This is no. 89 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I was assigned that first short short story in college, which I still return to today: Amy Hempel’s knockout “Going,” a three-page piece from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985). Sitting in my dorm room, students loud in the common area outside, I recall thinking I had missed some pages, then the unmistakable feeling that I couldn’t have possibly. That perfect last line at the very bottom of the page, punctuating a deeply satisfying story that defied conventional narrative. There are moments one experiences as a reader and writer that blow the world wide open in the best way, and reading this story was one of those; to anyone who would (pretend to) listen, I couldn’t stop talking about it.
Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation. I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting. The attention of the reader had become, in writing these brief pieces, an available consideration, if not yet a manageable one. I had assumed that short short prose was written quickly because it was so quick to read, but as so often happens, the sketches began to take longer, and serious effort, the more I learned.
In my debut story collection, I Know You Know Who I Am, published by Penguin Books last year, I wrote about queer characters trapped by (often elaborate) falsehoods. I featured several short short stories of just one or two pages to mirror the restriction that I felt the liars of my fiction not only possessed but frequently valued. These narrators and protagonists are constricted by their deceptions, and sometimes say little, or just enough, to their own ends. In this way, the shorter pieces in the book felt true, and rang out with echoes from the longer stories in the book: doublings that hinted at a presiding consciousness over the collection, which I vied to make available, if not explicit.
The short short story form is, speaking frankly, often slighted. Quick, confident work can render something more like scene, and leave the reader ambivalent. Reader investment can be hard to manage. A detail can become a redundant crutch. The best short pieces are closed systems in which elements of narrative are brought into careful relief. And resonate in brevity that masks a world of meaning and complexity beneath their small surfaces.
Several years after studying that first short short story, I attended a reading Hempel gave at the New York Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. At the time, I was working as an academic administrator for a gifted youth program (hosted by the same university) for children whose talents extended to running loudly down the hallways outside that auditorium as Hempel read beautifully from a longer story, “The Dog of the Marriage.” I remember thinking, as I sat rapt in that auditorium, how intricate the piece was. How each of its scenes delivered precise, accumulating thematic echoes. The spectacular ending. It called to mind the experience of first flipping that page—once, then again, for the words that couldn’t be there. Later, while walking from the campus gym, I passed by her near the main lawn. Of course, I couldn’t say one word.
Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.Thumbnail: Jakob Andreasen