Singing with Specific Detail: The Art of the Short Story with Lee Conell

The story I sometimes tell about why I write stories begins like this: The summer after second grade I was having an imaginary pie fight with my imaginary brothers and sisters. I’m an only child and I’d never been in a pie fight, but I had watched many, many hours of cartoons and I knew what to do. I jumped around on my bed, ducking from imaginary pies, darting around pillows. My room was small and my bed was low down, not even a real bed, but a big box in which our apartment building’s new elevator doors had been delivered. My mom had asked my dad to bring the box in from the garbage room, and reimagined it: Now the elevator box had a mattress on it, had many pillows on it had, had many stuffed animals on it. As I jumped on the elevator box I swerved to avoid the stuffed animals and, while I pretended to throw an imaginary pie, landed weirdly on my ankle.

I screamed out. I couldn’t walk.

When my foot wasn’t better the next day, my mom took me to the doctor, and my ankle got put in a cast. I’d just turned eight. The end of childhood was looming and the motor hurtling me toward some new horizon often seemed fueled by a new sense of shame and embarrassment. Other kids I knew who had broken or fractured bones did so in fast-moving cool-sounding ways, ways that did not involve being alone in their room talking to imaginary people. They broke their ankles skiing. Biking. Rock-climbing. I was acutely aware that I’d injured myself by landing funny on my foot while jumping off my bed during an imaginary pie fight.

I couldn’t lie to adults who might talk to my parents, but when other kids asked me what happened, kids in the playground who I’d never see again, I sometimes made up a story. I realized the perfect specific detail would do the trick. I was playing on a rock, the big rock by Turtle Pond, and I slipped, because it had just been raining. Or I was playing TV tag—the kind of tag where you were frozen until someone tagged you and shouted out the name of a TV show—and I’d been running to save a frozen kid, my instincts forever noble and true, and I’d tripped on a bottle of Sprite just before hollering, “Tiny Toons.” Or I’d had a sleepover and my best friend’s cat slunk out as I was sneaking into their kitchen and I’d fallen right over the cat, super hard, and it was really funny but painful at the same time.

To my surprise, I was always believed.

Even more surprising, telling these stories was fun. They got at a kind of truth, not about what really happened, but about what I wished had happened, the bustle I’d been imagining so vividly in my head when I jumped off my bed. The more specific the details, the more I came to forget the way I’d actually hurt my ankle. Made inactive due to my injury for an entire summer, I started reading and writing more, but I don’t think that’s the only reason the broken ankle led me to the short story. I think those lies to other kids made me realize how a story could be moving and effective. The short story sings with specific details. It’s a form that seems both like fleeting fiction and a lingering truth. It’s a fib you tell that can lead to truth-telling questions.

Here are the questions my broken ankle story makes me ask now: What as a kid was I so embarrassed about that I felt compelled to lie about my injury? What was the source of that shame? Was it that I was imagining something so sweetly silly instead of something more sophisticated? Was it that my bed was an old elevator box? Was it that I actually preferred imagining that new world by myself to playing TV tag with other kids at recess everyday?

When I write a story, I’m not necessarily looking for some epiphanic truth to reveal. I’m looking for the possibilities a story opens up, the way it probes into the shame and guilt and private joys we must work up the courage not to explain but to acknowledge and question.

Lee Conell has taught for Southern Word, SUNY New Paltz, and Vanderbilt University, where she earned her MFA. Her fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review online, Guernica, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. Subcortical is her first book.