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  • Writer's pictureJoseph R. Goodall

How Short Stories Can Teach Us to Be Present

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

Photo by Pope Moysuh from Upsplash

The other day I was stuck in a long, unmoving line at the neighborhood post office. I debated leaving and trying my luck another day, but having just published my first collection of short stories, I decided it was an opportunity as a writer to practice observing my surroundings.

Still living in the shadow of a pandemic, I was accompanied by a dozen masked strangers, impatience welling in their eyes as they clutched onto envelopes and packages, staring down at phone screens or up at the sagging panels of the ancient drop ceiling above. We formed a U-shaped line, hugging to the grimy cinder block walls of a narrow lobby, waiting to be called forward by the only employee on duty. For a while, the only time I moved was when one of my companions shook their head in frustration and surrendered their spot in line.

Each time the door opened, a new arrival began the same confusing dance of figuring out where the line started and ended. One of the more outgoing customers would graciously point out the back corner of the room with a weak smile on his face. Occasionally a brave soul would wander across the room, ignoring the mistrusting glances, and extend a key to retrieve mail from a nondescript square in the wall of gray post office boxes.

At first glance, the scene appeared somber and stagnant, the air stifled like in an underground tomb. But as time passed, I settled into my spot on the wall and grew more curious about the fellow humans around me, our lives and stories intersecting in this one, inconvenient moment. I wondered what brought each person there. What did they plan to postmark? Who were they sending it to? Ten feet away, a gentleman pivoted around on his heels as he talked on the phone about his event planning business, the entire room a party to his conversation. A young woman with intricately woven braids and a pink envelope bobbed to the rhythmic music in her earbuds. One bulky man carrying a dented box wore a tank top, appearing to have just come from the gym. Another fellow, tall and graying, was dressed in checkered pants and a chef’s coat and held a manila envelope at his side. A woman with a baseball cap, baggy jeans and a small box in her hand talked to the restless man behind her about the efficient machinery she had seen at a New York post office, as if to make us all even more disgruntled.

Finally, like interstate traffic untangling behind a car wreck, we made it to the counter one by one and rejoined the current of our day to day. I didn’t leave the post office with answers to my questions, but I was reminded of the value of slowing down, of noticing small details and various personalities.

Often we turn to literature and storytelling as a way to escape reality, to “take a break” from the harsh, unbearable or mundane pace of our everyday lives. But stories can also make us more present and in touch with the experience and perspectives of others, even make us more in tune with ourselves.

As I grow as a writer and a human being, I find increasingly that stories, in addition to providing entertainment, are a helpful processing tool, whether it be for personal reflection on upbringing and family history, current world events, or scenarios in the human experience that plunge the depths of emotion, meaning, pain and enlightenment. We are each a collection of stories, our days filled with both heavy and lighthearted episodes that contribute to our personhood.

I have found the literary form of a short story to be like an episode or snapshot, at times cozy and other times disturbing or prodding, but almost always a landing pad with enough space to observe a situation or idea in a meal-size package. Rather than the week-long cruise of a novel, reading a short story allows us to interface with a narrative or scene in the manageable amount of time it takes to have a conversation with a friend. A good short story can tap into our emotions, imagination and intellect with just as much weight as a longer narrative, but in a compact and accessible format that can be enjoyed in a single sitting.

“The medium is the message,” wrote Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Perhaps these quick dives into another’s perspective is the very message of a short story: that we find the meaning of our life beyond ourselves. That we’re each invited into a larger narrative in which we play a small but crucial part. That we find greater wholeness by linking arms with the embodied stories on our left and right.

To summarize, here are a couple examples of how short stories can awaken us to our own lives:

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s recent short story, Zikora, the eponymous main character is a driven, first generation Nigerian American lawyer. Over the course of the narrative, Zikora’s relationships with her mother, her cousin, her estranged boyfriend and her unborn child are each carefully studied through steps back and forth in time. As a reader I was drawn to consider the complex challenges faced by a person with a different gender, family culture, immigrant experience and profession than my own. At the same time, I identified with Zikora’s desire to be understood by her loved ones, her habit of replaying past conversations over and over again in her mind in a futile attempt to change their outcome.

Hard Times by Ron Rash follows an Appalachian farmer faced with a difficult decision. His chickens’ eggs are disappearing one by one, and there are hungry, impoverished neighbors to blame. While reading, I recounted my own experience of a neighbor asking me for money and became aware of how I seek safety in the unequal power dynamics created by social class. Weeks after finishing Rash’s tale, I’ve continued to think about the hard work it takes to build relationships that transcend these invisible barriers toward equity and solidarity.

In Richard Curtis’s romantic comedy movie, About Time, the main character, Tim, discovers his ability to go back in time and change past moments in his life. After various escapades to change his fortune, he arrives at the same truth that reading short stories can impart: “I just try to live every day as if I have deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it... As if it was the full, final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.”

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This post first appeared in "Editing by Elizabeth," a blog by editor Elizabeth A. White, who worked with me on What the Bird Sees in Flight.

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