping the family. What she means is get your sister sober. She thinks it’s my fault. She doesn’t say this, but it’s probably true.

We go shopping for our mother’s birthday present and I drive because Abby has been drinking. It’s a week or so after New Years and New Jersey’s Willowbrook Mall still smells of pine and log cabin candles. Paper stars and red streamers hang from the ceiling. The store windows are littered with what’s left of winter clothes and bright yellow signs: Clearance!

Abby has recently dyed her hair one shade darker than white. It is paler than her skin. I’ve tried to convince her I like it. She pretends like she is convinced.

Our mother insisted that we go do something together, to cultivate a loving sister relationship. Our father passed away when I was three and Abby was two. We’re all Mom has. Abby is still reeling since her boyfriend Dean died in a car accident a few months ago. My mother thinks it’s my job to pick her back up.

We go to Macy’s first. I can see the long, flowered dresses from the main aisle. My mother loves long, flowered dresses.

The many walled mirrors make Macy’s look twice as big with twice as many people. I dread department stores. The lights are hazy green. Everyone looks pasty and sick. The clothes are dark blue, dark red, black and patterned. I look forward to the summer season, bathing suits, the smell of sunscreen when you pass an old lady. It smells now like linoleum floors.

Abby touches every dress. She acts as though each is the most beautiful she’s ever seen. This is the one thing I can’t stand about her drinking: the exaggeration.

“Ma would look beautiful in this, don’t you think?” She takes a short, bright red dress off the rack and holds it up to her body. She hooks the hanger behind her neck, swings it around. She has to take a few side steps to hold her balance. The neck scoops low, a playful tease.

To continue reading “Euphoria” click here.

May 24

One Week Remaining! Flash Fiction Contest judged by Kathy Fish — $3000 Awarded!

There’s only one week left to submit to our Flash Fiction Contest! We love flash fiction at The Masters Review. That’s why we award $3000 to the best story under 1,000 submitted to our annual flash fiction contest. This year’s winning writers will be selected by guest judge Kathy Fish, and each of the 3 finalists will earn a spot in Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash online workshop! Get your submissions in today.

DEADLINE: MAY 31

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JUDGING

Kathy Fish has published five collections of short fiction, most recently Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018, from Matter Press. Her award-winning short stories, prose poems, and flash fictions have been published in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, Electric Literature, Guernica, and elsewhere. Fish’s “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” which addresses the scourge of America’s gun violence and mass shootings, will appear in an upcoming edition of The Norton Reader. The piece was also selected by Sheila Heti for Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, and by Aimee Bender for Best Small Fictions 2018. Fish’s work was previously chosen for the 2017 edition of Best Small Fictions by Amy Hempel and for the 2016 edition by Stuart Dybek. Additionally, two of Fish’s stories are featured in the W.W. Norton anthology, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. She is a core faculty member in fiction for the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She also teaches her own intensive online flash workshop, Fast Flash©. For more information, see her website: kathy-fish.com.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:

  • Winner receives $3000 and publication
  • Second and third place prizes are $300 and $200 respectively and publication
  • All 3 finalists receive place in one of Kathy Fish’s online Fast Flash© Workshops
  • Stories under 1000 words
  • $20 entry fee allows up to two stories (each under 1000 words) – if submitting two stories, please put them both in a SINGLE document
  • Previously unpublished stories only
  • Simultaneous and multiple submissions allowed
  • Emerging writers only (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Self-published writers and writers with story collections and novels with a small circulation are welcome to submit.)
  • International submissions allowed
  • Deadline: May 31st, 2019
  • Please no identifying information on your story
  • All stories are considered for publication
  • Dazzle us
  • To view a list of our most commonly asked questions regarding submitting to The Masters Review, please see our FAQ page

The Masters Review will select a shortlist of 15 stories, and Kathy Fish will determine the winning 3. Find more details here!

Click below to submit today:

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May 20

Featured Fiction: “Praise Rain” by Kathy Fish

With our Flash Fiction Contest wrapping up next week, we thought you might need some inspiration in the form of new fiction from this year’s judge, Kathy Fish. We are huge fans of Kathy’s, so we feel especially blessed to present “Praise Rain,” and to have her as our judge. You don’t want to miss your chance to join her Fast Flash workshop, so be sure to submit before the deadline!

The morning he was born entrenched, drenched in rain. Baptized in rain. Hands, yours and mine, clenched in rain.

The fallen and the falling were rain. The haunted and the haunting, rain. Tears were rain but they were clichés, unworthy of rain. All, for centuries, thirsty for rain. Kings and queens and emperors, rain. The dry and salted earth begging for rain. Faces upturned to rain. Praise rain. Bodies-in-need rain. Bodies that form, are born, and fuck in rain. Vows-under-a-canopy rain. Drunk, dancing rain. The morning he was born entrenched, drenched in rain. Baptized in rain. Hands, yours and mine, clenched in rain.

There was a boy whose eyes and ears and arms and legs and spit and snot and tongue were rain. There was a boy who caught frogs and toads and crawdads and released them into the pond pin-pricked by rain. There was a boy who woke in the night from terrors and we held him close under a down blanket and taught him to be comforted by rain.

To continue reading “Praise Rain” click here.

May 17

New Writing on the Net: May 2019

With our Flash Fiction Contest closing at the end of the month, we’re dedicating this month’s New Writing on the Net to the flash form. Find flash and micros published in the last month that we think are especially noteworthy!

Make sure to submit your own flash to our contest, judged by the magnificent Kathy Fish! Deadline May 31.

“The Vague Sounds of Life” by Mary Thompson | Pidgeonholes, April 22

“And I just sat there guzzling wine and thinking, this is Life and Life is what happens to everyone else, right? And all I wanted to do was go home and lick my Bengal cat as I’d tried the night before, just to see what she tasted like, just to get inside her tiny, cute little head and experience the world from her minuscule perspective. Then one of them turned to me and said, ‘so, are you seeing anyone at the moment?’ And I said, actually it’s my three year anniversary—of no sex.’  They looked at me with pity and said in unison, ‘the most important thing is that you’re happy, darling.’”

“Wherever, Whenever” by Tara Isabel Zambrano | Jet Fuel Review, April 29

“Ma sits quietly in kitchen, stares at the mottled bark of oak in the backyard, her face a roiling ocean of emotions, her neck perpetually taut. She gets up and stirs the gravy for mutton, whispers to herself. Outside, the sunlight is shallow. Soon the festive mayhem will be over. It’s hard to explain our friends and their parents why we don’t celebrate Christmas, and watch their faces drop. Hindus, you said? They ask, Like Buddhists?”

“Ghost Grapes” by Sarah Freligh | Splonk, May 1

“The night Mamaw got sick, the rain fell and froze. I heard my father get out of bed and head to the vineyard to try and save the grapes. I heard the worry in his voice, frayed as old flannel. By morning the vines were trapped in ice.”

“The Truth About Florence Henderson’s Floating Notes” by Pat Foran | Milk Candy Review, May 2

“I think I get it: The rhythm is the song and the song is the thing and the thing is what’s true. But the thing is, all I hear and all I’ve been hearing for months is the sound of your voice. The voice I knew. The song you sang. The song I knew. The one I miss.

I try to focus.

“What are the water drummers playing?” I ask the floating notes. “What song are they making the river sing?”

“We don’t know,” the notes say. “We never know. We can’t hear.””

“When Mono Was Part of the Equation” by Tommy Dean | Longleaf Review, May 5

“The kids are fogging up the windows, pulling at each other’s hair, their voices chittering like monkeys, shouting the name of the restaurant with the play place and the dollar menu. And I’m thinking, maybe the joke’s on me, because I showed up sober, promised myself I’d make it all weekend: playing Barbies, watching Moana for the 47th time, braiding their hair, and biting my tongue every time they said this man’s name, voices reverent as if talking about the Jesus of their Sunday School stories.”

“Good Old Leon” by Matthew Vollmer | SmokeLong Quarterly, May 6

“The writer Denis Johnson, who now is dead, once explained to a group of people, among whom I happened to be a member, that the fear of the apocalypse was really only a fear of personal annihilation. Johnson got clean but not soon enough to grow old. There are days when the world feels emptier without him and days when I think: he’s one of the lucky ones.”

“All the Holes We Mean to Fill” by Kathryn McMahon | wigleaf, May 8

“Her cat Bernice took pills for the holes worms had drilled in her heart, which I found strange because Bernice was always ribboning through my ankles while it was my grandmother who never hugged or kissed me. But one time Gran fell asleep in her chair, and I crept over and pecked her cheek, and she smiled. She smelled like yeast and silver chains as blue as her curls. She was still asleep, so I lifted her cup off the saucer and the saucer off the table and lapped like a cat.”

“The Candy Children’s Mother” by A.A. Balaskovits | Okay Donkey, May 10

“Gretel was awake the night I decided. Our small house had only one room for sleeping, and so all of us dreamed together. I climbed above their father and massaged his neck and behind his ear, as he likes. I pressed his hands to my belly and rejoiced at what we had created.  In his ear I whispered that I would not die with its birth, for I was made of stronger things than dust.

It was difficult, after we finished, to fall asleep, for that daughter who was mine but not mine stared at me all night, the moon reflecting off her dark eyes.”

“Corner Store” by Dina L. Relles | New South, May 13

“I fear next time you see me I’ll be gray. And sometimes (I confess) I’m scared of death (and sleep), or not scared, but unwilling to leave the nightstand stack, the hiking path, the screened-in porch, his dimpled cheek, you, all I know or have never known, for this too, I already love.”

“Gone Gone Gone” by Dan Crawley | Atticus Review, May 14

“The man in the worn-out cap squatted near the Bronco’s busted out windshield and peered into the vehicle. Then he walked back toward his truck, slowly shaking his head. He climbed in behind the steering wheel and gripped it like they were moving. “That roll cage saved you from getting squashed like a tortilla.””

Curated by Cole Meyer

May 16

Craft Essay: Revision by Katey Schultz

Just in time for the close of our Flash Fiction Contest, we’re excited to share this new essay from Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War, with some advice on how to approach revision. Apply these steps to your own flash manuscripts and submit them before the 31st!

It’s one thing to tell readers that your protagonist lives in a war-torn country and it’s rare to relax long enough to gaze at the stars. It’s another thing entirely to say that the sky looks “star-pocked” (as opposed to “twinkling”), and the difference goes back to that age-old advice about show don’t tell.

As an author who reviewed submissions for four different publications and edited three fiction anthologies (including BITE: An Anthology of Flash Fiction), I’ve rejected countless stories that were one draft away from publishable. Doing so was my least favorite part of the job.

Writing may be a solo sport during actual toosh-in-chair time, but knowing when to take a step back and apply critical, technical craft revisions to your work is essential to finding publishing success. If that means taking a class, hiring a developmental editor, or forming a skilled critique group, do it.

In the meantime, here are three tips I wish I’d had the time to share with every writer whose work I rejected. Since I primarily teach, critique, and publish flash form, I’ll stick to that, however, all prose writers can apply these techniques to stand-alone scenes or chapters comprising their longer works:

  1. Scrutinize your word choice: This has everything to do with choosing the right verb or descriptor, to avoiding subtlety. In flash (or peak scenes in full-length memoirs or novels), every word counts. “The star-pocked night sky” is not the same as “The twinkling night sky.” One implies a bit of violence, while the other implies ease. Which does your story need? Which most effectively captures your character’s worldview and deepest desires? Choose the word that gets the job done. Then, do the same thing in the next sentence. And the next. And the next…until you’ve revised your piece so that the words speak to one another beyond surface meaning. In short, revise with such precision that as many words as possible function double-time.
  2. Tell a story that transcends the basic actions of the plot: If you’ve done your work with word choice, there’s a good chance your plot has improved as well. Because of course, in literary writing there’s the story…and then there the story. You’re telling both at the same time; action alone isn’t enough. Whether your story portrays a teenager who can’t sleep at night or a high speed shoot ‘em up, plot is so much more than “what happens”—even in flash form pieces that are only one page. The action needs to raise questions in the reader’s mind, and your lines/scenes/chapters that come later need to answer those questions (while often raising another). In this way, plot is an accordion slowly opening and closing, revealing different notes each time, until the song is complete. Is our plot missing a note? Is there an incorrect chord?
  3. Fully inhabit your protagonist’s worldview: By now, you can see that these three things are interrelated; if your word choice is precise and revealing, your plot will start to work beyond the level of action, and how your protagonist sees the world will rise to the surface. It’s one thing to tell readers that your protagonist lives in a war-torn country and it’s rare to relax long enough to gaze at the stars. It’s another thing entirely to say that the sky looks “star-pocked” (as opposed to “twinkling”), and the difference goes back to that age-old advice about show don’t tell. What that advice really means is this: understand your characters deeply enough to know how they see the world, how they react under pressure, and what they most keenly desire. Because if you know that, showing comes easily. From there, worldview becomes the same as word choice and plot, and your writing takes on a quality of originality and depth any editor would be thrilled to publish.

So how do you begin? I personally think that getting grounded in your body and slowing down enough to feel whatever needs to be felt is a necessary step. When we rush ourselves in our own lives and tasks, we can rush our writing, too. Part of revision is re-visioning. To do that, slow down first. Be kind to yourself. Be honest and fair to your characters. Proceed methodically if that feels right to you, going step by step. Or proceed intuitively, stepping back later and taking stock of changes you’ve made or insights you’ve gained.

When it’s all said and done, to take a walk or sleep on it. (Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few years!) Come back and read your work out loud from the printed page. Go slowly. Listen and feel again. Is it time to reach out to beta readers? Time to submit? Time to learn another skill through a small, supportive class? Decide and take action. And most of all: good luck! This approach is truly rewarding the more you bring it into your writing life. May your words and your characters thrive!


Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War (stories) and the forthcoming Still Come Home (novel) both published by Loyola University Maryland. She is the founder of Maximum Impact (as featured on CNBC), which provides transformative online curricula for writers so that they can articulate their most authentic work and get published. To learn more about flash form writing, Katey’s work, or to explore free resources like the 5 S’s that will help get you published, visit www.kateyschultz.com and explore her spring classes now.

May 15

Winter Short Story Award 2018 Finalists!

We are thrilled to share Aimee Bender’s finalist selections for the 2018 Winter Short Story Award! Thank you to all of our wonderful submitters. We were truly blown away with the quality of submissions for this contest. The winner will receive $3000 and publication online. Second and third place stories will be awarded publication and $300 and $200 respectively. All winners and honorable mentions will receive agency review, as well!

Winner:

“Damico” by Joe Bond

Second Place Story:

“Caretaker Needed” by Meghan Daniels

Third Place Story:

“Narada’s Ears” by Sanjena Sathian

Honorable Mention:

“At This Late Hour” by Rebecca Turkewitz

May 13

New Voices: “Lessy” by Jeremy T. Wilson

New today in New Voices: “Lessy” by Jeremy T. Wilson. Continuing our celebration of the short story, “Lessy” joins The Masters Review catalog as an excellent example of the power of small fiction. Our flash fiction contest is wrapping up—perhaps this compact story about the strange draw of familial relics will inspire you to submit your own work.

She thought about curling the toothpick holder into her mother’s hand as the men from the funeral home quietly took her body, but she didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being buried with this thing she was incapable of throwing away.

Delia’s mother finally agreed to get rid of her collection of ceramic mammies only after she saw the movie The Help. She’d told Delia she understood now why they “might possibly come across as offensive to some people.” She’d lied. When her mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, Delia found a ceramic toothpick holder in the door of the fridge shadowed by ancient bottles of salad dressing and pepper sauce. The toothpick holder looked just like all the others: the cookie jar, the teapot, the spoon rest, the salt and pepper shakers; identical, except for the minor differences that fit their function. A red kerchief knotted atop their heads. Round, dark faces. Bright white eyes. Wide grins. A fat red dress covering an ample bosom, hands on sizable hips, and a starched white apron flowing to chunky shoes. Her mother had named them all, which somehow made an awful thing even worse. She called the toothpick holder Lessy.

Delia picked up the toothpick holder, ready to smash it on the kitchen tile, when her brother called her back to the bedroom and they watched their mother die. Delia was a hospice nurse, so was used to this, and even though it was her own mother, she approached the passing with a detached professionalism. She thought about curling the toothpick holder into her mother’s hand as the men from the funeral home quietly took her body, but she didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being buried with this thing she was incapable of throwing away. Delia wrapped the toothpick holder in some dirty socks and put it in her suitcase and took it home with her when she left Georgia two days after the funeral.

To continue reading “Lessy” click here.

May 9

Reprint: “Girl on Girl” by Diane Cook

Continuing our reprint series for Short Story Month, we are proud to add Diane Cook’s phenomenal “Girl on Girl.” First published in Man V. Nature, Cook’s debut collection, “Girl on Girl” offers a new take on an old coming-of-age story. “I didn’t think I was mean,” Gabrielle says. “I thought Marni was mean. Were we mean together? And if we used to be mean together, why couldn’t we still be? I want to be meanest with her.”

 

For a moment I think she’s going to smile, rub a smudge from my cheek, kiss me. But then, finally, her fist meets my face. I hear the crack, and now it’s the floor reaching for me. I see their smiles as I go.

Freshman year starts, and somehow everyone is someone else, someone older, someone interested in the faraway future life. Everyone except me. I’m back from a summer at my dad’s divorce condo–decorated to seem remote and armed–and no one cares. I’m watching my old clique grind into boys on the dance floor while the male coaches-slash-civics-teachers roughly separate them, swipe at inappropriate girl parts, and get away with it in the authoritative heat of the moment. I’m watching it all, cringing, but I wish I were in the scrum.
I want to be fondled. I want someone to press me somewhere too hard. I’m hot with shame. The good kind.

I turn to Clara. She never talks because her parents are professors. She still wears girls’ undershirts, and she can’t quit horses. She looks about as far away from the dance as a dead star.

“What do you think Mr. Ryan tastes like?”

Clara turns red. I do too.

My math teacher is breaking up a couple by getting in between them, his groin brushing a junior in a glitter skirt. He has a chestnut beard and glassy eyes. Sharp shoulders. I’m imagining inspecting the pale skin under those fine dark hairs of his forearm as he leans over my desk to tell me what x is. He must taste like just-dug rocks. My mouth waters. His calculus fingers wiggle toward me. He says I’m a ripe pear. He is very close. My ears ring. Pears are rotten.

I smack my head to stop my dirty movie.

That’s when I spot Marni tossing her hair around the way women do on daytime talk shows. She’s screaming at her boyfriend, Mack. She’s louder than the music, and it sounds like one long wee. Marni is attractive and fat, with an unnaturally narrow waist and unnaturally big boobs and ass. Her cheeks and lips are plump, but somehow her jaw is sharp, and she looks like a sexy Victorian porcelain doll. She wears her hair big and together it all works to make her seem normal-sized with a lot to grab. But I’ve seen her getting into her pajamas and I’ve seen her gullet a whole pizza at a birthday party, and there is nothing normal-sized about her. She is a magnificent cow. She was my best friend. I wrote her twenty-six letters this summer and she wrote me none. We haven’t talked since middle school.

To continue reading “Girl on Girl” click here.

 

From the book MAN V. NATURE: Stories by Diane Cook. Copyright © 2014 by Diane Cook. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

May 7

Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” was adapted in 2016 for the big screen: Arrival was widely celebrated and received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, among others. Chiang’s new collection, Exhalation, out today from Knopf, is his first since 2002. “If two decades are the cost of admission for stories as immaculate as these, so be it.” We’re excited to share this excellent review from Will Preston, who notes that “the true brilliance of Chiang’s work lies in his range and versatility as a storyteller.”

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” the first story in Ted Chiang’s luminous new collection Exhalation, opens with a benediction: “O mighty caliph and commander of the faithful, I am humbled to be in the splendor of your presence.” Our narrator, Fuwaad ibn Abbas, informs us that he was born “here in Baghdad, City of Peace,” and that he has spent his life as a “purveyor of fine fabrics…silk from Damascus and linen from Egypt and scarves from Morocco that are embroidered with gold.” Now, he stands in attendance before the caliph “without a single dirham in my purse,” but with a strange and winding story to tell. “If it pleases your Majesty,” he offers, “I will recount it here.”

Fuwaad’s loquacious introduction is the perfect beginning for “The Merchant,” which loops tales within tales and riffs on the intricate narrative structure of 1001 Arabian Nights. But it doubles as a preamble for Chiang’s entire oeuvre, especially for those first-time readers who, lured by the author who wrote the short story that inspired 2016’s soulful sci-fi blockbuster Arrival, are likely double-checking the dust jacket right around now to make sure they picked up the right book. It’s true that “The Merchant,” at least in its opening pages, bears little resemblance to Arrival’s alien invasion dramatics, or for that matter, the sci-fi genre in general. But the patient reader who heeds Fuwaad’s—and Chiang’s—entreaty will find a narrative every bit as dizzying and mindbending as the writer’s reputation suggests: 1001 Arabian Nights by way of Back to the Future Part II.

Read more.

May 6

New Voices: “Seraglios of Night” by Greg Sendi

What does guilt drive us to do? When a doctor and his wife run over a boy on a bike, they become entangled in his father’s life. Greg Sendi’s “Seraglios of Night,” our newest edition to New Voices, explores the avenues of guilt and grief and all the unexpected ways they intersect.

We are always conveniently absent when it comes. We have to be. We would vaporize else. It is axiomatic that you cannot be present and it is best by far that you not even be nearby when desolation alights on the lids of the remains, the remaining, the remainder.

The boy appeared out of the odd blue glare of an early summer evening on a Huffy, I think it was, and I hit him doing over sixty with the Infiniti.

Laura stiffarmed the dashboard and pumped her right foot on the phantom brake of the passenger side. We both saw the child’s face turn our way in a flicker and then saw the distortion of the headwound against the windshield and the eruption of a starburst of gore with a complex but entirely mathematical symmetry whose spatter could no doubt have been calculated from the velocities and vectors and masses of the two objects and the wind.

— Fuck.

My instinct had been to steer left, but that was the wrong call. It sent us directly into the boy when it might have been different if I had just kept on ahead or gone right. A misjudgment of basic Newtonian physics, or not a misjudgment, but the failure to engage judgment at all, taking your lead from the thing itself, competing for its destination, its spot on the floor. Idiot.

He disappeared over the top, leaving a clotty little stain on the moonroof and then reappeared out the back window, receding geometrically in ways keyed to the deceleration of the car, the indifferent pulse of the ABS and nauseating metallic grinding of the bicycle under the front wheels.

Laura was out of the passenger door before the car had rolled to a stop and she receded in the rear window in a different way, running not girl-like in that breast protecting way, but full-out, flagging traffic with windmill arms as she approached the boy, urging cars at a minimum to avoid the child’s form, midlane, and perhaps, I guess, to stop for reasons she could not possibly have processed if she had had time to think about it, since anyone stopping would have been help of such a rudimentary kind as to be no help at all.

She grabbed for her phone in her purse, detritus falling randomly while she fished for it and blowing away in the eddies created by traffic. She dropped it and bent to pick it up and squatted on her haunches near the boy and dialed. It was all silent movie gesticulation and panic to me, triple-framed in the mirror and then the rear window and then in the perfect curve of her hips and lower back as I observed and then emerged myself into the punctuated white noise of a highway in summer.

To continue reading “Seraglios of Night” click here.

May 2

Craft Essay: “On Not Knowing Just Enough” by Emily Fridlund

Today, we’re thrilled to share this fantastic new craft essay from the author of yesterday’s reprint, Emily Fridlund. Fridlund discusses the potential of not knowing your subject: “I think it’s okay to be uneasy about realism,” she says. “On Not Knowing Just Enough” explores where “Expecting,” Fridlund’s “Baby Story” evolved from, and how Fridlund herself has evolved as writer in the years since penning “Expecting.”

As a writer I’ve come to believe that Show, don’t tell is another means of painstakingly preserving negative space, the way the concrete details point like arrows to the limits of the concrete, or the way the tangible and mundane drape like so many beach towels over the lumpy shapes of the unsayable and extraordinary.

A number of years ago, I wrote a story about a baby. It was one of the first stories of mine accepted for publication, the first piece of fiction I felt an almost animal pleasure while writing. When I think of it now, I always think of it as the Baby Story, though the infant I invented wasn’t very babyish. She shoots exasperated looks, barely tolerates her dad, crawls off and freaks everybody out. I was twenty-four years old when I wrote my Baby Story and pretty clueless when it came to babies. I had little idea when infants sprout first teeth or take first steps. Everything I knew about kids came from mercurial, bored stints at babysitting when I was a teenager. But when I wrote that story, I was still extricating myself from my own childhood tangles, still looking backwards, you could say. And I wasn’t very interested in representing babies as they are generally understood. I wanted to think about how children are sometimes convenient vessels for the unspoken fears of the adults who care for them—uncanny projections, clown-house mirrors—and knowing a little but not too much about babies made it possible for me to test these ideas out.

I say this as a way of suggesting a possibility I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve been considering the potential usefulness of not knowing your subject matter as a writer, or, more precisely, knowing enough to do justice to what you don’t know, giving ample space to the test case, the hypothetical. The old adage Write what you know misses something complicated, of course, about the vertiginous work of trailing sentences to their cliff-edge faces and peering down. What’s the point of making up a world that takes for granted the terms of operation upon which others more or less agree? I usually want something else from the fiction I read and write, some unsteadying recognition of how strange and provisional and just plain wrong the accepted terms of the world’s operation often are.

To continue reading “On Not Knowing Just Enough” click here.

May 2

Reprint: Expecting by Emily Fridlund

We’re kicking off Short Story Month the right way: with a reprint from one of our favorite authors! “Expecting” by Emily Fridlund first appeared in Boston Review and was included as the opening story for Fridlund’s first collection, “Catapult“, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction from Sarabande. As we said in our review of Fridlund’s excellent collection, “Expecting” holds no punches in its opening line: “My wife could take your skin off with one glance, she was that excruciating.” “Expecting” is reprinted by permission from Sarabande Books.

My wife would have scolded me for this. She had rules about indoor things and out; a flagpole in the living room would have made her distressed. She would have given me an exasperated look, a you-are-still-such-a-child-I can’t-even-yell-at-you look before taking the flag and marching it back outside. This was the best and worst thing about my wife: she felt sorry for me.

My wife could take your skin off with one glance, she was that excruciating. She could call you to her with one finger. She could do long division in her head. Another thing she could do really well was sob, and I envied her this, assuming it left nothing to eat at her inside. It is easy to be wrong about a person you are used to. The day she left, she gave me an American flag packed in a clear plastic bag she broke with her teeth. I said, “What, you’re going to war?” And she said, “You always wanted something to hang from the porch.” She could be sweet and scornful at the same time.

A son is the same as a wife, save this confusion. These are the things my son will do: the laundry, the lawn, the bills. He has a head for numbers, like his mom, and figures our finances on spreadsheets. Kyle is nineteen, and it seems like the age he’s been all his life. I can hardly remember him being anything else but lanky and bearded and morose. Periodically, his girlfriend Meg lives with us. She fills the freezer with cans of Diet Dr. Pepper that bulge threateningly—aluminum balloons—and burst. At night, I scrape tiny brown ice flakes from our frozen dinners. I heat the oven to 350 and arrange cardboard dishes on a metal cookie sheet.

“No au gratin potatoes, Darrell.”

I don’t know when it started, but my son calls me by name. He says, Walter, there’s a call for you; Darrell, wipe your face. He says my name like it’s a kelly green suit, like it’s my botched attempt to be like other humans.
Because Kyle calls me Darrell, I call him Son. “Son, the potatoes come with the meal. You get what comes.”

“The smell of them makes me sick. Why don’t you eat them for me before I sit down? Come on, Darrell.”

He is standing in the doorway, his shoulders covered in a brightly woven throw. He is bare-chested, and I can see a few orange hairs flicker about his nipples. He has a five-pound dumbbell in one hand he’s been lugging around for weeks.

I take out the steaming dinners and spoon his potatoes into my rice. My son makes me unreasonably soft, like there’s a rotten spot in me only he knows about. I coax him to the table by setting out an open beer. When he sits down he balances the dumbbell up on one end next to his elbow.

“Can you get my work socks in tonight?” I talk into my food.

“They can go with the towels, I guess.” He eats his chicken with a spoon.

We stay until the cardboard dishes start to collapse, then stand without speaking and throw our meals in the trash. We eat bowls of cereal. Kyle shakes a box of powdered Jell-O into his wide-open mouth.

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