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.