You have been very busy telling other people what to do, dear Virgo. Why are you criticizing and thundering about so? Could it be that you are dissatisfied with yourself at the moment? Could it be that your job is causing you some problems, or that your colleagues are being too intense these days? When you get into moods like this, you know the source is often internal. So stop telling other people what to do and start to think about what you should do.
The Art of Compromise
SLO County Artists Must Reconcile Making Art with Making a Living
BY GLEN STARKEY
It’s an age-old problem for creative people–how to balance making money with making art. In San Luis Obispo County, far away from the vibrant arts communities of larger urban centers, the problem is widespread. Few local artists can support themselves solely from their artistic endeavors.
And yet they continue to create.
This week we profile five artists who have discovered different ways to solve the problem between the need to bring home a paycheck and the desire to make art.
Kevin Patrick Sullivan, realizing poetry never pays monetarily, is happy his custodian job pays his rent and affords him the opportunity for contemplation and solitude–essential elements to the fomentation of his art.
Bookstore clerk and single parent Lindsay Wilcox discovered that, for now, she just doesn’t "give a damn" about sales, although she still intends to one day make a living from her sculpture.
For Jimmy de, he’s found an equally fulfilling artistic endeavor in hair styling, the occupation that funds his fantasy photographs.
Musician-songwriter Wally Barnick, a loan officer in a mortgage firm, could make a comfortable living from his music, but supporting his wife and kids is his first priority, and the hot-and-cold music business doesn’t offer enough security.
And stay-at-home-mom Lisa Deyo’s career as a budding choreographer would have already been derailed if not for the kindness of strangers.
All five artists have found a way to solve the paradox which faces all artists–balancing art and money–and although their approaches are often different, they’re also in many ways the same. All have found a way to support their art habits.
Kevin Patrick Sullivan: Poet, Custodian
People generally assume that it’s at least possible to make a living as an artist, but poetry exists in a category all its own. Can anyone make a living writing poetry?
"I don’t know if that critter exists," said 44-year-old Kevin Patrick Sullivan. "There might be a few. Edward Field is one. He’s made his living writing poetry. He’s also done some fiction. But his bread and butter is poetry. He doesn’t teach and he doesn’t give workshops, just readings and book sales. I once heard there were maybe four or five [people making their living solely from poetry] in this country."
Hence, Sullivan has no false notion of ever earning a living from his poems, although he’s frequently published. His first book of poems, "First Sight," was published by Mille Grazie Press. His work has also been included in several journals, including Hummingbird, Cafe Solo, and Art Life.
"I do it because art is the true democratic process. That’s how we make our public statements. It should be a forum, which is why I work so hard through Corners of the Mouth [a monthly reading series at Linnaea’s Cafe] and the [annual] San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival to help work find its way to the public. I want to give poets a place to express their ideas. This is how democracy happens–in the cafes and art galleries. Does it happen in Congress? No way. There it’s all about lobbies and special interests."
Democracy aside, poetry is a vocation totally devoid of monetary recompense.
"The whole system is out of whack," said Sullivan. "When we pay to build cars or machines, it’s big bucks. But people who take care of our elderly–the nurse’s aides and caregivers of our the hospitals and nursing homes–get minimum wage. It makes no sense: Those so precious you can’t put a price tag on them are treated as worthless, but things–objects–they’re the most important?
"Art, too, is deemed worthless, even while it serves the public by keeping the democratic system open and up front. Freedom of thought–that’s where it’s at. It’s no coincidence that in totalitarian regimes freedom of expression through art is the first thing they crush.
"Sure, I’m offended by [the lack of financial support for artists], but not surprised. We can’t even give those who take care of our own a decent living. Of course we’re not going to reward artists."
But despite the lack of financial support afforded artists (and poets specifically), Sullivan marches on, unable to stop the outpouring of his heart and intellect onto to the page.
"I’ll never stop writing. I’m hooked on the idea of service–service to art, service to poetry, which is service to mankind. It’s such a large part of who I am. My life before poetry was aimless. I was wandering. I didn’t have a clue. But I got on poetry and now I have a purpose. And it’s enriched my life. I’ve had breakfast with Pulitzer Prize winners. Poetry has taken a laid-off factory worker from Detroit and made him an artist."
But like all artists, Sullivan must keep a roof over his head, the lights and gas on, food on the table, a car maintained, the insurance paid–in short, Sullivan has to pay the bills.
When he first moved to San Luis Obispo, he worked as a house painter before taking a job with San Luis Coastal Unified School District in 1990. Now he works as a custodian at SLO High School, a job that allows the artist time to think and contemplate, but more importantly, to support himself. Still, he’d like to devote more time to poetry, but the nature of being an artist on the Central Coast is compromise.
Said Sullivan: "Having to work decreases time for isolation and solitude, which are important for development of a rich inner life, for a dialog with the self. And that’s what brings art to the forefront; it’s what helps put us in an expressively creative place. But after working all day, sometimes I’m just too tired."
Sullivan hosts the next installment of Corners of the Mouth on Sunday, June 20, at Linnaea’s Cafe in SLO.
Lindsay Wilcox: Sculptor, Bookstore Clerk
Lindsay Wilcox came late to art. The SLO High graduate first took a double-major degree from San Francisco State in the classics, with an emphasis on ancient languages, and in philosophy, with an emphasis on ancient philosophy. Her artistic awakening happened in 1983 when she took a class in sculpture from Cuesta College instructor Barry Frantz.
"Something clicked for me [while] doing sculpture," said Wilcox, 36. "I’ve never felt quite so satisfied doing anything else. I’ve dabbled in sculpture from that point on, but really, I spent the next 10 years in denial of myself as an artist."
She eventually studied for three years at the Art Students League of New York, a studio art school that doesn’t grant degrees. Rather, it is simply a school for serious, practicing artists. Since returning to San Luis Obispo, the single mom has had to balance making a living, practicing her craft, and raising a 3-year-old son.
"Motherhood is very important to me. Part of the reason I’m going in the direction I am is because I want to set an example for my son. I want him to see someone who’s dedicated and works hard. I’ve become much more dedicated since I became a mother.
"But it’s common for people, when they hear I have a kid, to say ‘Oh, you’re just a mommy,’ and dismiss me as an artist. People don’t understand; you can be serious about your art and still be a parent."
Wilcox just showed a couple of pieces in "Salon of the Refused" at the Johnson Gallery in SLO, and beginning June 6 she mounts a solo exhibition at Linnaea’s Cafe.
"For the next couple of months I’ve decided to be marginally employed so I can pursue my exhibition and so I can build a garden for my son," explained Wilcox, who was working at both Phoenix Books and Barnes & Noble Booksellers, the latter of which she quit to concentrate on her exhibition.
She believes sculpture is a potentially lucrative field, but she’s not sure the artistic compromises one makes to be successful are worth it.
"If a person caters work to a certain market, certainly they could make a living. Unfortunately, the longer I do this the more I realize I just don’t give a damn about sales. What I want to be able to do is explore an idea. I do intend to make a living from sculpting, but right now I’m more interested in exploring my ideas.
"I do it because I have no choice. I spent a lot of years in denial about who I am. I thought about returning to school to go into architecture, or going back for my master’s degree to teach art history. I suppose I could give up pursuing sculpture commercially, but I couldn’t give up doing it.
"Of course, I do want to succeed commercially; making money at this is an ancillary challenge. But even if I gave that up, I’d have to keep doing it. I’m just one of those people who has no choice. I’m this wacky artist person and I can’t do anything about it."
Jimmy de: Photographer, Hair Stylist
Like Wilcox, Jimmy de came late to his art. After a 1984 knee injury effectively ended his career as a Sonic Cable Television employee, Jimmy de, 43, turned to rehabilitation and a new career as a hair stylist.
"They thought it was a strange choice for a guy who climbed poles and worked outdoors, who restored cars–physical work. But I’ve done painting, airbrush, and pencil drawing since I was a kid. Once they found I could work with my hands it made more sense.
"I wish I’d gone into hair right out of high school, but I graduated in 1974, and my dad being a cop I didn’t want to give him a reason for a gun-cleaning accident," he
Hair styling led to photography as he began documenting his cuts for inclusion in hair shows. In 1993 he won International Stylist of the Year for color and style, taking the picture of the winning entry himself. Suddenly the calls started pouring in.
"People wanted me to do their kid’s senior portraits, weddings. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’"
It turns out Jimmy de could do it, and soon he had a side business going in commercial photography, which subsidized a budding interest in fine art photography. "I have to do one so I can do the other," he said. But so far, he spends more money than he makes on his artwork. Last year he sold off his vintage truck to purchase new camera equipment.
The photographer’s current project is a series of mermaid pictures. But since mermaids aren’t readily available, he had to create his own, which meant finding models and making costumes. For Jimmy de, it became a collaborative affair.
"I love the camaraderie, the teamwork the most," he said. "I’m having fun being part of a team. That’s why this has been such a great project."
Because he’s doing a major project on a minor budget, he had to get others excited and involved in his vision. A donation from Buzz Morasca of Tubes in Morro Bay of 11 pairs of swim fins provided the base for his mermaid’s flippers. Randy Coons of Motive Systems donated the stainless steel tubing and welding used for the flipper infrastructure. Jon Running of Jondu made the sculpted breast cups used in some of the shots. Linda Randolph helped with the costumes.
Even customers in Jimmy De’s salon, Special F/X, got in on the act, donating the use of swimming pools for some underwater night shots. Tim Olsen of Jim’s Campus Camera offered Jimmy de practical solutions to technical questions.
"Everyone has really come together and gotten behind this project," said Jimmy de, who went so far as to seek out Hollywood costumer Thom Shouse, the man who provided the mermaid suit for the 1984 Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah film, "Splash." The costumes Jimmy de finally created are really remarkable.
"I had to learn how to sew to make these costumes," he said. Each costume was custom-made for each girl. Jimmy de logged about 125 hours on the 11 tails and created 15 bodices in another 75 hours. The whole project is being photographed over a year’s time.
"These women are such troupers. We had [model] Holley [Atkins] in 48-degree water, and of course she had to look comfortable and happy. In between shots she was shivering."
Both Jimmy de and his wife, Linda, work on the makeup, hair, and costumes for the models, and Rex Saint-Onge and his son R.J. help as production assistants during the shoots.
"When you’re doing landscapes or seascapes, it’s really just you and God, but when you’re doing the kind of work I’m doing, it always seemed unfair to only have the photographer’s name listed on the photo credit. I’m only as a good as my team."
Luckily, Jimmy de has the kind of excitement-generating personality that gets others excited, too, and his personal vision is so dramatic and unusual that people just want to be a part of what he’s doing.
"If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably be restoring cars or painting. It kills me to sit at home, relax, and watch TV. There’s no way to turn it off. One of the reasons I like doing hair is because everyone’s different; it’s always a new experience, a new challenge. I’m one of those people who needs to create so badly it becomes obsessive."
Few artists find a job they like that also supports their art habit. Jimmy de is the exception.
"I love doing hair. Even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still do it. I may not work seven days a week, but I’d still do hair."
You can see Jimmy de’s images on the Web at http://www.tcsn.net/jimmyde.
Wally Barnick: Musician, Loan Officer
Wally Barnick is a chameleon. During the week he works hard as a loan officer at Cen Cal Mortgage, but on the weekends he becomes a member of the Cache Valley Drifters, one of the big names of contemporary bluegrass.
The Drifters first formed in 1972, but Barnick didn’t come on board until 1975, right before the band backed Kate Wolf on one of her early albums, "Lines on the Paper."
Over the years the band has enjoyed record deals, choice festival gigs, and a cultlike following. But even a successful band can sometimes struggle to make ends meet, and early on it became clear that being a working musician would be a struggle.
"Luckily I have a patient and loving wife who has gone along with [my music career], but at one point it became clear it wasn’t going to cut it," said Barnick. "I had to step back and analyze what I was doing.
"All three [members of the Drifters] did that. We asked ourselves, what would make us most happy? How much playing and how much touring were we willing to do? We’ve been able to answer that question and reach a balance, but I don’t know how many solo artists or musicians get to this place.
"I tried quitting and Bill [Griffin] tried. In fact, Bill tried quitting for six or seven years, but found he couldn’t quit playing. Since he’s picked it up again, he’s playing with even more fury. When I was running [the now-defunct night club] the Spirit, I quit playing, too, but it left some gap in me. Sure, I can get consumed in work here [at the mortgage firm], I can go full-bore and blank everything out, but I don’t think I’d be a whole person.
"In any case, I have the best of all worlds: I get to play music and I have a job I love," continued Barnick. "And it’s not just me; the whole band [which also includes Mike Mullins] has found day jobs that satisfy, that earn us enough money to be stable. Just the other day we were saying–tongue in cheek, of course–that for first time in our lives we’re making enough money to be musicians.
"I saw this bumper sticker I just loved. It said, ‘Real Musicians Have Day Jobs.’ Bill’s a retailer in Santa Barbara; he has his own clothing store. Mike is in the office machine business. Each of these jobs allow us enough flexibility to do what we want to do. Right now we’re saving up vacation time. We tour Europe once a year because we’re on a German record label [TaXim Records]. Usually we’re leaving town on Friday nights and returning on Sunday after doing a couple weekend shows."
But could his band gig earn him enough to live on?
"If we wanted to damn the torpedoes and go for it–and I think that’s risky–then, yeah, we could do it, but none of us are willing to do that. Maybe when we’re older we’ll want to do that, but for now I can honestly say we’ve reached a level where we’re all really quite happy. It’s our outlet. Some guys go out and play golf; we go out and play music."
But working 40 or more hours a week, being a family man, constant touring every weekend, late-night recording sessions, booking shows, and doing interviews–it’s got to take a toll. Since Barnick already makes a great living at his day job, why do the music thing?
"Why do people play music? Why do they do anything? There’s a kind of a bug that musicians catch. We have the bug, and it doesn’t appear to be going away. I can only speak for myself and for Mike and Bill, because we’re so interconnected after playing together for 25 years, but music is something we got caught up in as young men, and we’ve never been able to stop. Maybe it’s something to do with leaving people with smiles on their faces. It’s a real treat to do that. There’s a certain satisfaction being able to create fun."
But Barnick and the other Drifters decided that if they were going to take time off from their work, it would have to be worth it financially, too.
"It is a business, without a doubt," said Barnick. "We have an accountant. Bill and I own our record company. We make money with it; we have to. If we’re going to take time away from our jobs, we have a rule: We have to make twice as much each day we’re away when we should be at work. When we go to Europe, we come home with that kind of money. Hey, man, we’re big in Europe!"
The Cache Valley Drifters play Castoro Cellars Winery this Saturday, June 5. See this week’s music section for more information.
Lisa Deyo: Choreographer, Stay-at-Home Mom
At 16 years old Lisa Deyo (then Lisa Freeman) left high school and San Luis Obispo to go, on her own, to New York, where she planned to begin her career as a professional dancer. After several years of hard work and eventual disillusionment with the dance world, she washed her hands of dance and returned to San Luis Obispo.
"I had about 20 jobs [when I returned]," said Deyo, 34. "I was a waitress, a bar-back, a silk-screen cleaner, worked in an art department, developed film, cleaned houses, pulled weeds–I did whatever I could. I tried going to school. I hated it all. I found I couldn’t not dance."
She decided to return to the professional dance world, but in a smaller way. She took jobs at theme parks, the kind of thing "you do in the summer when you’re in high school," which led to some other California jobs. But for a long time Deyo’s knees had been deteriorating, and she knew her career as a professional dancer couldn’t last forever.
It was also an extremely poor existence. Even when she was at the top of her career she was barely eking out a middle-class income and was taxed further by the itinerant lifestyle that took her from hotel to hotel and city to city.
"I had one of the best concert company jobs in the country with Hubbard Street," said Deyo. "Unlike most dance jobs, it was a year-long contract and came with full health benefits. Most dance jobs are seasonal. You work for a few months, then go on unemployment until you find another job. But I was only making $24,000, and the highest-paid dancers in the company only made $30,000."
Since she stopped dancing professionally four years ago she’s been slowly building a secondary art career as a choreographer–not an easy thing to launch from San Luis Obispo.
"I knew I wanted to choreograph since I was 10, but I didn’t know I would like it as much as I do. I didn’t think it would be as fulfilling as dance. But for this time in my life, it’s the best thing I could be doing."
The first time Deyo was paid to choreograph was at age 19, for the San Luis Obispo High School production of "Bye-Bye Birdie." She was paid $50. Since then she has choreographed several local productions, but after traveling the world as a professional dancer and interpreting dances created by some of the world’s greatest choreographers–Martha Graham, Bob Fosse–Deyo had her sights set a bit higher.
"Could I make a living doing choreography, just working in San Luis County? No," conceded Deyo. "I think there are choreographers at [Allan] Hancock [College] who make a living, but they’re also teachers and dancers–resident artists. Those are full-time jobs.
"To really make a living as a choreographer I’d have to be selling pieces to out-of-the-area companies. And that is something I can do from here, but I’m at the beginning of my career."
Her career got a boost two months ago when one of her dances was chosen as one of eight finalists for the International Competition of Classical Choreography, part of the International Festival of Dance in Paris, France.
Just being chosen was a remarkable feat, but the difficult part was yet to come; Deyo had to form a company of dancers and get them to Paris to compete. There was simply no way she could pay for it herself. So she did what few artists are capable of: She asked the community to support her.
In just six weeks, Deyo was able to raise $11,000, which helped defray the cost of airline tickets, accommodations, costumes, and a small recompense for her dancers.
"My career is possible due to a combination of factors all working together. The people of San Luis have known me since I was a little girl dancing. I couldn’t have done this anywhere else. That’s what’s so great about this town."
Even though she didn’t win the competition, being a finalist gave her credibility in the dance world. Now major dance companies not only take her phone calls, but they also negotiate to buy her dances.
"Before I went to Paris only people [in the dance world] who knew me took me seriously. Now they all do."
But even if Deyo did manage to sell four or five pieces to companies every year, she’d still be making just $30,000.
"Luckily I married well," she said.
Her husband, Jacques, has a successful bicycle clothing company, allowing Deyo to be a stay-at-home mom and part-time artist.
"If I didn’t have Jacques, I wouldn’t be a choreographer. Dance is really a royal occupation, and it worked best when kings and queens had a stable of dancers they took care of. I also don’t think it would be possible if I hadn’t have gone to Paris, and that was due to the kindness of strangers."
Which brings up another point. The reason many local artists have to reconcile making art with making a living is because they choose to stay here, where it’s extremely difficult to earn a living in the arts.
"I think if you scratch the surface, you’ll find a lot of very talented artists who have put their careers on hold so they can live here," said Deyo. "You have to be willing to compromise. For me, it’s worth it. When I was in New York I would go to the road median on Broadway, plug my ears, and look up through the few trees that were there and pretend I was in a park back in San Luis Obispo."
Glen Starkey writes for New Times so he can paint.
Writers Try Short Shorts!
A comparison of the world’s best prose poem of the last twenty-five years (according to me) with the world’s best short short story (according to Florida State University in 1996) serves further to distinguish the short short as a literary form. The prose poem is Carolyn Forché’s poem, "The Colonel." Forché, I recall from a visit she made to Wisconsin some years ago, commented that "The Colonel" wasn’t originally meant to be a poem at all; it was a scrap of notes that got accidentally wedged in the manuscript of The Country Between Us. When her publisher found the "notes" and praised the "poem," she decided to retain it in the book. At any rate, I’ve designated it the world’s best prose poem, at least for purposes of comparison. It’s dated May, 1978, and it was written in response to Forché’s visit to El Salvador.
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
Perhaps the first question to ask is whether this is a poem at all. Forché said that, originally at least, it wasn’t. It’s written in sentences, not lines, and seems to be a piece of prose. How is it a poem? One might start with the language: it’s in blunt, declarative sentences, relentless, unvarying, as if trapped in its own grammar, reflecting the sense of entrapment in the situation and theme. But the language is also beautiful, lyrical and musical. The sound of the words is important in and of itself. There’s considerable internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration: "The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house;" "Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace." This is the kind of language one finds more readily in lyric poems than in short stories or essays. The vivid evocative imagery is also typical of poetry–the pattern of food imagery, for example, coffee, sugar, lamb, wine, mangoes, salt, bread, ears like dried peach halves. The poem is structured on a juxtaposition of the normal and everyday, the beautiful and savory–food, TV, family–with the inhuman and horrifying, the grotesque and unsavory–violence, murder, death. The juxtaposition creates a sense of unreality, a surrealism in what is a very casually described and realistic scene: daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol, and a man’s scooped-out kneecaps. The fact that the cop show is in English suggests America’s complicity in the scene. The tone, the author’s attitude toward the subject, further underlines the horror–it’s all reported in an almost neutral, factual way; the restraint, the enforced objectivity, intensifies the emotion. It’s a bleak world in which the dead ears are still "alive" in a way, still bearing witness to atrocities. Thus, the piece has many of the elements of a poem–lyrical language important for itself; vivid evocative imagery; an attention to subtleties of tone; surprising metaphors.
It does, of course, also tell a story, but not in the way a typical short story would. Rather than a character in the story, or a narrator, or the author, telling the story, this piece evokes a story. It’s an evocation of a world, a mood, a theme. Forché is talking more to herself than to us; we overhear her. If a narrator were to tell this story it would have a very different feel and tone: "I went to this colonel’s house in El Salvador. We had dinner and I met his daughter and son. At the end of the dinner he spilled some ears onto the floor." Of course, what this version would also lack is the rhythm of poetry. The word "verse" comes from the Latin "verso" meaning a turning. Forché’s poem is characterized by a turning and returning, a rhythm of repetition, a recurrence of grammatical and syntactical structures: "I was;" "His daughter filed;" "There were;" "the moon swung;" "Some of the ears;" "Some of the ears." This rhythm of repetition, as opposed to a rhythm of continuity, is typical of poetry.
Although such simplistic distinctions between poetry and prose are always suspect, they seem useful in distinguishing Forché’s poem from Brian Hinshaw’s short short story that follows. Forché’s piece isn’t, of course, a lyric poem; although its lyrical elements ensure its status as poetry, it would lose a great deal by being broken up into lines. It would lose some of the starkness of the prose, some of the impact of the juxtapositions, and some of the neutrality of the tone. It is, I would argue, a prose poem: the language and rhythm and voice of poetry in the shape and tone of prose.
Brian Hinshaw’s "The Custodian," the World’s Best Short Short Story for 1996 according to Sundog Magazine, is, by contrast, more clearly prose.
The job would get boring if you didn’t mix it up a little. Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through. Couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire. So for a kick, I would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with the bucket, and set her going. She was best at the songs you’d sing with a group–"Oh Susanna," campfire stuff. Any kind of Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into "Let It Snow" during a heat spell. We’d try to make her to take up a song from the radio or some of the old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those. Although once I had her do "How Dry I Am" while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.
Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partways into "Auld Lang Syne" and the daughter says "oh oh oh" like she had interrupted scintillating conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet. And the daughter looks at me the way a girl does at the end of an old movie and she says "my god," says "you’re an angel," and now I can’t do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.
The question I initially posed about "The Colonel" was whether it was really a poem. Maybe it was a short short story. The question one might ask about "The Custodian" is whether it is really a story. Perhaps it’s a prose poem. "The Custodian" seems, however, even more clearly a story than "The Colonel" does a poem. The language, for example, which in "The Colonel" is lyrical and dense and important for itself, in "The Custodian" is more idiomatic, conversational, prosy–not lyrical at all. The story is told, not evoked, and the whole is structured on a variant of the classic story form, which moves from a beginning in the middle of things, through some exposition and a rising action, to a turning point, climax, and resolution. The short short story is too short to follow that whole curve, so it often follows a variant (and this may be one major distinction between the short short and the regular short story). Structured more like the joke, the short short often begins in the middle of things, skips the exposition or summary, proceeds with the rising action to, if not a turning point or climax, an epiphany or revelation, which is often like the punch line of a joke.
"The Custodian," for example, starts in the middle of things by introducing the main character and the job that defines him, and how it might get boring unless he "mixed it up a bit." Examples of "mixing it up" follow–how he can make his patient sing any song, how he makes fun of her, how her daughter misinterprets what he’s doing as loving care and so unintentionally shames him that he’ll never do it again. The custodian has an epiphany (a punch line that suggests the joke’s on him), a spiritual revelation that changes him. This narrative curve distinguishes Hinshaw’s short short story from both Forché’s prose poem, and from a regular short story.
Further, character is important to Hinshaw, in ways it isn’t to Forché. Forché, the author herself, is the speaker of her poem, and she’s talking as much to herself as to us; a character in the story is the speaker of "The Custodian" and he’s talking to us, the audience. In Forché’s prose poem, the colonel is a type, and the speaker is our eyes and ears–there’s no real growth or change or development on the part of anyone in the poem. In Hinshaw’s short short story, the narrator is an individual–the reader gets a clear sense of him through his idiomatic speech, his attitude to his job, and his sense of humor. And the narrator learns something about himself and life in general, and changes as a result. The daughter’s misinterpretation of his actions makes him see his patient’s humanity and his own crassness, and he feels he will never be the same again.
So, to summarize the differences between Forché’s prose poem and Hinshaw’s short short story: Language is used differently: in Forché, it’s an end in itself; in Hinshaw, it’s a means to an end. The narrative mode is different: in Forché, the narrative is evoked through a rhythm of repetition–we overhear the narrator; in Hinshaw, the story is told through a rhythm of continuity–the narrator talks more directly to us. The concern for character is different: in Forché, the characters are types and less important for themselves than for the emotions they evoke; in Hinshaw, the characters are more important as individuals. The structure is different: Forché moves by repetition and juxtaposition; Hinshaw uses a variant of the classic story form, moving from the middle of an action, through several scenes, to a revelation or epiphany for the central character.
Of course, it might be argued that these distinctions may just be true of Forché and Hinshaw; they may not characterize prose poems and short short stories in general. In fact, my students at Wisconsin and I test them every time we read a new short piece or write one of our own. We also test distinctions between the short short story and the regular story, noting differences of character, style, narrative mode, tone, pacing, and dialogue, in a semester-long course I teach annually. What began as an experiment ten years ago–a one-time-only "special topics" course–has now become a permanent part of the undergraduate creative writing curriculum. Mildred I. Reid and Delmar E. Bordeaux, in Writers Try Short-Shorts! (All Known Types with Examples) long ago argued the virtues of such a course.
It is, however, to the beginning writer that the short short story has especially endeared itself. He finds this brief form a valuable proving ground for assimilating fiction techniques in a most economical manner. Here he gets the opportunity to try his wings on brief flights in preparation for the longer soarings necessary for the short story or the novel.
With the short short story, the beginning writer finds also a ready market for his work. An established name is not needed to sell a short short even to the best of markets. All that is required is that the story itself be good, and all markets are wide open to the most obscure unknown.
For these reasons the short short story recommends itself highly also to high school and college classes in creative writing. In addition, the teacher of such a class finds the short short story, once he understands its principles, simple to explain. Assignments in this form are easy to correct and criticize, and the enthusiasm which students show for the short short makes the teaching of it a pleasure.
There are other reasons for teaching and writing the short short. Over the years I have found that many beginning fiction writers, unable to sustain a narrative for more than eight to ten pages, try, nevertheless, to do in those pages what Flannery O’Connor, or John Updike, or Joyce Carol Oates, or William Faulkner did in thirty to forty pages. The result is often a truncated, unfinished piece. The short short form encourages a young writer to match more appropriately his or her subject matter to the space available. Using published short shorts as models for beginning students is perhaps more realistic than expecting the students to emulate the longer masterpieces that appear in most of the college fiction anthologies.
But even for more advanced writers, the short short can prove salutary. Not only does it promote economy and precision of language; it can open up rich new areas of subject matter and mode. The length of the short short, I have found, encourages young writers to experiment more, to explore wild and often bizarre territory. Without the sometimes daunting pressure of having to sustain a narrative for twenty or more pages, students are more likely to pursue odd premises and take risky chances, moving outside the known and autobiographical to the unknown and fanciful. The range and variety of theme and subject matter I find in my short short classes far exceeds that of my regular fiction workshops in which the same kinds of stories tend to show up semester after semester. Short short classes always seem to promote the surprising and unusual.
Of course, it is not only students who remain intrigued with the possibilities of the short short. Many established fiction writers today have tried their hand at the short short, and many poets have used the form, as I have, to segue into fiction. Short shorts provide important links in the sequence of stories I recently published as Quick Bright Things, and I currently find myself writing a novel. And not a one-page novel, either.
Short short stories have been around at least as long as people have had the language to make them, and they will probably survive as far into the future as one can imagine. Their special popularity today may, in part, be due to the speed at which we live, in which the attention span of "one sitting" by which Poe defined the short story, has become shorter and shorter. But the great short short story expands well beyond its minimalist limitations.
Jerome Stern, who administered the World’s Best Short Short Story competition for years before his untimely death, once described what, for him, a winning short short must do. He compared reading it to entering, on a sunny day, a dark room in which a party was going on. At first his eyes, unaccustomed to the dark, would see almost nothing, just movement and shape. Gradually, as his eyes adjusted, he would begin to see people, and then details of furnishing and decor. Every time he left the room for a breath of air, and then returned, he would see new things–the party and the contents of the room would in some ways be familiar, but would also have changed. He could go back again and again, and always find something new; it would never be quite the same. Invite him to that party, that room, he said, and he’d be happy. You might even end up with a hundred dollars and a crate of Florida oranges.
Originally published: "Writers Try Short Shorts!" The Writer’s Chronicle 33.6 (2001): 40-46.