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Last updated April 25,
1999; first published to the web: March 24, 1997.
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H. Kassia Fleisher
Spinning Miss Stein's Grave
and Other Thoughts on the Order of Words in Short Fiction
I forget who said that short fiction is more like
poetry than it is like the novel, but hearing this was something that saved
my life once. Either before this or after this, I forget which, I (though
I don't like to talk about myself this way) thought that the poetry of
short fiction is found in the way it catches a moment.
Gertrude Stein once suggested (I forget exactly
how) that nothing in writing has to happen in order. This too saved my
Curled up in your reading chair with your reading
lamp and your reading glasses you find yourself, for a second, maybe, you
find yourself warm with a homesickness for your native Pennsylvania, because
someone has hit it on the head, has nailed it, has conjured that smell,
that comfort, that tree, that thing you loved—and you sit on a cold rainy
day in your apartment in Chicago warmed by Pennsylvania and thinking that
moments are never ordered, that it is language that is crucial, the way
we place the words, break the lines, bury the commas, find the essence,
the odor, the heart of some moment without fussing over the precedent.
It is the words you smell. The words are ordered,
the words are in order, though not necessarily in one order.
My life needed saving once, like all our lives need
saving from time to time, but not in order to order words. There is no
particular order for the times in which my life needed saving. My life
needed saving in order to find that moment, which may be a moment of clarity
or a moment of doubt, but does not have to be ordered amongst the others,
and does not have to smell. (Dogs smell like dogs, Miss Stein said: men
smell like men. I wonder, what do words smell like? Like trees, Benjy said.)
My life needed saving once, while sitting under
trees. There are lives in the stories you find here, lives in the trees
you smell, moments of homesickness and yearning and clarity and doubt.
And in life as in these stories there is no order to any of it. Through
the reading on the chair with the lamp and the glasses there are the smells
and the happening and it happens that you think, I have it now. I have
People ask me, How do you capture that moment. How
do you get it. But there is no one way to order a capture, no short moment
which will explain. There is no one way to think, I have it now. To explain
how to do it in order, well, first, you feel it. You feel the moment. Then
you order the words. But maybe that isn't right, and if Miss Stein were
here, instead of rolling over in her grave over there like she probably
is at this moment, she would correct me. And if she corrected me I would
tell her, because I talk back to people like Miss Stein who saved my life,
I would tell her, You will feel it at some point. Maybe not in that order,
but you will feel it and you will reach into the trees for the words and
you will order the words in order to get the moment you feel. You will
do it in order or you will do it in ordered disorder. But you are in charge
of the order. You charge the order.
At any rate, you will order the words and feel it,
or feel it and order the words—whichever order you choose as it is not
necessary to be in order—and the moment will appear because you are in
charge, you have charged, and lives need saving, lives like mine, like
yours, like Miss Stein's, who once said, In writing, not anyone finishes
anything. That is what makes a master-piece: what it is that there is no
She also said, Indeed what is imagining anything.
Someone else said, and I think I remember who, You need a bus load of faith
to get by. And I forget a lot of things, but Miss Stein remembered to say,
There is no left or right without remembering. She said, But there is no
remembering in the human mind. And not that I know anything about anything,
but people do ask me this thing about how to capture the moment a lot,
about how to create one of the master's pieces. And I tell them that you
have to feel the moment and forget the memory and trust in the words and
order the words in a way that reveals your faith and memory, so long as
you remember that you have no memory for smells except what you can capture
with the words of order.
I wish all your lives saved.
Copyright © 1997 H. Kassia Fleisher, all rights reserved
Note: All quotes of Gertrude Stein's words are from Ms
Stein's The Geographical History of America.
Kassie Fleisher received her PhD. in English from the State
University of New York at Binghamton. She has recently completed her second
novel, Blue Blazes to Dead Woman Hollow. Currently she is
at work on several projects, including a long creative essay on popular
narratology; short fiction; and freelance non-fiction works for such journals
as In These Times. She teaches writing part-time at Illinois
Institute of Technology in Chicago. Her stories have appeared in several
journals and have earned annual fiction prizes from The Dickinson
Review and Plainswoman.