The Mysterious Labor of the Story

Instructor Mark Mayer is new-ish to Lighthouse, but he's old-ish to Colorado, writing, and the hard work of revision, the subject of his next class, starting February 13. Here, he talks about teaching, short stories, and his straight(-ish) arms.

Tell us about yourself. 

I grew up in Boulder. In headier days, my family had organized itself into the “Juniper Street Collective” on a chunk of former farm. By the time I came along, collectivism was on the wane, but I consider the tall tales I heard from those assembled around the group table my introduction to creative storytelling. I left for college in 2002 and moved back to Colorado twelve years later, having lived in Rhode Island, Texas, California, Montana, and Iowa, in that order. At Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I studied with Marilynne Robinson, Ethan Canin, Peter Orner, Lan Samantha Chang, and Wells Tower and wrote mostly short fiction. My first collection is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. By day, I’m a Ph.D. student and occasional math tutor.

How long have you been teaching and where? What do you like most about it?

I’ve taught creative writing to med students at Brown University, nine-year-old Katrina evacuees, badass Bay Area high schoolers, undergrad NaNoWriMo veterans, retirees coveting secret novels for decades… Through the International Writing Program, I taught distance-learning fiction classes in Kirkuk, Iraq and Hargeisa, Somalia. I believe the creative urge is universal. Teaching writing you get a privileged access to your students’ deep selves—often the job is helping them reveal their true fascinations. That’s what I love most.

You're teaching a class on short story revision. Why? 

A story may not take long to draft, but in order to succeed, it must build its world, capture love for its characters, escalate toward its particular heartbreak, surprise and exceed our expectations—all within a few pages. A short story has to be nearly perfect to work at all. The premise of my revision workshop is that I give you very concrete, specific, step-at-a-time rules for revising a short story. (There’s even a flowchart!) But in truth the rules are devices for parceling the mysterious labor of the story—a labor that ultimately relies on a depth of feeling—into a series of more approachable tasks.

Anything else we should know about you? Any secret talents?

Hmm. My arms don’t straighten all the way?

Mark Mayer's 4-week Revising the Short Story starts Monday, February 13.