Until This Is Over - Bit 1
Stories of all shapes and sizes — myths, legends, novels, short stories, memoirs, whispered confessions, jokes, lies, tall tales — have fascinated me since my earliest memories. That fascination grew as I learned to read, as I began to choose for myself what I would read, as I studied unforgettable stories and novels in high school and college, and as I began to write stories of my own and to study the craft of fiction.
Along the way, I found many others who shared my fascination with fiction, and they are some of my favorite people. I even married one of them — Cathrine — and we’ve had his-and-hers bookmarks in many books for close to 30 years now.
I’ve given favorite books to friends and received treasured gift books in return. I’ve joined multiple book discussion groups, some of which have endured for years, and I’ve read and had lively discussions about more than 100 novels in those years. I’ve struck up conversations with strangers in coffee shops and on airplanes by inquiring about the books they’re reading (yeah, I’m that guy). Some of those strangers with books have become friends.
What is it about a shared passion for fiction that generates such powerful social engagement? Stories nurture us. Stories elevate us. Stories enrich us. Stories make us kinder, more empathetic people. And kind, empathetic people are wonderful people to keep close.
Welcome to Story Course.
My goal with Story Course is to encourage you to read more deeply, more attentively, to peek behind the curtain and get a closer look at the magic that happens when you find yourself lost in a book, disconnected from time and place, and transported to an alternative reality. I believe we can become more finely attuned to the way a story works its magic upon us and how a writer casts the spell:
How we respond — emotionally, intellectually, even physically — to what we read
How we interpret what we read through the lens of our experiences, values, beliefs, and understanding of the world
How our responses and interpretations evolve and become more nuanced through the course of our reading a story
How writers use the elements of fiction to make all of these things happen within us
Studying, investigating, and discussing those “hows”, with abundant input from all of you, is what I hope to have happen here in Story Course.
Here’s how Story Course works
We’ll begin with a section-by-section close reading of a short story, to explore and discuss what happens to us and within us as we read. What do we feel, what do we think, what do we wonder about? I hope it will inspire a lively discussion in the comments.
Then we’ll double back and look deeper at the elements of that same story: setting, characters, plot, pacing, diction, point of view. I know it sounds alarmingly academic, and maybe triggers in you unpleasant flashbacks of high school English or freshman comp. I ask you to hang with me, as I will try hard to avoid being eggheaded or obtuse. (Is using the word “obtuse” eggheaded? Probably.) I think I can make it interesting, lively, and fun, and if you’ll stick around and share your thoughts in the comments on each post, then I know it will be interesting, lively, and fun. Maybe we’ll learn something from each other along the way.
By the way, I know this bit-at-a-time approach is an incredibly unnatural way to read a story. But it’s an incredibly powerful way to study a story, and that’s what we’re up to here. George Saunders, one of my literary idols — he’s such a humble guy, I think he’d be embarrassed that I use the word idol, but it’s accurate — uses this page-by-page, guided close reading approach to masterful effect in his 2021 book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to pick one up at your local bookstore (use Indiebound.org to find a local shop, or order online from Bookshop.org while supporting a local shop).
For Story Course, I’m going to use one of my own short stories. I hope that doesn’t seem offensively self-promoting. Trust me, I’d rather use any of hundreds of amazing short stories I’ve read from much better writers than myself. The advantage of using my story is that I know I have permission, and I can save myself the work of querying successful authors or their estates or of navigating the complexities of copyright and fair use laws.
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Ready to get started?
I know I am, first-day-of-class anxiety and all. So let’s dive in. Here are the first four paragraphs of my short story, Until This Is Over.
He came down the road in no apparent hurry, slowing now and again to gaze into a window of a house as he passed. It was a Monday and the new year’s holiday and things were quiet on the street, kids and adults alike sleeping late, stores closed, no place anybody needed to be. No cars. A jet high overhead, silent, trailing a white plume that broadened as it tailed away, a slash across the pale blue sky. To the east, clouds billowed above the horizon, oozing reds and purples like an open wound.
Down the block across the street a U-Haul truck sat in a driveway, doors open, nobody around. As he drew nearer he could see that the garage door was open, and inside, at the back of the garage, the door that led into the house was also open. Same with the front door. No sign of any person outside or in.
He looked over his shoulder at the house behind him, the curtains drawn closed in the picture window. Then he turned back and stepped off the curb, crossed the street, and moved up the driveway alongside the moving truck and up the steps onto the porch.
“Hello?” he called into the nearly empty front room, loudly enough for his voice to carry deeper into the house. He waited, looked to his left at the truck, back into the room, then at the quiet street behind him.
Okay, that’s the first bit. Sit with it for a moment, pay attention to whatever it is you’re thinking, or feeling, or reacting to. Again, I acknowledge that this is not a normal way to read, and if you haven’t done close reading before, it can be frustrating. I hope you’ll stick with it, as the rewards should (eventually) outweigh the frustration.
Now read that bit of the story again, paying attention to what’s going on inside you as you read:
What do you feel?
What do you notice?
What are you wondering about?
What do you think will happen next?
A useful exercise, if you’re inclined toward exercise,1 is to jot a few notes before you dip into the comments. (In fact, dedicating a small notepad to Story Course would be a good practice to adopt.) Try to capture where you are right now, with respect to the story, before you start reading others’ comments.
When you’re ready, scroll down and share your notes in the comments.
Also, a sincere plea from one fiction lover to another: Be the best version of you in the comments. Dissenting opinions are welcome, but respect is essential. Be kind.
One more thing: If you’ve read this story before, please keep what you know to yourself — no spoilers. Try to read with fresh eyes and participate in the comments as though you’re seeing the story for the first time along with everyone else.
After you’ve shared your observations and curiosities in the comments, go on to the next lesson.
“Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes.”
-some literary wit