30 Stories, Day 26: Nicolas was…

Alright. I admit it: after twenty-five days I was looking for a shortcut. (Note to self: use previous sentence as beginning of a short story.) I am talking, of course, about my thirty-day challenge to read one short story a day and write about it in long-term efforts to improve my own writing and get published.

In scanning the table of contents in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors, an anthology I picked up in December, a number of titles caught my eye, but there was one selection in particular: “Nicolas was…”.

It was one page.

Perhaps more intrigued than relieved to find that short a story, I flipped to it. I’m not sure what my expectations were; I’m not sure that I had any. Actually, if I expected anything it was probably to find that the story was so short that I could not possibly glean anything from it, it would not be worth reporting (I should have known better: this is Neil Gaiman we’re talking about), and, ultimately having to read another, I would have spent my thirty seconds in vain.

Not so.

Today, in salute to the perfect brevity that is “Nicolas was…” I am not providing an excerpt or a synopsis. Instead, I encourage you to invest thirty seconds and read

Nicolas was…” by Neil Gaiman

yourself, and then (if you so please), come back and read my observations. Note my observations contain spoilers, so if you’re going to read them, read the story first!

Observations

HOLY CRAP Neil Gaiman is a GENIUS.

I think, him being the accomplished author of Stardust and Coraline and several other books as well as another short story of his I recently enjoyed, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” I already knew as much.

And yet here I stand, dazzled and envious of the simplicity of the feat he achieved in “Nicolas was…”: how, using a few concise details, a little modification, and just enough of the familiar—“Ho. Ho. Ho.”—that we recognize it beyond doubt, Gaiman takes a (pretty much) universally-understood concept, Santa Claus, and completely recasts the story behind it.

I stand in awe.

It’s an easy recipe. A forehead slapper: a why didn’t I think of that? revelation. I think, after reading this, I will keep my own eyes trained for anything else that might make such a subject matter—something universally recognized—and one day attempt to do the same.

Until then—well, and probably always—hats off, Mr. Gaiman.

Vocab

No new words this time.

Only four (five, if I round up to the end up of the month) stories remain. Let us see what they will bring.

30 Stories, Day 21: Almost No Memory

Today’s story in my 30 day reading challenge is modern. A bit of a veer from what I’ve been reading, but then , a diet is nothing if not well-balanced, I am reading to write better (with the long term aim of getting work published in lit mags), and modern lit mags do seem to love a good modern work of fiction.

“Almost No Memory” comes from Lydia Davis’ fiction anthology of the same title, and made a most pleasurable change of pace.

“Almost No Memory” by Lydia Davis

[Abridged] She remembered enough to get by, and to do her work, but she did not learn from what she did, or heard, or read. And so she kept good notebooks and added to them year by year, and because many years passed this way, she had a long shelf of these notebooks, in which her handwriting became smaller and smaller.

Synopsis

There is a bright woman with little to no capacity for memory. She has a sharp mind, and good ideas, and is capable, but she simply does not retain anything she reads, or hears, or does, or works on. She keeps notebooks (of ideas, and thoughts, and notes on what she is reading) simply for the record.

Sometimes, when the fancy strikes, she will open one of these earlier notebooks and look back at what she has written. Sometimes she will note this transaction in her present journal; other times not, because something feels wrong about it.

Most of what she reads in her past notebooks is new to her, but sometimes she recognizes it with such clarity it is as if she has only thought it earlier that day. This leads to a quandary: is this the same, or different from thinking a thought the first time? How much of these books are her and aren’t her? They are both what she knows and doesn’t—or which? When she reads an old volume how is she to understand whether she is thinking what she reads, or having an old thought for the second time, or looking upon a thought she shall never have again?

Observations

This story clashes with pretty much all the others I have read in the last twenty days, in that there is no driving action; no narrative plot. It’s a unique creature of description: a story of character and habit. And a short one, at that—only two and a half pages in print, with large text.

Like many of the other stories before it, the character was neither named nor physically described. The presentation is third person and kept generic—but the slice of life offered is thought-provoking and oddly relatable.

This modern short also reinforces a couple of quick things I’ve picked up in scanning literary magazines as well as what they are looking for:

  • Short is good. Many lit mags these days seem to be looking for flash fiction, or alternatively will only consider pieces up to 1,000, or 2,000, or 3,000 words maximum.
  • Experimental is good. This story isn’t really even a slice of life/vignette; it’s more of simply a portrait. I look forward to seeing other unexplored mediums in story-telling and hope it might inspire a few deviations of my own.

Vocab

None this time! Try again tomorrow 😉