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Member Dispatch: Heidi Pitlor and the Transcendent American Short Story

by Elizabeth Cameron

A crew of 50 gathered to hear from the best-read story reader in the land...

A crew of 50 gathered to hear from the best-read story reader in the land…

“I was also tempted to develop my own definitions of what made one story successful and another less so… [But one] that met my initial requirements—say, a story that could be considered risky, profound, and deft—often just didn’t rise off the page for me, while a safer, seemingly more quiet story stayed with me on a deeper level, even months later. In the end, my observations and requirements changed and faded and all but disappeared.”

This is Heidi Pitlor writing in 2007, in her first introduction as Best American Short Stories series editor. Last Thursday she graced the Lighthouse to tell us, in her seminar “How To Write a Great (Even Best American) Short Story,” what has continued to change in the years since––what observations and requirements have reappeared; what stories are rising off the page for her.

Pitlor reads, on average, four thousand short stories a year, an act that has cultivated in her the kind of impatience from which all of our stories could benefit. It makes her alert for elements like tension in a story’s beginning—if the first few paragraphs meander, that kind of carelessness right away makes her stop reading. After all, she says, “You don’t need to swallow an oyster to know it’s bad.” She warns, too, against brown-nosing verbs, labored writing, and lazy clichés, such as starting a story with a character waking up to an alarm clock. Instead, the best stories feature a balance between tone, mood, length, voice. She responds to those clear, consistent, confident voices—be authentic, she says, balls-out, weird, humorous, brave…or, if you have to be meek, be clearly meek.

Every year, Heidi reads about 4,000 stories to select the top 120 for the guest editors.

Every year, Heidi reads about 4,000 stories to select the top 120 for the guest editors.

What grabs Pitlor are those first sentences that find middle ground between intriguing and showy––for example, the opening line to Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Horned Men,” the story we discussed from the 2013 edition: “Bob was in the dark.” The paragraph that follows, tightly constructed, gives us clues to Bob’s character, socioeconomic status, family dynamics, setting—and, of course, tension. An unanswered question makes an engaging story, gives it momentum, which, she says, a story needs even more than interesting words and sentences. She finds herself liking, too, topical stories (“Horned Men” is about the villainous mortgage brokers of recent years), and stories with a heavy foundation of research—as long as it’s incorporated naturally, of course, à la Richard Powers or, my favorites, Jim Shepard and Lauren Groff.

Many magazine editors, she finds, look too much for strangeness or navel-gazing in stories, which end up coming off as inaccessible or simply boring to her. Often, she hates to admit, the best writing is found inside the box, rather than out––a sentiment that echoes her instinctual response back in 2007. In the end, what else hasn’t changed? As she wrote in that very first introduction, “I was drawn to stories that transcended something…the stories I chose twisted and turned away from the familiar and ultimately took flight, demanding their own particular characters and structures and prose.”

Be transcendent. A tall order, but isn’t it also the only one we’ve ever had?

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Born and raised in Seaside, Oregon, Elizabeth Cameron earned her MFA at The University of Memphis. Her short stories can be found in Narrative and, soon, FiveChapters.

One comment on “Member Dispatch: Heidi Pitlor and the Transcendent American Short Story

  1. Jay
    August 5, 2014

    Wow. I’ve been reading a short story a week for almost four years now. At that pace (which I had thought was pretty good) it’ll take me about eleven years to read as many as she does in single year!

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This entry was posted on July 28, 2014 by in Cool Events, Member dispatches, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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