Short Story Of the Day, The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service.

—-Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat

Poppies, by W. Stanley Proctor
Liberty Plaza
Farmer’s Branch, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Yesterday, I wrote about George Saunders and his story – The Red Bow

I included this Youtube video of George Saunders and some writing tips.

The first question is “What is your favorite short story?” and he answered “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol. He said, “It’s funny and sad and I think it’s the way that God actually thinks of us if he in fact does.”

I have had the story “The Nose” by Gogol as one of my short stories before.

Like “The Nose” – “The Overcoat” is written in an older style – more telling than showing – but it is as genius, funny, and shattering as Saunders says it is. I had read “The Overcoat” before – long ago – but didn’t remember all the details… only the sadness and feeling of helplessness. Reading it again it was even more heartbreaking, knowing what was going to happen to the hopeless protagonist.

Read it here:

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

from East Of the Web

The next question on the interview is “Best piece of writing advice?”.

He replies that a mentor Tobias Wolff told him, “Don’t lose the magic.” Great advice.

I am a huge fan of Tobias Wolff – if you ask me Wolff’s story “In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs”  is my favorite short story (or at least one of them) and one of the best ever written.

I’ve used a couple of online Tobias Wolff stories for my stories of the day before:

Bullet in the Brain

Hunters in the Snow

On both of those entries I wrote about my favorite Tobias Wolff story:

I remember one time, years ago, he was giving a talk at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Letters Live series. Well, I’m poor and can’t afford the full price ticket to these lectures, but, for a lower price, you can attend and sit in an auditorium off to the side where the lecture is beamed in on a screen. I was sitting there, waiting with a few other people (the main room was packed) when I looked up and there was Tobias Wolff, walking between the rows talking to us. He said he didn’t think it was fair that we had to sit in the other room and had arranged for an extra row of seats to be installed down across the front. We all marched into the big room and saw the live lecture, right up on the first row, thanks to the author.

It was really cool and thoughtful of him – and I’ll never forget it.

Daily Writing Tip 59 of 100, Beginning the Story Before the Beginning

For one hundred days, I’m going to post a writing tip each day. I have a whole bookshelf full of writing books and I want to do some reading and increased studying of this valuable resource. This will help me keep track of anything I’ve learned, and help motivate me to keep going. If anyone has a favorite tip of their own to add, contact me. I’d love to put it up here.

Today’s tip – Beginning the Story Before the Beginning

Source – How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N Frey

Where, then, do you start your narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters? Usually, you begin just before the beginning.

This is not as contradictory as it sounds. If you look at a man’s life in its entirety, there will be high spots and low spots, good times and bad. You will select from that life one particular story to tell, say the time your subject got fired from Bromberg & Bromberg and went into business for himself. You choose this story to tell because it is, in your opinion, potentially the most dramatic, exciting, and fresh.

Where exactly would you begin to relate your narrative of events? The best place would probably be just before the firing. The firing itself marks the beginning of the story. But we can’t understand the impact of the firing unless we understand what the character’s situation was before he was fired. Is the firing a good thing or a bad thing for him? If it’s a horrible job and the character should leave it, the firing is a relief. If he needs the job desperately and the firing represents impending ruin, you have a totally different situation. Events can only be understood within the context of the character’s situation at the time the event occurs; therefore it’s important to the reader to know the status quo situation, which is the state of things at a particular time.

Despite the title of the book this is particularly good advice for Short Story Writers and it is stated in a particularly good way, “Begin right before the beginning.”

No backstory, no flashback, no prologue, no nuttin’ – find the upsetting incident and go back a few beats and start typing.

Easy peasy.

What I learned this week, September 14, 2012

5 Simple Mind Hacks That Changed My Life

  1. Making yourself impervious to criticism.
  2. How to make a final decision.
  3. The key to getting over mistakes.
  4. How to stop overreacting to minor issues.
  5. How to have a more active life.

I’ve been working on #5 lately. Shame I’m always so exhausted when I get home from work.


The Worst Rock Band Ever

I love the systematic method used in this article. He has Motley Crue barely beating out Creed as the worst ever. But he has one line about Creed that is money: “Rock and roll is supposed to be fun, not like passing an impacted stool, and then telling all your friends about it.” I wish I had written that.


The 10 Most Damaging Chick Flicks Ever Made

Too bad they also send some of the worst messages to women in the history of mankind. Horrible stereotypes, insulting characters, idiotic relationship advice… it’s all there. Some chick flicks are better at hiding it than others, but generally, you can count on the same thing each time. The worst part is, women are actually starting to believe the lunacy they see in these movies!



The 7 Most Overrated Blockbuster Movies of the Last 20 Years


News You Can Use:

10 Reasons There Won’t Ever Be an Aquaman Movie


5 Great Pieces Of R-Rated Life Advice from the Movies


Fiction:

A Village After Dark

by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Never Let Me Go


I know I keep posting stuff about Cloud Atlas – but I’m really excited about the film (even though I know it might not be that good – the possibly of glorious failure is strong) – Plus… more importantly, I want to give everyone every opportunity to read the book first. It’s an amazing read, in many ways… in every way.

Plus, how can you miss Hugo Weaving playing Nurse Ratchet.


A woman, Annie Clark, that went to a local High School, has hit the big time as St. Vincent. She has released an album in partnership with David Byrne – Love This Giant. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Same as it ever was.

What I learned this week, October 28, 2011

Five Mistakes You’re Making With Your Scrambled Eggs

1. “Don’t be wimpy with your eggs. Whisk well and be vigorous about it–you want to add air and volume for fluffy eggs. And whisk the eggs right before adding to pan; don’t whisk and let mixture sit (it deflates).” –Kay Chun, Deputy Food Editor

2. “Don’t add milk, cream, or water to the eggs. People think it will keep the eggs creamy while cooking, but in fact, the eggs and added liquid will separate during the cooking process creating wet, overcooked eggs. Stir in some creme fraiche after the eggs are off the heat if you want them creamy.” –Mary-Frances Heck, Associate Food Editor

3. “Don’t use high heat. It’s all about patience to achieve the soft curd. Whether you want small curd (stirring often) or large curd (stirring less), you need to scramble eggs over medium-low heat, pulling the pan off the heat if it gets too hot, until they set to desired doneness.” –Hunter Lewis, Food Editor

4. “Don’t overcook them! Take them off the heat a little while before you think they are done. The carryover heat will keep cooking them for a minute or so. Also: Use a cast-iron or a nonstick skillet. If you don’t, there will be a rotten clean-up job in your future.” –Janet McCracken, Deputy Food Editor

And last but not least, ditch that fork! Scramble your eggs with a heat-proof spatula, a flat-topped wooden spoon, or for the perfect curd, chopsticks.


7 Phrases NEVER to Use at Work (or Anywhere Else)

  1. When
  2. Someday
  3. Willpower
  4. Want/Wish/Hope
  5. Not Good Enough
  6. I Don’t Have The Time
  7. It’s Not The Right Time

6 Steps to Reduce Stress

  1. Exercise
  2. Meditation
  3. Take a Break
  4. Go Outside
  5. Take Deep Breaths
  6. Plan a Vacation

The song isn’t too bad, and the guy has a fantastic voice – but I have never seen dancing more out-of-step-and-time with the song in my life. Ahh, the Scopitone World.


Nobody does it better than Malcolm Gladwell.

I enjoyed this talk and Malcolm Gladwell is so entertaining and informative. Even in a case like this, when his conclusions are completely and absolutely wrong.

For example – the Norden Bombsight. He makes the point that it could not actually drop a bomb into a pickle barrel and that in actual use, it was not very accurate, had a lot of shortcomings, and was negatively affected by weather and wind.

So what.

It did not live up to its hype. Nothing does. It had a lot of unforeseen problems. Everything does.

The important thing is that during World War II the entire free world was in an existential struggle with the forces of fascism and a large contributor to victory was the destruction of German industry wrought by the American bombing forces… using the Norden Bombsight.

The fact is that the Norden bombsite succeeded in its purpose – helping to save the free world. Everything else is just noise – interesting noise… educational noise, even important noise – but noise nonetheless.

Then we come to the drones in Afghanistan. He claims that even with a 95% kill rate the drones make them hate us so much that IED device attacks on US soldiers go up. Exactly where is that connection? Again, we are in an existential struggle against an enemy as evil as we faced in WWII, if not as powerful.

The purpose of the drones is to prevent an organized attack like we saw on 911 – and so far, so good. Everything else is noise. You can criticize the drone attacks as immoral, illegal, or too expensive – but to say they aren’t successful… there’s scant evidence for that. Or at least Gladwell doesn’t present it.

When you listen to (or read) someone as entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell you have to be careful to watch the point of view he is working from. Look for the logical leaps that are glossed over by glibness – like a skilled three-card-monte player, he’ll get you looking one way and slide the card somewhere else.

Sure do like to listen to him, though.


Some guy would like to show you the pictures he took on his last dive trip to the Caymans… but he can’t find his camera.