Short Story Month Day 11: "Paper Pills"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Mike Petrik (and today is his birthday).

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I am not so sure Sherwood Anderson (pictured above immediately after being shown a Youtube clip of sea otters holding hands) would want me to tell you about his beautiful love story…

For anyone out there who has read my work, please direct all criticism and complaint to Sherwood Anderson and to his short story “Paper Pills.”  It is entirely their fault that I am here doing what I am doing. There are writers I love to read more than Anderson, and many whose work has impacted my own more substantially. But it all started with this short story, a story that I put down and thought: A) something just happened to me, and B) I want to be able to do that to others.

“Hands” seems to be the story that gets discussed the most from Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but I’ll take Paper Pills” over it any day.  It is a love story, and at right around four pages, it is a compelling depiction of a lifelong love more affecting than most romantic novels and films (sorry, The Notebook).

The story begins with Dr. Reefy’s wife already dead and gone, and him an old man forgotten by Winesburg, but within whom there remained “the seeds of something very fine.”  Then we move backward, to the story of his courtship of “the tall dark girl who became his wife.”  A story that Anderson, in a hall of fame worthy metaphor, describes as “delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in Winesburg,” the ugly apples  left hanging on the trees after the pickers have passed through that are something “only few know the sweetness of…”

The story of their love is something better read than summarized, and I hope you will.  I’ve always thought a great short story should convey something new or vital in a way that is best expressed through the words on the page and that renders any attempt at summary obsolete and unsatisfying.  I think that is true of “Paper Pills.” It is straightforward realism, largely expository, and maybe even a bit sentimental—not exactly things I look for in short fiction, but it moves me on every reading, and I wonder, often, if I would call myself a writer had I not come across it.

Brushing Up On Non-Writing Skills

Last week Sarah Handelman, a former intern who is in working as a freelance designer in London, emailed me a blog posting about an exhibit at Mayor Gallery of 44 of Sylvia Plath’s pen and ink drawings. Many of these detailed images of farm animals and house pets, ordinary objects such as women’s shoes, an umbrella and a Chianti bottle, and scenes of small town life have been included in biographies and the afterwards of her novel The Bell Jar but I have never seen them assembled as a collection. More than her poetry, her sketches show a love for the simple and homey. There’s nothing dark and disturbing here.

Like Plath, many artists are adept at more than one medium. This is true of the authors collected in The Writer’s Brush: Painting, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers by Donald Freidman. The dust jacket features one of Plath’s cubist inspired paintings, “Two Reading Women,” which shows a sophisticated use of color, texture and perspective that’s not apparent in her quaint, rather straightforward sketches.

The coffee-table sized book is full of surprises. Faulkner’s artwork couldn’t be more at odds with his much-admired dark, lyric novels about the South. Influenced by the Art Nouveau style of popular illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley and John Held, Faulkner produced handmade, illustrated books as gifts. He often took as his subjects the flappers and their beaus and set them against the backdrop of parties and social clubs. If Sherwood Anderson had not suggested that he write a novel, he might have tried to make a career of illustrating for fashion magazines.

Another favorite is E.E. Cummings, who studied art in Paris, hung out with Picasso, and published a collection of ninety-nine drawings and paintings. The pieces featured in The Writer’s Brush show a whimsical, gestural, colorful style. He never struggled to reconcile his desire to both write and paint, believing that the function of all the arts is “the expression of that supreme aliveness which is known as ‘beauty.’”

 

Kris Somerville is the marketing coordinator of The Missouri Review

When Literary Bromance Goes Bad

In 1920 Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht were friends in Chicago struggling to make a buck as fledgling writers.  Hecht, who fancied himself a wit and a conservator of literary taste, said that he didn’t think Anderson’s book The Triumph of the Egg was a work of art and surely Anderson had reservations about his just published Erik Dorn.  He proposed that they should attack each other in print, starting a fake feud for the sake of getting their names out there.

Thinking him arrogant and too casual with his criticism, Anderson wrote Hecht a letter telling him that his behavior was unbecoming for such a talented man: 

Consider just for a moment that you aren’t as specialized a thing as you think.  You and I for example are friends.  Try the experiment of saying to yourself that there aren’t any smart thoughts I may have that Anderson may not have them too.

Anderson went on to say that friendship for him wasn’t based on looking either up or down at someone, but eye to eye.  He advised that Hecht give up the bluff of being “so energetic, smart and fast” and try to be himself for a change.  

I recently came across the quote, “It’s none of your business what others think of you,” which is true.  Yet, there are rare times when one needs a friend to tell him what he least wants to hear. 

Unfortunately, Hecht didn’t appreciate Anderson’s candor and accused him of a Pollyanna complex.  They did not talk or see each other again for twenty years.  Their literary “Bromance” took a final tumble. 

There have been times in my own life when fellow writers have given me advice that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later.   

One friend warned that I tried too hard to be cute and clever in my fiction.  “Just tell a good story,” he counseled.

Some of the moments I enjoy most in fiction are when a friend sees in another flaws that they share.  In Christopher Isherwood’s “Sally Bowles” from The Berlin Stories, Chris accuses Sally of always trying to shock people with her flamboyant style of dress and sexual escapades.

“You’re naturally shy with strangers, I think: so you’ve got into this trick of trying to bounce them into approving or disapproving of you, violently,” he tells her, as she stretches out languidly on the sofa powdering her nose, obviously not enjoying his analysis.

Sometimes friends can go too far, mistaking cruelty for candor.  In the movie Margo at the Wedding, Margo-played skillfully by a dressed-down, almost mousy-looking Nicole Kidman-ambushes her sister and her own son with endless debilitating insights and observations in the name of “being honest.”  Her unchecked behavior points out that we don’t have to drag our friends to the alter of truth on every count.

Yet the fact is that most of life’s meaningful lessons don’t come from parents, teachers or preachers but from peers delivered not as a sermon or lecture but as a whisper for our ears only.