It started with a 900-word story that I wrote in a day and a half, then edited over three days. I had been asked by a friend to submit a short story for consideration by clients for whom he was editing a magazine. I was proud of what I had created and optimistic for its future.
Months earlier I had submitted a story to him for inclusion in a portfolio of Toronto writers. The idea was that the clients would solicit a short story from one or more of the writers included in the portfolio. They chose someone else, but the solicited story that their selected writer submitted needed more work before the clients would consider it suitable. I had been on their short-list, but had not been selected because the story I submitted to the portfolio was considered “too overworked,” and “a bit try-hard.” Plus, the writer the clients initially selected had “books they could sell.” I did not.
Their feedback was helpful and coupled with the extremely tight deadline I felt free, if not forced, to loosen up.
Also, I’d been doing a lot of work with my students on fairy tales. We read a Kate Bernheimer article “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” from The Tin House’s The Writer’s Notebook. Bernheimer identifies four characteristics of fairy tales: “flatness”; “abstraction”; “intuitive logic”; and “normalized magic”. Then we read two of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales and one of the stories from Sheila Heti’s The Middle Stories looking for each of the four characteristics Bernheimer identifies.
As far as my own writing goes, I was interested in Bernheimer’s notion of “intuitive logic” and trying to use intuitive logic to enrich my stories.
As far as the story I’m telling here goes, as an aside to the lesson, I shared with my students the fact that way back in 2001 when I bought The Middle Stories, I imagined a rivalry with Heti, who is my contemporary and who, at the time, was friends with some of my friends. I myself had only just started writing short stories after realizing that film, with all its long days and weird hours, was not the medium for me. Still, I felt like I should already have a collection out.
So, my 900-word story—rich with intuitive logic and inspiration from both Bernheimer and Heti—was one of three stories that the clients were considering for publication. They ended up selecting a story written by Heti.
Mostly, I felt honoured that my work was considered alongside the work of someone so capable and so accomplished. Of course, I also felt a renewal of that old rivalry and even a sense that maybe that rivalry I had imagined so long ago was a sort of premonition.
To deal with my complicated feelings, I did what anyone would do: I Google-searched Heti then I Google-searched myself. She is the only Sheila Heti the search-engine cares about. Lots of other Lee Sheppards were given priority over me.
I shared this new development with my students because I thought they would find it funny. Then they Google-searched both Heti and me.
I realized I needed more of an internet presence.
My thoughts coalesced as this idea: I would write 52 short stories, one a week for a year, and share them each week on a blog. This blog.
I explained my idea to my partner. As we pulled off the highway on our way to my mother’s place, my partner, often a voice of cautious reason, suggested that it was possible that somewhere on the world wide web someone might have had the same great idea. Of course, this was possible. The modernist in me resented the possibility.
A short while later, our friend Regan Clarke was over for dinner and I was sharing my various dilemmas with her: I needed an internet presence; I had this idea, and maybe someone else had already had it. She pulled out her phone and searched “52 stories”.
Turns out that Ray Bradbury had this idea before me. Goodreads.com quotes him as saying, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
I thought for a while about taking up Bradbury’s challenge.
During this while I went to the book launch for Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What by Andrew Hood. At the launch, Regan mentioned to one of my closest friends and musical collaborators, Scott Ballem, that I was going to do a blog where I posted a new story every week. I walked home with Scott and talked about my ideas.
Then I read Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What. It was an inspiring reminder of the fearlessness exhibited by many young musicians in Guthrie’s and my cohort. Then Guthrie re-released all his demo cassettes on Bandcamp. I discovered Jim Guthrie too late to have ever heard the cassettes, so I listened to them with fresh ears. I loved them for the music, yes, but also for their joyful, boisterous, restless experimentation.
Also during the while I considered Bradbury’s challenge, I delivered a workshop at a Professional Development session for English Department heads. A colleague and I presented a creative writing activity I had developed a year earlier.
The idea was inspired by an emoji message a student sent to me. I’d been trying to figure out how to bring the concepts from Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies into my classroom. The premise of The Castle of Crossed Destinies is that a group of travelers find themselves sharing a meal and an affliction—they cannot speak. They use Tarot cards to tell their stories, stories that are interpreted for us by the narrator based on their understanding of the cards. I didn’t have any Tarot cards, but emoji seemed a simpler and more readily available source of images. My students reproduced emoji images on cards. They randomly selected a sequence of four or five images, then used the images to create short stories. The activity was a productive one and the students liked it.
The teachers liked it, too.
I decided that I would start my blog with emoji stories. Because they inspired and encouraged me, I asked for sequences of emoji from Jim Guthrie and Regan Clarke. Jim sent me two sequences. I worked with the first one and created “Microphone Satellite Dish Spaceship Alien Kiss.”
Then, I needed a name for the blog. Of course every variation of “52 stories” I could think of was taken. So I tried a phrase I’d honed when I was working on journals from my 2013-2014 teaching year—Not Know, Notice.
“Do not know, but notice,” would be the less musical way to put it, and really it’s just “Show, Don’t Tell,” rephrased and refocused to be about habits of thought. Maybe it works much better as a title for a blog of non-fiction writing, but it is still a principal I adhere to when writing fiction because it encourages me to back off and let my stories make their own meanings. Also, if I approach my thoughts about the stories with the openness that the above imperative statement demands, if I notice and honour each thought without necessarily knowing how it fits into the story I am creating, I can occasionally achieve the intuitive logic of fairy tales.
Followers of my blog will know that so far I’ve stuck with using emoji sequences created by the people around me. I have a few sequences still in my back pocket and I expect to continue soliciting and using emoji sequences for the duration of this project.
However, I have also acquired some Tarot cards and I am re-reading The Castle of Crossed Destinies and familiarizing myself with my Major and Minor Arcana before I start asking the cards for stories.
I’m looking for stories, too. My friend Marc Stonestreet of The Stonestreet Carpentry Company shared a photograph with me that reminded me of the power of a photograph to imply a story. I expect to also begin working with photographs as inspiration. The way I currently envision it, is that whenever I see the aftermath of something—like the jeans I found discarded in some tall grasses and flowers between a path and the Cowichan River in Duncan—I will write a story that would leave the same evidence.
Thank you to everyone who has provided and who will provide me with emoji sequences, thank you to emojipedia.org for helping me with meanings when the emoji aren’t speaking for themselves. Thanks to Jim and Regan, Scott, Marc Stonestreet and my partner, Jenny Gilbert, for the inspiration, encouragement and advice. Thank you to Kate Bernheimer, Sheila Heti and Italo Calvino for the various forms of inspiration. Reverend Aitor and The Misanthrope Specialty Co., thanks for the portrait.
Finally, thank you to you for reading.
Toronto, August 2, 2015