Writing teachers often instruct their students to “show, not tell” the details of a story. Author Diane Williams is a pro at this technique in her efficient yet explosive short shorts—or incredibly brief stories. In It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, Williams takes the reader through typical experiences turned vividly strange, sensual and comedic in one novella and 41 stories.
Like an Impressionist painter who purposefully leaves his or her brushstrokes visible on the canvas, Williams’ voice is marked throughout her writing. The reader is forced to consider the grammar and rhythm of the pieces as much as the plot itself. The stories almost turn into prose poetry with lines such as, “Rain clouds are secret, hidden, hidden, secret, secret, secret, hidden, double and pleasant-faced” in “Time-Consuming Striking Combinations.”
Williams’ stories also bring attention to themselves by the unusual way they unfold. In the novella “On Sexual Strength,” she waits seven chapters before introducing the name of the hero, who begins an affair with his neighbor, Enrique Woytus—a basic detail usually included in the introduction. Her refusal to follow typical order continues with her inverting of sentence structure, such as the novella’s line “At every change of direction at the upper part of the stairs—I had run up them…” Therefore, the reader must continue reading, connecting the dots along the way.
Williams uses short sentences and basic vocabulary but avoids straightforwardness in the narratives themselves by juxtaposing each line with startling changes in thoughts or events. The text is fast-paced—each story takes place within one paragraph or a couple pages, but the reader must slow down to absorb each sentence and follow these flash fiction tales. It seems as though most of the plot occurs offstage, in well-placed omissions. For instance, in “Satisfying, Exciting, Superb,” the unnamed main character goes from matter-of-factly stating that magnesium and sulphur can be easily purchased then immediately finishes with the suicidal thoughts: “Okay, and then I’m going to blow myself up.” Here Williams leaves the reader questioning what happened in the emotional leap from one sentence to the next.
The novella and stories contain many graphic sexual and violent descriptions. But perhaps what is most startling is Williams’ minimalist, neutral tone about such incidents. In the beginning of the novella, the hero asks his desired neighbor about something as tedious as lunch then proceeds with “I did not manage to exit the room. It may have been that I opened my trousers and I regarded my long penis.” She is nonjudgmental about these occurrences, allowing the readers to emotionally and morally analyze the situations for themselves.
With these many quick, jarring tales—mostly regarding domesticity and personal relationships—the reader might feel uneasy during most of the book. However, the reading experience could be like shopping at IKEA—where each storeroom is set up to attract a specifically targeted visitor—and each story might strike a different someone, based on his or her history and beliefs.
It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature is available now from Fiction Collective 2.