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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 life once.
    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 it now.
    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 finishing.
    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.

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