This process was initially really jarring for me. Choosing your favorite, or most beloved, or absolute best short stories – I couldn’t even think of one! It’s like when you walk into a record store and you suddenly can’t name a band to save your life. I felt floored by this process for the first hour, but slowly, as I recontextualized and reimagined, things fell into place. These, rather than being the Top Brass of short stories, are the stories I relied upon to help convince me I wanted to continue writing. Without these stories, I would not likely be writing today, because they offered me an intangible level of mentorship and guidance that I was having trouble accessing in any other way.

‘Eleven’ by Sandra Cisneros

I write a lot about childhood. I think childhood, and being young, carries an immense sense of wonder, but it also carries its own tensions, ones often disregarded by adults. One of my favorite movies is Where Is The Friend’s House?, directed by Abbas Kiarostami. The entire film is about a boy who accidentally takes home his classmate’s homework, and he knows his friend is one strike away from failing, so he goes on a quest to return it. He seeks guidance from the adults in his life, but many of them blow him off, as they find his concerns frivolous, or are distracted, or are determined to make the boy do his chores. ‘Eleven’ is similar–when the teacher asks who a tacky, stinky red sweater belongs to, and another child claims it belongs to the protagonist, our main character is saddled with the anxiety and social burden of either speaking out or accepting the piece of clothing. She feels herself becoming smaller, younger, less able to clarify, and when she finally does, the teacher challenges her. “Of course it’s yours,” Mrs. Price says, “I remember you wearing it once.” Mrs. Price being an adult settles the argument more than any reasoned logic would, and the main character shrinks even further. These are the compelling moments to me in these stories – these moments of anxiety, especially childhood anxiety, that seem so frivolous later, but so impactful and terrifying in the moment, especially when our elders are unhelpful or even damaging to the situation. This story, to me, is vital for any writer trying to examine or process their youth.

First published in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Random House 1991. Listen to Sandra Cisneros give a reading of this story here

‘Bebe’ by Louis Sachar

If you pressed me, I mean really laid it on me to choose a desert island book, I think it would be this one. A few years ago, Jia Tolentino described Sideways Stories as “lovely little lessons in craft, structured as neatly as a Rubik’s cube.” This book and these stories (which technically, are an interlinked novel, or a story cycle) are doing all of the things that I tried to learn and replicate in graduate school – and are doing it for elementary schoolers. The book is a nonlinear narrative, it’s absurdist, the characters are charming and dynamic, and the book is endlessly playful – you can tell Sachar enjoyed writing it. ‘Bebe’ is one of my favorites because it’s a hilarious meditation on art – Bebe is a student who cranks out drawing after drawing in art class, and her friend Calvin helps by sharpening her pencils and placing new sheets of paper in front of her, choosing to assist Bebe rather than make his own art, because she can create more that way than they’d be able to do alone. The teacher, Mrs. Jewls, confronts Calvin, asks why he hasn’t drawn anything, and questions if he likes art. “I love art,” said Calvin. “That’s why I didn’t draw anything.”

Mrs. Jewls tries to motivate Calvin, argues for quality over quantity, claiming that one really well done piece of art is better than a million pieces of mediocre art, and in the process, completely stifles Bebe’s own motivations, who abandons her process. Every story in this collection is charming, playful, and clever. It’s like Invisible Cities for kids, or for adults who feel like kids.

First published in Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978)

‘Off Days’ by Shane Jones

For me, there isn’t a version of this list that doesn’t include Shane Jones. He’s been seminal to my work in ways large and small. I didn’t start writing until around the time this story was published, late 2015-ish. Although I wasn’t personally writing, I was at least somewhat familiar with contemporary literature, and was a fan of the variety and compelling charm of Jones’s novels. Around the time this story was published, I had also become a volunteer reader for the Adroit Journal, and I found that ‘Off Days’ unlocked something for me – it showed the possibilities existing in short and flash fiction. It’s the perfect blend of playful and heartbreaking. The dialogue in the story had a massive influence on my own work (much like the other stories Jones was publishing around this time).

“Geez,” says Ted during the car ride back home, “another off day.”

“You’ve been having a lot of those,” says Gina. “Maybe cut back on the soup.”

“No way,” says Ted. “The soup works.”

I am a huge lover of dialogue that is flippant, and of characters that are outwardly confident, even as they’re eroding. This story helped me navigate my attempts at telling serious stories in playful ways – that you don’t have to be doom and gloom in your process of exploring doom and gloom. ‘Off Days’ showcases a tongue-in-cheek, lovable approach to the passage of time, to the gentle corruption of our bodies and minds. There is a moment late in the story when Ted smashes open a dragon fruit with his cane, and cries upon seeing its insides, realizing he’s gone his entire life without having seen the inside of the fruit. I return to that moment frequently when writing. Where’s my dragon fruit? What will it release in me?

Originally published in The Adroit Journal, 2016. Read the story here

‘The Alive Sister’ by Megan Giddings

This is one of those stories that I show my students when we discuss what it means for art to be revolutionary. What does that even mean, they wonder, and I wonder too. How can art influence a discourse in a meaningful way? How can art challenge state violence? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I show them ‘The Alive Sister’ and let it speak for itself. This story does so much in such a tight space – it spandrels, offers multiple versions of itself, references the writer’s role in the creation of the story, references the skeptical reader of the story (the skeptical reader, who, in my experience, inevitably exists – but also usually feels confounded that the story calls out their skepticism before/as they’re experiencing it). I am skeptical of empathy as a concept – I can never truly know what it means to be Black in the United States, or from any identity not my own. Art is a simulation of experience, one we willingly enter and exit at our own discretion. But I believe greatly in this story – in how it navigates tragedy, heartbreak, and anger, and tries to build a space where greater possibilities can exist.

Originally published in The Offing, 2016. Read the story here

‘Head in the Floor’ by Kate Folk

This is another story that I’ve thieved writing advice from, this strange short piece about a woman who finds a human head growing in her bedroom floor. I hate to admit this, but there are very few writers who I will drop everything to read new work from – but Kate Folk is one of those writers. She has such a range of voice, command of language, and imagination of narrative. This story is no different – one of the aspects I love is how the conversational quality of the narrative voice builds a wildly flavorful approach to storytelling. It’s kind of terse, but charming and funny. There are points where it feels like the narrator doesn’t actually feel like telling their own story – ”I figured maybe you know the floor was rotting. I didn’t know. What do I know about floors” – which further builds my own investment in reading on. As I’m compiling this list, I’m realizing commonalities between stories, and aspects of storytelling I enjoy. The protagonist in ‘Head in the Floor’ places a towel over the head as she figures out what to do about it. “The towel helps. I’m not going to sit here and tell you the towel does nothing,” she asserts to the reader, sounding remarkably similar to the soup-loving protagonist in Shane Jones’ ‘Off Days.’ Sometimes, when I read this story, I think about that scene in Jumanji where the floor turns to quicksand and then back into floor and Robin Williams gets stuck in it with just his face protruding and then spiders crawl on him. Both have been influential in my development as a writer and human, but maybe for different reasons.

First published in Tupelo Quarterly, collected in Out There, Penguin Random House 2022. Read the story here)

‘It’s All a Circus’ By Ana María Shua, translated by Steven Stewart

I am massaging the rules a bit here and, instead of a single story, am acknowledging a brief handful of stories from Ana María Shua’s circus-themed short story collection Without a Net. The book is split into sections: there are sections about performers, the history of circuses, the animals. One section, entitled It’s All a Circus, is about varieties of circuses. The stories have names like ‘Dubious Circus,’ ‘The Ghost Circus,’ ‘The Poor Circus,’ ‘The Poorest Circus’ – in some ways, it feels like a Mad Lib, each story born of a prompt from the title’s adjective. ‘The Poor Circus’ is about an event where the performers enact multiple roles due to budget restrictions, while ‘The Poorest Circus’ is about a circus so poor that spectators have to sit and imagine the show. Each is playful yet hauntingly resonant. The stories are lovely – they build a multilayered story of what is, by nature, a multilayered show. There are stories as risk-taking as trapeze artists, as awe-evoking as the Big Top itself.

Published in Without a Net, Hanging Loose Press 2012

‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ by Gabriel García Márquez

I think it’s fair to say: I do not know magical realism if I do not know this story. There is so much humor, heart, and grief buried in its pages. It is a very short story with a novel’s worth of imagination, and honors the short story as the novel’s equal. By that I mean; if I’d imagined this story’s conceit, in all its richness, I might have said this isn’t just a short story, it’s a novel. And it would’ve failed. I cannot sing a praise about Gabriel García Márquez that isn’t a cover song, so I’ll just tell you a few things I love about this story. There is so much joy in the worldbuilding–it is a tremendous example of how the examined anatomy of a concept can drive the story forward. Every paragraph is surprising and powerful, and is a joy to read to see what invention Márquez will derive from his character next. The Angel’s “consolation miracles” is one of my favorite moments in all of literature:

“Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.”

I am always grateful to share this story with new writers, because it is one of those stories that almost always illuminates – brings joy to the reader, shows them the possibilities within fiction, gives them space to build a concept and let it spread its enormous wings.

First published in La Hojarasca, Ediciones SLB 1955. First published in English in Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories, Harper & Row, 1978. Also in Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996. Available online here

‘The Stolen Party’ by Liliana Heker, translated by Alberto Manguel

As I compile this list, I realize how much I gravitate towards stories of childhood and class. ‘The Stolen Party’ is a story about Rosaura, the daughter of a rich family’s maid who is invited to a birthday party for the family’s daughter. Rosaura, who goes to work with her mom and does homework with the family’s daughter, wants to attend because she believes she is friends with the rich girl and wants to celebrate. The mother is skeptical, even discourages her from going, calling it a rich people’s party. Rosaura is insistent that she is a friend and not a servant, both to her mother and eventually, another child at the party. I will spare you a full synopsis of the story, but I will say that this story depletes me in a powerful way. It is short, six pages or so, but it is cinematic in its movement through the birthday party, the expansive sensory details and childlike wonder at the events – events that might be mundane told from an adult’s point of view. This is a story not just of class, but of class straddling – the way oppressive structures are imposed even in the quietest of moments, the happiest of birthdays, and onto the youngest and gentlest of hearts.

Published in The Stolen Party and Other Stories, Passport Books, 1994

‘Draft’ by Deb Olin Unferth

I knew I was choosing a story from Deb Olin Unferth, but wasn’t sure which one. There are so many stories to choose from. I could just list Deb Olin Unferth stories for the entirety of this paragraph like a Table of Contents. This is a Personal Anthology, after all, and building an anthology of Unferth stories would be intensely satisfying. But I settled on ‘Draft’ for the sake of playing by the rules. I love tight, single-paragraph stories that are fun to read aloud. I love stories that swell, and build into something tremendous. I love stories that resist order, stories that initiate their own order, stories that build a moat around themselves. I love stories that extend a hand to a friend, stories that run a lap around a swimming pool without slipping, stories that play piano and swing on tire swings. I love stories that look in the mirror without groaning at their bodies and stories that clink together with other stories like champagne flutes and pull their heads back and pour the liquid down in a single, gratifying gulp.

Published in Wait Till You See Me Dance, Graywolf Press 2017. Read the story online here

‘Other Babies’ by Meredith Alling

Sometimes I wonder if Meredith Alling has Google alerts for herself set up, and groans when she sees I’ve written about her and this story again. I received Sing the Song in a mystery box from Spork Press a few years ago, and have been enamored ever since. Much like Deb Olin Unferth, there are so many stories I could’ve selected in place of the one I’ve chosen – I think Alling’s work is best read in conversation. What is the food that you can’t eat just one? Lay’s Chips? Pringles? Her stories are Pringles in that way. But her stories are also unlike Pringles. Her stories are absurdist and heartfelt and so, so lovable. The deep admiration and love she has for her characters is immeasurable, and should be aspirational for every writer. We must love our characters, even when we put them through tribulation. This story (and collection) is one I turn towards when I want to feel excited about writing. ‘Other Babies’ has a tremendous rhythm to it; the perfect opener to a book entitled Sing the Song, because there is music in this prose, and I love to belt it out.

Published in Sing the Song, Future Tense Books 2016. Read the story online here

‘Remedies’ by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

When I first read this story, I felt a joy that was hard to explain. It was easy to put into words, but very hard to explain. Here it is: I have been long-searching for a story about lice. Lice, to me, is the ultimate lived experience of tension. Lice are always traversing you, moving about your hair and neckline, falling from head onto the table or desk you’re sitting at. You are always acutely aware of how close other people are to you, how they might react should they notice. When people know, they avoid you. When you’re a child, nothing feels worse than exclusion. My chapbook title, Maybe This Is What I Deserve, is pulled from a story I wrote called ‘Toddy’s Got Lice Again’, about the impact poverty has on a child with lice. When I was a kid, I wondered if there was a direct line between family income and longevity of a lice infestation. If you had lice, you were a kid; but if you had lice for a long time, you were a poor kid. I identified with Fajardo-Anstine’s character Harrison, the impoverished half-brother that the protagonist didn’t know she had, the living representation of her mother’s failed relationship and the man she’d like to never see again. There is a lot happening in this story–family dynamics, shame, the tradition of herbal remedies, but Harrison is who I gravitate towards, the child who doesn’t know what he represents. Who he looks like and what that means for those around him. Yet, for all his shame, for the grotesque display of his body, his smells, the apartment he lives in, I thought of the moment of grace he receives at the end of the story, when the protagonist sees him years later through the window at a punk club, sporting a blue mohawk, and compliments his hair – hair intended to draw attention to itself, to draw people close and not away, no longer the source of shame.

Published in Sabrina & Corina, One World, 2019. Read the story online here

‘The Captives’ by Shivani Mehta

I have bent the rules again here, because Shivani Mehta’s poetry has done as much for my fiction as many other fiction writers, and it would feel unfair to disregard that. This poem, almost written as a historical blurb, tells of a (made-up) historical practice of burying the dying just before they died, capturing their final breaths and sealing them. She describes the sound of a final breath as a sparrow sighing when squeezed in the palm of a hand; a gentle, efficient description that toppled me on my first (and every subsequent) read. In an interview with Ben Niespodziany, Mehta describes her poetry as “images, one after another, that involve a little girl growing up in a swirl of language,” which feels like a wonderful description of much of this collection of poems. There is wonder and rhythm amongst her work. The last line of this poem has always moved me – the way she captures hundreds of years of relief, the final gasps of the ancestors held hostage. I do not want to write the final line here, because I want you to read it in context. You can hold your breath until then.

Published in Useful Information for the Soon-to-Be Beheaded, Press 53, 2013. Read the prose poem online here