Great Short Stories, Good Bones, & Jimmy Dean

A stellar short story starts with grand bone structure. Just like a beautiful face. I read a handful of short stories every single night and I have for decades. There are many that are very good. There are those that aren’t very good, but good—and you can see where they went astray, perhaps, where they try too hard or not hard enough. Lots of telling not enough showing—dialogue / prose that doesn’t understand how to reveal character / atmosphere…you’ve heard the schpeel. The ones I choose to share on Social Media—and my blog (—I consider to be so very good and often in the great category. There’s just not enough time or room to share them all across the quality spectrum. But I learn something valuable from each and every one I read. A lot of commentary on short fiction is opinion. Things like style and voice are subjective. What you do with the tools of fiction though—the bones of your story—outside of style—the skin of your story; outside of the way you tell your story—the clothing you put it in—is what makes it just good or great or better than great. If the bones of your story aren’t structured to hold the rest in a way that is believable, you can pile on skin and hair and clothes and more clothes—and it won’t matter. (Photo: Jimmy Dean, ca. 1950s)


“Beauty has no obvious use…and yet…”


‘Writing is the most solitary of arts. The very act of withdrawing from the world in order to create a counter-world that is “fictitious”—“metaphorical”—is so curious, it eludes comprehension. Why do we write? Why do we read? What can be the possible motive for metaphor? Why have some of us, writers and readers both, made of the “counter-world” a prevailing culture in which, sometimes to the exclusion of the actual world, we can live? These are questions I’ve considered for much of my life, and I’ve never arrived at any answers that seemed to me final, utterly persuasive. It must be enough to concede, with Sigmund Freud in his late, melancholy essay “Civilization and Its Discontents”, that “beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.”’

Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer

Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey—Preamble + Chapter 1: “Dogma and Anti-dogma” + Link…



These essays aren’t the alpha and omega of good advice, but they aren’t the ABC’s either. Perhaps the first one is. “Dogma and Anti-dogma.” They contain some notions of my own and a lot of help from Aristotle to Zola.

Most of them were originally presented as “craft talks” at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over the last twenty years or so. A few of them were answers to specific requests. I’ve edited and in some cases rewritten them.

I remember Stanley Elkin starting one of his Sewanee craft talks by saying, “It’s . . . hard . . . to talk about . . . art.” He said this very very slowly. He paused for a while. Because Stanley was a man of many humors, most of them humorous, a few prankish, some people thought that first sentence might be all he was going to say.

I’ll bet he was tempted. He certainly milked the pause.

Of course he went on. With that first sentence he wasn’t apologizing or asking for indulgence. He was just setting the bar high. And then sailing over it. Crouched in his wheelchair he gave a funny, grouchy, instructive talk.

It’s hard to talk about art—so we should all be nervous. It’s hard to talk about art—but I’ve been around the block.

That’s Stanley I’m channeling. I’m not so sure I’d put it like that. I’d rather say I’ve been into the woods a lot. Sometimes I found the trail. Sometimes I lost it. Sometimes I had to spend the night in a pile of dead leaves.

These essays are suggestions about things to do, things to think about, when your writing has got you lost in the woods.


The dogma isn’t meant to crush your first draft. Think of these venerable sayings as hints from Tarot cards or the I Ching.

A common thing people ask me about writing classes is “Can you teach someone to write?”

I have two answers.

The first is no . . . but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.

The second answer is also no . . . I can’t teach someone to write, but I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.

For a long time I taught the way I’d been taught. I’d been in classes taught by Peter Taylor, Kurt Vonnegut, Vance Bourjaily, José Donoso, and what they did—after you turned in a story—was to tell you what they thought you’d done. Basically they’d say, “Here is what all those marks on the pages meant to me.”

And then I could figure out if that’s what I’d wanted to do—or if there was now something else I could do that looked better.

This holding up the mirror is a good way to be helpful to a beginning writer. Writing a story or a novel is like finding your way around a strange room in the dark. When you get through the first draft you think the light will go on. But it often doesn’t. At first you need a reader you can trust to tell you what you’ve done . . . and that there is or isn’t hope for this particular effort.

I think this process is useful because the majority of good beginning writers are at first less in love with structure or pattern and more in love with the words in a foolish but sweet way.

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