Why Write a Happy Story?

by David Ebenbach

More than once I’ve been asked why I don’t write happy stories. I’ve been asked by friends, family members, a couple of strangers, and even the president of the college where I teach, who stopped me at a faculty lunch last year to find out why my stories all had to be so sad. Around the same time, my wife, too, messed up a perfectly nice date by reminding me (I was complaining about how hard it is to get published) that, after all, people like to read about hope, beauty, and wonder. The temptation was to just call everyone Philistines and get back to work; if these people wanted me to sugar-coat my writing, then they were asking me to violate the core principle of art: to always seek the truth. But – I began to wonder after that date with my wife – what if I was the one violating that core principle? My wife pointed out that while of course sadness is part of the human experience, so is joy. There’s pain and pleasure in the world, fear and bravery. Aren’t all those things true?

Still – I wasn’t sure the short story could handle that kind of thing. For some time I had believed that the form was built for sadness. When my college’s president approached me at that faculty lunch, looking for answers, I launched headlong into a dissertation: in the same way that the repetitive poetic form of the sestina is well-designed to handle obsession and the steadily-unfolding sonnet great for developing an idea in stages, I said, maybe short fiction was a vehicle best-suited to gloom. After all, you hear that in literature only trouble is interesting, and short stories are probably too short to get our troubled characters out of trouble once they’re in it. That’s especially true if (as we’re told) short stories are generally more character-driven than plot-driven, and if the problem is rooted in the character’s personality; bad personalities can’t realistically change in just a few pages, can they?

But sometimes it’s not until you speak an idea out loud, one you’ve long held, that you start to see how flawed it is. I had read, I knew, some short stories that had left me feeling uplifted rather than sobered, awe-struck rather than bereft. Clearly the form wasn’t altogether incapable of dealing with these things.

Around this time I got a fellowship to spend a month writing at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. MacDowell, which meant that I would have room and board, a studio, and a whole month of uninterrupted time to devote to my writing. This was a chance not just to write short stories but also to see what was possible for the form.

Before I left for New Hampshire I asked friends to recommend stories that were oriented toward humor, hope, possibility and awe, but that were not corny or cheap. The suggestions poured in. Then, when I was at MacDowell, I started each day with a story from the stack. I read, and read, and wrote, and took notes – lots of notes.

In my reading, I found that some stories focus on opportunities rather than stumbling blocks. For example, in Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a homeless Native American man works to earn enough money to buy his grandmother’s regalia from a pawn shop. In Melissa Pritchard’s “Sweet Feed,” a prison cook has the chance to cook a redemptive last meal for a death row inmate. Stories like these can emphasize hope, success and progress – as long as the character seizes the opportunity.

It is even possible to write a story – at least a very short one – where nothing is actually wrong, where there is no trouble at all. Rick Bass’ story “The Canoeists” describes an experience defined not by tension but by awe; a man and woman spend day after day exploring the luminous world around them in rambling canoe rides. Bass carries the reader forward only through the pleasure of experiencing the story move toward a climax of greater wonder. I was particularly surprised to realize that I had once written this kind of story myself, a story called “Danseuses Nues,” first published in the Greensboro Review, about two people wandering bright-eyed through Montreal. When they’re halfway up Mount Royal the narrator says, aptly enough, “Always we moved upward.”

This latter kind of story raises serious questions about the traditional understanding of fiction, in which stories must be powered primarily by struggle and conflict. Many stories are, but clearly not all. Even in a story with some tension, a plot can be driven forward by kindness rather than conflict.

In Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” the protagonist encounters a long string of sympathetic and helpful people, and in fact the kindness increases and increases as the story goes on, culminating in the pawn shop owner’s decision to give up the grandmother’s regalia for just five dollars rather than the thousand he’d originally demanded. The protagonist, in the wake of this beneficence, says, “Do you know how many good men live in this world? Too many to count!”

What I kept confronting as I dug deeper into my stack of fiction was the way that writers reveal their worldview – what they think of their characters, and, by extension, people more generally – in their work. And when I saw this I naturally started reconsidering just exactly what it is that short stories are designed to explore. Earlier I suggested that this character-driven form is particularly interested in (and doubtful about) characters’ ability to change. After that intense month’s worth of reading and writing, I’m convinced that this suggestion of mine was wrong. For the most part, stories do not explore characters’ ability to change; they explore who characters already are.

In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” the narrator – an emotionally shut down man if ever there was one – tries to describe cathedrals to a blind man, and at one point gives up, saying, “I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me to do it. I can’t do any more than I’ve done.” This is a thesis – a thesis arguing that this character does not have it in him to succeed.

Yet the blind man forces him to continue, and the narrator does succeed. The blind man says, “You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you?” Look at that language; crucially, it’s not that the narrator has changed – it’s that the narrator has discovered existing inner resources he didn’t know he had.

Now, is Carver’s narrator – a lousy husband and a schlump of a human being – forever redeemed, his life turned completely around? Probably not. So Carver had a choice – he could have ended the story in the transcendent moment between the narrator and the blind man, or he could have kept writing into the next morning, shown us a largely unchanged narrator.

By choosing to end with the transcendent moment, Carver emphasizes the truth of hope and possibility rather than the other truth of failure and disappointment. Similarly, Alexie ends his story with the narrator receiving the regalia rather than dwelling on his ongoing homelessness.

Our stories reveal what we believe. What do you believe about life? About people? About your characters? Have you decided in advance that they are incapable of success (often this has been my own unnoticed assumption) or, for that matter, that they’re incapable of failure – or are both of those possibilities still available? Note that a worldview is not truth – it’s just a way of seeing the world. Have you examined your worldview? Is there another truthful way you might see the world?

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about darkness. As a matter of fact, darkness is a significant part of life and so we have to talk about it sometimes. People who are hurting need to be able to find themselves in literature. Things that are wrong with the world need to be exposed. To be sure, if you always write uplifting or reassuring stories, I think you ought to ask yourself whether you’re paying enough attention to the darkness. Sadness is indeed crucial to literature – but what I’ve discovered is that it’s not the only thing.

Light, of course, is also part of life, and as writers that ought to mean something to us. This is especially important because there’s so much fake light on TV and in movies and in popular music. We are told we should be satisfied with infatuation, consumption, conformity – and seeing only that kind of happiness demeans us. We can respond to this fakeness, as I’ve often done, by pointing out the ways that people are disconnected and alienated in the face of popular culture’s myths and promises – but we can also illuminate experiences of deep awe and joy and hope; we can give people alternatives to what pop culture offers. Meanwhile, we can also give ourselves, as writers, alternatives to the writing culture’s message that only trouble is interesting.

Again, this is no call for us to swing wildly in the other direction and decide that only happiness and peace are interesting. That would be a lie, too. It’s true that, as my wife suggested, people like to read about hope, beauty and wonder, and in some cases that’s because they want reading to offer an escape from the real world. In other cases, though, it’s because they want to see the real world – in all its richness and complexity – reflected in literature. In fact, what this amounts to is a full embrace of the imperative of the artist: to seek the truth wherever it can be found. As it turns out, that truth can be found in more places than one might ever have guessed.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.