Ruth E. Walker.
I subscribe to the Kenyon Review‘s newsletter, a literary journal out of Kenyon College in Ohio. I enjoy reading “Why We Chose It.” This feature explores some of the reasons why Kenyon Review selected a particular piece to publish in their journal.
Here’s an excerpt of Kirsten Reach’s post about “He Comes to Feed the Horses”, a short story by Mary Terrier:
Our interns were the first to cull this from our submission pile; we had no connection to Mary Terrier before. Within a few paragraphs, I think you’ll find yourself listening closely to the voice she’s found in this tough, nameless narrator. “By the time I was desperate enough to call hospice, you were already pretty far gone,” she says, addressing her late husband. Henry can hardly manage to get a straw into his mouth, and nurses have taken up residence in their house. She needs help, but she hates the help. The bathroom is too small to fit even the two of them, and each body that enters their home seems out-of-place.
Sounds like a good story to me. But it isn’t a new story, is it? So why did Kirsten and the interns pick this one?
Like every magazine that publishes short stories, we get a few dozen stories about unhappy marriages or spouses handling end-of-life care in every submission period...As an editor, you’re looking for an author with style, and a caretaker who makes you care deeply about this story, in the vein of Alice Munro’s “A Bear Came Over the Mountain,” or Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.
Style. Caretaker. How do those two connect? And why do they matter?
No one writes like you. When you are writing, your words land on the page in the style that belongs to your voice. For a lot of writing, such a corporate writing, you refine your style to fit with expectations. Your own voice is usually restricted in those forms of writing.
Fiction, however, allows you much more freedom to explore how your style works. You can refine your style by editing out weaknesses or even developing them into a strength. For example, relying on too much description slows the pace and you lose your reader. But at a crucial point in your story, perhaps an extended, detailed description is just what you need to bring focus on something vital. Dust off that urge to overwrite and use it to the story’s advantage.
What does Kirsten Reach mean when she calls a writer a caretaker?
From 1999 to 2008, Gwynn and I were fiction editors for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Along with Mark Medley, we had some vigorous discussions championing stories to be included in upcoming issues. Limited journal space combined with hundreds of submissions made our work a challenge. We never referred to a writer as a “caretaker” for their story. But we could tell when a story was finely crafted.
I remember one story in particular. In Volume 8-2, Brian Reynolds’ “First Goose” is told in reverse, slipping back from a dreadful tragedy, hour by hour and layer by layer, peeling away the emotions of a adolescent First Nation boy on the cusp of adulthood.
The caretaker, Reynolds, could have written the story in ordinary linear fashion. Instead, he chose to give us the devastation before forcing us on the backward journey to see how the man rose out of the boy. It was cruel and wonderful because it was completely contrary to expectations. The inescapable ending haunted the reader through every hour revealed.
Do all editors look for a “caretaker”? I don’t know. What I do know is that at our 2016 fall retreat, literary agent Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists shared what she looks for in submissions. “Really great skill with language, that goes without saying.” And then she added something. “And an original voice telling a really unique story.” Hilary was talking about style and about the craft.
What’s Your Style?
Are you a caretaker for your writing? Before you press SEND on that submission, step back and take a close look at your work.
- is your voice loud and clear in the style?
- are you using your style in the best possible way?
- have you taken care to ensure your story is being told in an original manner?
- is there another way to lay it out so that readers (and editors) are surprised or intrigued?
Some writers benefit from a writing coach or editor to help take their work to the next level. For other writers, growth comes from paying attention to feedback in a critique group or workshop setting. In all cases, it helps to read other people’s work, especially those stories chosen for a prestigious literary journal.
You can read Kirsten Reach’s full post here. And I encourage you to follow the link and read the excerpt. Mary Terrier has, indeed, been a caretaker with style.