Judge’s Note

Prairie Fire - - GREG HOLLINGSHEAD -

I’M WRIT­ING THIS AT MY MOTHER’S BED­SIDE in a pal­lia­tive care fa­cil­ity in Toronto. She’s been un­re­spon­sive for three days. I can hold her hand with one of mine and write with the other. I can talk to her, and that may be a com­fort to her. She’s not in pain, she’s just ready to go. Some of the visi­tors here want to talk to me. The dy­ing of a loved one has them out of their rou­tine, wide open. As they wait for what they are dread­ing and hop­ing for, they rec­og­nize a fel­low-suf­ferer. They tell me sto­ries about the per­son they’re los­ing or about them­selves, about their job, their kids, about things that mat­ter to them. For this rea­son the sto­ries are in­ter­est­ing and feel gen­uine. You can hear the truth in the voice.

The mean level of short-story writ­ing in this coun­try is high. We’re a lit­er­ate na­tion. We read and we write, we join book clubs, we take fic­tion work­shops. As we read and study short sto­ries, we learn things that are im­por­tant to know about writ­ing them. But a short story that above all else reg­is­ters as a “well-writ­ten short story” is not likely to be very in­ter­est­ing. It will be like a lot of photography these days: well com­posed but un­re­mark­able. A story that stands out and is re­mem­bered is usu­ally one that mat­ters to the au­thor. The for­mal ex­per­tise has gone into telling the story the way it had to be told be­cause it mat­tered enough to her that she stayed open to what it needed from her. What holds us as read­ers is not what the au­thor has done to make the work more like a good short story but what she has given to it of her­self. This is to say not that story writ­ing is about per­sonal con­fes­sion but rather that emo­tional hon­esty un­der for­mal con­trol is what most of­ten dis­tin­guishes a story in a stack of good ones.

When the stan­dard is high, heart makes the dif­fer­ence.

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