Thursday, 3 January 2013

Why short stories are like dreams

Stories sometimes melt away even after impressing you

With a terrific new year’s day hangover, trying to describe to an equally drowsy person my recent experience of reading a lot of short stories, I could only manage, ‘it’s a bit like dreaming.’

I’ve only been reading short stories for a few years – until then it was novels, novels, all the way down. And with a novel you are enjoying, you take for granted immersion; you can wallow, looking forward to the hundreds more pages of a world. Even forgetting bits as you go, or forgetting the ending (as I often seem to), you’re engaged long enough to keep the world with you for a while, and sometimes – with a really good novel – forever.

I am currently in the lucky position of having to read contemporary short fiction in order to write a literature review as a precursor to my PhD in creative writing. But despite the huge amount of practice I am now getting, however much I read short stories and even love them, if I don’t reread or précis them  soon after I forget. Like dreams, unless I write them down, or think hard about them while they are fresh, or talk about them, they slip away as the next one takes hold on my imagination.

I devour a collection or an anthology, believing that every tale is making its mark, only to find that, if I close the book, I can only recall a handful. Perhaps this is to do with my particular imagination, but it tends to be the ones where images are repeated, or certain scenes or motifs reinforced, that stick best. For me, character names are the first things to disappear from memory, followed by plots.

That plots melt away, leaving visual or atmospheric elements, is interesting to me, because one type of tale I am reading and reading about a lot is the folk tale, and its subset of fairy tales. We think of these, at least our childhood versions, as fixed, definite, oft repeated. Plot is everything – the characters are flat, or stereotypes, there to carry along the story and teach us something. But what does become of Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Tom Thumb, Goldilocks? We know Cinderella marries a prince, but the rest of them I can only picture angrily stamping, dreamily hair-tossing, drinking from a thimble and tasting porridge (respectively – although mixing it up has some amusing mental results). Then I try to remember the moral of the story, or at least my interpretation of it, and work back from there to what the ending must have been. This is a useless method, as our interpretations of the meanings of stories change.

Like dreams, we need to ponder on a short story, reliving it and trying out interpretations for a time before moving on. Sometimes a short story is so dense that I feel full and have to stop anyway – especially with those by Angela Carter or Rikki Ducornet, for example. Now, instead of racing through a story collection like a novel, I try to pause after every story, because it is often the seemingly slight stories that deserve the most after-thought. Like a dream that is only a confusing moment, in which I am struggling to put on a too-small shoe, or staring at a cat morphing into a person (these are real dreams of mine, make of them what you will!), a baffling short story will produce the most fruit – rich and varied – if it is allowed to sit and grow in the mind for a while. And I should add that reading Rikki Ducornet’s short stories with a serious hangover can be a terrifying, bewildering experience that I would thoroughly recommend. Try it and you won’t forget them.


  1. Hey, just thought I'd say that I loved your short story "Salt Stain". It truly was a beautiful piece and kept me hooked until the very end :)

  2. Thank you! It's so great to get feedback of any kind but especially positive!

  3. I normally only read at most two stories by a single author in a day. Upon rereading I remember short stories. Some plots I can recall from decades ago. Have you read "The fairy child" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It is kind of a response to the Irish famines.

  4. It's this ease with which short stories slip out of memory that has mee rarely rreading more than one in any given day. I like the idea of linking them to dreams. Their brevity, compressed action and density of imagery certainly bears comparison. What I also find interesting, as someone else who writes short fiction, is that I find this process happens even with the stories I write. I have one or two that sit strong in my head, but all to often, these characters and stories that have seemed so important to me in their creation drift away after I have finished with them. If stories are like children I am the worst parent in the world.

  5. Thanks Dan - I have a similar experience, forgetting entire short stories I've written only weeks later. I'm always amazed to see what I find in my 'short stories' folder on the hard drive.