Readings for Writers: Pick of the Week 11/24/14
Every few weeks, a member of the Grub community recommends a book they find helpful or inspirational from a craft perspective. This week, instructor Jenn Scheck-Kahn recommends one of her favorite short stories.
It’s embarrassing how many times in my teaching life I’ve hauled out “Samuel,” by Grace Paley for students to discuss. Part of what makes it a tantalizing text is its size – roughly 1,100 plainspoken words – that, in classic Paley style, draws its reader in with ordinary daily doings – a subway ride in NY – and then crushes your heart with a tragedy, a perfectly avoidable tragedy where blame is assigned to one person but it’s also widespread and never accounted for.
The reason I teach “Samuel” is because every time I read it, I ask myself, “How did she do that?” Paley is a master of showing and telling, giving whole paragraphs of showing punctuated with one or two remarkably told phrases that illuminate, like secret tunnels suddenly revealed. And unlike most stories written today that are the length of “Samuel,” this story isn’t a snappy first person narrative, but one told in the third person with a distance that’s deceptively objective as it reveals moving events, the result being a sucker punch of emotion. Lastly, Paley’s political sensibility is a gravitational force on her narratives, organizing characters into a plot before destroying them, only you don’t realize that there’s a political message until after you’ve stopped crying. Her stories work over your heart first and then climb into your head. How does she do all that in 1,100 words?
I also like to teach “Samuel” because it’s divisive. You love it or you hate it and that’s good for a writing class. Students argue as a beginning point to a craft discussion. What they discover in their study of the text doesn’t come to them as a passive observation but a series of excavated strategies now available to them for use in their own stories.
Jenn Scheck-Kahn runs two online services for writers: Journal of the Month and Tell It Slant. Her prose has placed in contests hosted by the Atlantic Monthly and Glimmer Train, and appeared in a number of literary journals.See other articles by Jenn Scheck-Kahn