What Can We Steal From Amber Sparks’ May We Shed These Human Bodies?

Title of Work and its Form: May We Shed These Human Bodies, short story collection
Author: Amber Sparks (on Twitter at @ambernoelle)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was released by Curbside Splendor, an independent press out of Chicago.  Why not purchase the book directly from those fine folks?

Bonuses: Some of the stories in the collection were originally published online.  If you haven’t read the book, why not get a small taste of Ms. Sparks’ work?  Here’s “Gone and Gone Already,” courtesy of The Splinter Generation.  This is “The Chemistry of Objects,” first published by Necessary Fiction.  Cool!  Here is a podcast on which Ms. Sparks was a guest.  And here‘s an old-fashioned printed-word interview with the author.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Experimentation

Discussion:
May We Shed These Human Bodies is a modern short story collection with a classic twist.  Most of the stories are quite short and each is unique in its form and tone.  The collection can best be compared to other “assembled” books of tales whose aim is to contextualize the human existence and facilitate a deeper understanding of our place in this crazy universe.  The stories that comprise May We Shed… are set in places as diverse as realistic corners of the known world and the Afterwards, where all of humanity was taken when they tired of the Earth.  Ms. Sparks employs a wide range of narrators, experimenting with first-, second- and third-person points of view.  Even more interestingly, Ms. Sparks tells stories in a number of different forms, including a list of historical artifacts, a lesson plan and a response to a self-imposed challenge to write a memoir that “burns clean and true.”  Throughout the book, Ms. Sparks finds innumerable ways to create musical sentences while challenging the reader’s intellect as well as his or her heart.

If you couldn’t tell from my summary, it’s not easy to describe the combined effect of the stories in May We Shed…  The book is delightfully different from others in the genre.  When you pluck a T.C. Boyle collection from the shelf–something you should do on a regular basis–you will find perhaps a dozen stories of similar length.  The rhetorical effect of a “traditional” short story collection is usually fairly passive.  Each of the author’s characters may indeed share a fictional world, but identifying the unifying thread is somewhat open to interpretation.  Is this a bad thing?  Of course not.  Ms. Sparks, however, has produced a work that cleaves much more strongly to the ethos of “assembled” books like the Arabian Nights and religious books such as the Torah and the Bible or political tomes like the collected writings of Thomas Paine.  In a way, each of the pieces in the books stand on their own and have their own clear intention.  When read as a whole, the books become something more than the sum of their parts.  It is pleasing enough to read about Aladdin and his lamp.  Doesn’t the story take on added depth when you consider it was told by a woman who was trying to save the lives of the (remaining) women living under the rule of King Shahryar?

In this way, Ms. Sparks is a modern-day Scheherazade.  Each of the thirty-plus stories is unique and clearly comes from a different burst of inspiration.  Ms. Sparks clearly enjoys playing with language and takes joy in reconsidering what a story can be.  The frame narrative is not as concrete as that of the Arabian Nights, but I felt that the book’s opening story served as a kind of frame.  “Death and the People” announces itself bravely:

When Death came and started it all, the people on Earth had already drawn close together to wait for spring.

In short order, all humans are willingly in the Afterwards, a final destination that instead seems like a variation on Limbo.  Ms. Sparks adopts the diction of a fairy tale or a religious tome, establishing a great deal of narrative distance.  These choices allow Ms. Sparks to write beautiful, poetic lines that invite the reader to fall under the spell of her narrator:

After a while, though, it seemed like everything started to grow and adapt, including the animals and plants.  Highways cracked, naked without their blanket of traffic, but soon they were modestly draped in green as moss and weeds, and flowers pushed up through the gaps in the concrete.  The skyscrapers bucked and bent, while the trees shoved their branches through the glass panes.  After a few centuries, everything the people had made was buried or gone.  Everything except the structures of stone that were put up long before the memories of the people had even begun.

Doesn’t this remind you of the writing of someone like Kevin Brockmeier?  We should all fit our diction to the special purpose of each work we create.

Short stories can take any form.  Whether or not we realize it, every document we create is really a kind of story.  For instance, go to The Smoking Gun and look at the documents they’ve collected.  Each tells a story in subtext.  Look at the Foo Fighters’ concert rider.  In this document, the band lists what they need onstage and backstage.  The express intent of the document is to make sure that Dave Grohl and his friends have tasty food and their favorite drinks.  If you think about it a little, you realize that you’re reading the story of men who have played countless gigs in countless towns and have had countless problems with promoters.  Mr. Grohl and his bandmates are doing their best, in a pleasant manner, to convince the promoters to help them put on a great show.

Ms. Sparks appropriates the form of what I can best describe as a writing prompt.  “The Effect of All This Light Upon You” begins with a three-paragraph prompt:

Lay your life out flat before us […] Use scissors to slice off the right scenes; no need to reveal everything.  Edit brutally.  Soak the naked film in dye and roll it over the drum to dry out.

Yes, this is great writing advice all on its own.  But Ms. Sparks answers the prompt with seven numbered paragraphs, each of which depicts a different scene from a life.  Read together, the piece is a lyric autobiography of the narrator.

What Should We Steal?

  • Assume the role of a current-day Scheherazade.  I hope that you’re not telling stories in order to save your life, as the original Scheherazade was forced to do.  But shouldn’t you feel that same delightful pressure and the same ambition that led her to tell a new, unique and exciting story each night?  Write the kind of story you’ve never written before; try a form that is completely alien to you.  Imagine the King over your shoulder at the end of the night, asking you what thrills you’ve contrived today.
  • Establish the rules of your “world” quickly.  Ms. Sparks opened her collection with a story that is reminiscent of a parable and informs the reader that anything can happen in the book.  When you manage the expectations of your readers, you can get away with anything.
  • Borrow the forms that surround you every day.  Write a short story in the form of a civil rights complaint.  Write a poem in the form of a credit card application completed by a very rich person…or a very poor one.  Ooh…what  magic could you work with a story in the shape of a college application essay?  Or a clemency plea normally sent to a governor?

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