Few writers have mastered even one form of story-telling let alone three. With Joy Williams it all depends on how you classify. She doesn’t write plays or scripts. It’s all prose. Everything happens on the page. So what options could there be? Novel? Check. She’s written four, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer, and another is being republished in a new edition next year. Short story? Definite check. She’s been in the New Yorker, so…
But if you are a frequenter of fiction writing on the internet, you probably know of one other form that has been in vogue since the collapsing of the average attention span. Flash fiction or microfiction—basically really short short stories, usually under 1,000 words. Microfiction lends itself to internet writing because, as it seems common sense would tell you, shorter fiction requires less time on the part of the reader, therefore writing them should require less time on the part of the writer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a testament to the difficulty of shortness. Each story in this collection is about one or two pages long, but they weren’t written with internet-length or disposibility in mind. They are like mini-novels with only the most essential detail included, boiled down to their most bare form.
My favorite story in Ninety-Nine Stories of God is called DRESSER:
Our mother was an alcoholic, though she’d stopped drinking twelve years before, but once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. She’d had all those cakes. She moved around a lot, but wherever she was when the anniversary rolled around she’d get a cake.
Now she was dying. She’d stopped eating and was skin and bones, lying on a bed in her house, a house she’d said more than once she’d bequeathed to me. The house was the last thing I wanted.
I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation, one’s mother dying only once.
Our mother’s eyes were dark, black almost. Earlier that morning the skin on her arms was bleeding, but then it stopped.
She’d been quiet for hours, but then she said in a surprisingly strong voice, “Where is the refuge for my bewildered heart?”
It made me shudder. It was beautiful.
“Guide me, Good Shepherd,” she said, “Walk with me.”
My sister had to leave the room. I could hear her crying into the telephone. Who on earth could she be calling, I wondered, and why, at this moment? We know nothing about one another really, though we’re only a year apart.
Then our mother said in that same strong voice, like a singer’s voice:
“Tony, I’d like a martini. Make me a martini, honey.”
But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I felt she’d regret it. I felt it just wasn’t right.
I cannot stand Joy Williams for being able to write this story using only 247 words. I am so jealous. I couldn’t write a story 1/3 this impactful with 5,000 words.
She leaves out all the right things. For instance the narrator says her mother’s house is the last thing she wants, but she never says what she does want, and Joy Williams is a genius for never telling us.
Also notice in the 3rd paragraph the tense switches to present and then back to past before the sentence ends. “I’m there with my sister, who is useless in situations like this, though for both of us it was a unique situation…” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer do that before.
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