Monday, March 5, 2018

Small Fiction, Small Truths

Over the past several years, short stories have become my fiction outlet de jour, both for reading and writing. The stack of to-read books on my nightstand (ever-growing and ever-threatening my safety as the tower sways) has noticeably switched from predominantly novels to half novel and half short story anthologies and dammit, who can blame me? Short stories are so good: a captivating chunk of creativity, just enough to sate the appetite without the commitment to full-out novel-length development. Plus, the language has to be water tight. What a challenge to write, for sure. And what a delight to read.

Imagine my excitement when I recently came across Dr. Ray Morrison. Ray is a small animal vet practicing in North Carolina and in his spare time, he writes. He writes short stories. In fact, in 2012, he had his first collection published: In a World of Small Truths by Press 53. Naturally, I asked him some questions and happily, he answered.

Ray says his writing has had two distinct phases split apart--not surprisingly--by his endeavor to become a vet. "As a young teenager in the early 1970s I loved to read science fiction and horror," he says. "Yet at the same time I'd also spend hours reading classic short stories. In high school I discovered creative writing and although by that time I'd known I wanted to become a veterinarian, I would write short stories and poems for fun. In college, I read a lot of Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor so my affection for short fiction solidified."

Although running the pre-vet gauntlet as an undergraduate offers little time to explore interests other than science, Ray says any time he had an elective opportunity he'd take a creative writing class. However, once vet school began in earnest, followed by graduation and marriage, the first stressful and tumultuous years of practice, then buying and managing his own clinic (with his wife who is also a veterinarian) created a gap in creative production. Happens to the best of us.

"Writing was the farthest thing from my mind in those days," Ray says. However, as their practice grew, Ray and his wife were able to hire associates. This meant a bit more breathing room for the practice owners. This is where Ray's second writing phase began.

"I penned a dreadful novel that I will always love because it served to get me writing again."

"One evening, while having dinner with some friends, one of them mentioned he was writing a novel. It was literally like something snapped in me when he said that. I want to write a novel, too! I thought. Which I did. Over the next two years, I penned a dreadful novel that I will always love because it served to get me writing again. Upon completing this massive endeavor, though, I was slightly intimidated by the thought of spending another two-plus years on another novel. Another friend said one day, 'Why not just write a short story?' And that was that. I found what I loved and have to date written more than a hundred short stories, nearly half of which have been published."

Ray has since taken serious steps in his writing career, starting with attending writing workshops and fiction classes. After winning first place in a short story contest held by the publishing company Press 53 in 2011, Ray was asked--by the same publishing house--if he had enough stories for a collection and, by golly, he sure did. In November of 2012, In a World of Small Truths was published by Press 53.
Ray Morrison, DVM

There's a wonderful interview of Ray done by TSP, the blog of the Story Prize (read here) where Ray talks about how his writing focuses on everyday truths. This sort of writing about everyday things--but somehow making them incredibly rich--reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Strout and her book Olive Kitteridge (which is lovely, go read it). I asked Ray how he does this.

"The most important thing I have learned about writing is that, as the famous saying goes, 'writing is rewriting.' Are some people naturally better writers than others? I think so. But it is, at the end of the day, a craft; one that requires learning and practice. If there is any aspect of my ability to create vibrant descriptions, it is my knack for observing people and translating what I see into words. But rarely, I think, do I get it right the first time. That takes revision."

"Animals often find their way into my stories but I am not another James Herriot."

I'm always curious about how writers (or artists or musicians) balance their veterinary profession with their creative calling and how, if at all, one might influence the other. Ray elaborated on his own balance. "I would say the biggest impact that spending thirty years as a veterinarian has had on my writing is that when I write it is my escape from that side of my life," he says. "People, especially my veterinary clients, when they find out I write short stories, nearly always ask if I write 'animal stories.' I answer that animals often find their way into my stories, but I am not another James Herriot. On the other hand, everything I've learned as a vet has accumulated in the well of experiences I draw on when I write. My career in veterinary medicine, and the thousands of people I've met during it, can't help but influence how I create characters, even if the stories themselves are not specifically about veterinary things. I have written exactly three stories, all unpublished at this point, with veterinarians as protagonists or main characters. I struggle with them, however, because I think I end up writing about me and not the fictional character. I like to stay out of my stories--bad things usually happen to my characters."

Ray has a second collection of short stories coming out in May this year, so keep your eyes peeled. I asked about any novels in the pipeline. Here's how he responded: "I rarely get the bug to write a novel, but once in a blue moon I toy with the idea. Who knows? I'd like to think I could write a (good) novel. But for now I still am too much in love with short stories."

Until next month, dear readers: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 


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