For the last two years, I have assigned “The Lottery”, a short story by the American Shirley Jackson, to my students at Cyrilometodějské gymnázium. It is a common assignment in North American high schools because the story works on both visceral and intellectual levels, and it is a concise way to teach reading, analysis, and writing.
The writing style of “The Lottery” is simple. The words are mostly elementary. The plot is straight-forward. The story slowly gently pulls the reader into a scene that seems comfortable and recognizable. Suddenly, the rug is pulled out from underneath. The ending is shocking. And, in the aftermath, the details that had been innocently foreshadowed in the first paragraph come back as a second wave of horrified appreciation.
How did I not see that coming? Did that really happen? Could those people really be so nonchalant about their annual ritual? Would I have been one of those people? Am I one of those people?
“The Lottery” is a story of a few thousand words but it contains many of the different aspects that make literature interesting: symbolism; plot twists; complicated characters; ethical conundrums; intricate social connections.
A bit of reading results in a world of questions. It is one reason why I like short stories.
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Hearing that my students had a horror-film-like reaction to the story pleases me. It proves that the written word can be vital and alive when the solitary pursuit of reading has a physical manifestation. This particularly story is even better because it leads to contemplation of the social, psychological, and philosophical implications of a difficult topic.
As a teacher, though, I may be more satisfied with seeing how well my students are able to analyze the story. The assignment is to read the story, listen to the audio version, read it again, and then write a five-paragraph essay about one aspect. Length doesn’t matter, as long as they say something interesting and back it up.
The results are always encouraging. A few have clearly used YouTube to find second-rate movie versions and the internet in general for “additional research”, but I have been decidedly impressed by the output: teenagers who are intermediate-to-advanced in English are able to take an English-language short story, dig deeply into it, and offer a meaningful analysis.
This level of access is another reason why I like short stories. A novel would be too much; a short story is just right.
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Reading and analyzing short stories are great, but, even better, is the fact that writing a short story is not out of reach, either. “The Lottery” is so simple that it leads to a lot of “I could do that” comments. Short stories are difficult to write well — and you can recognize the mastery of a Raymond Carver or an Ernest Hemingway or a Franz Kafka — but they are not necessary difficult to write. They are within reach of anybody who has a creative itch to scratch.
Anyone who can write a business email or a complaint letter or a witty line on Facebook has enough ability, in my opinion, to be able to write a decent short story. The nuts and bolts are not hard to assemble: get two characters, put them in a place (Brno!), add a conflict, and see what happens. Be the puppet master. Experiment with one resolution, erase it, and try another. Change clothes. Adjust the hairstyle. Throw in some smells. Maybe, add a box of chocolates and some roses — or a gun.
The fact that you can quickly create an entire world where you have complete control is an amazing concept. It’s another reason why I like short stories.
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The Oscar Award for Best Picture goes every year to a feature-length film; artists become legends for masterpiece paintings; the marathon gets more attention than the 10K; and the great writers are best-known for their novels — nevertheless, I would argue that documentaries, pencil drawings, middle-distance races and, especially, short stories are worthy of at least a little bit of respect. Some ultra-creative and motivated people may be able to make the jump directly to feature films or painting or marathons, but short stories are a realistic step for exploring literary creation.
Like my students who read and analyzed “The Lottery” have found, short stories can be read and understood and contemplated over the course of a leisurely afternoon, yet they still offer an opening to understand the world.
Hopefully, they, and many others, will not be afraid to take the next step and actually produce one, too.
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The 2017 Brno Short Story Writing Contest is a chance to give life to some characters and put it all into action. There is money on the line: 6,000 CZK to the winner. Entries must be in English, less than 2,500 words, and include the City of Brno in a significant way. The deadline is April 30.