420 Characters, Lou Beach

One of the worst moments of college was, for me, the first day of my Seminar in Poetry. I was getting my BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, and I was constantly discovering how much more seriously other students took genre.  I didn’t have any interest in limiting myself to just one area of writing – I loved poetry, but I also loved screenplays, and novels, and short stories, and children’s books – and on the first day of that class, when our professor asked us to speak, not about our favorite poem, but our favorite poet, I realized I was never going to fit in with these people.

I had no favorite poet, other than my mother, who had put together a binder full of all the poems she had ever written about me a few weeks before I left for school. I had no technique for picking out the writing I loved; when a story or poem or paragraph moved me, it just became a part of who I was then. I hardly ever paid attention to author, instead choosing books by the first few pages or the recommendation of a friend. Most of my memories in libraries, or at my parents bookshelves were of just grabbing books and digging in. If they were good, I kept going, if not, I put them away –  no feeling either way about the person behind them. (This is a picture my husband took on one of our first dates, at City Light Books – probably the truest picture anyone’s ever taken of me.)

I remember being mortified on that first day though, sweaty with the fear of having nothing to say. And it was as awful as I thought it would be when it was my turn (the professor never liked me and the other students didn’t respect me), but ultimately, the memory of that moment has led me to the realization that I don’t have to like books or writers the way anyone else does. One of the privileges in this country we often overlook is our right to read what we want. I think we forget it while we’re still very young – when we’re told whether we’re good readers, whether we know how to parse assignments well, whether our interests are deserving of attention. I was lucky to have been encouraged to read widely when I was young. We read together as a family, we had our own library cards, we talked about what we had read at school and at home. Books were a passion for us.

One of the reasons I love to read so much YA (besides the fact that authors in that genre keep working hard to prove how incredible they are) is that I want to find the key to getting more young people to love reading as much as I did and do. One of my goals in posting here each week is to discover a wider range of material, books that might appeal to tastes a little different from mine. 420 is one of those books. It wasn’t written for a young audience; in fact, Lou Beach is most well-known for his work in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Time. This book, a collection of tiny stories he originally posted on Facebook (FB’s updates used to be limited to 420 characters), is his first work in prose. These stories are “populated by heartsick cowboys, random criminals, lovers, and drifters,” and it seems to me they have the potential to speak to an audience much younger than he may have intended.

I really love that flash fiction and ultra short stories are starting to regain footing in popular culture. I’ve always loved them, but I know that most people associate reading short stories with high school English class rather than appreciating the genre for what it is – the perfect cure to the “I don’t have time to read” excuse.

Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?”  says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?”  says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask. (pg 55)

It’s fun for me to pick up his book, open it anywhere and read a paragraph like this. I can take it with me through the day, or lay in bed thinking about the little worlds he creates when I’m trying to fall asleep. Not every story is perfectly crafted – a downfall of trying to fill 170 or so pages with such tiny bites of writing – but enough of them are that I can’t wait to see what Beach works on next.

Find out more at http://www.loubeach.com/

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