Shared Stories: “How to Tell a Story” by Margo Rabb

Posted on 16 September 2010

This new Shared Stories category will link to short fiction found online that I consider beautiful, funny, weird, astonishing, sad, or otherwise compelling.

To kick things off, I give you “How to Tell a Story” by Margo Rabb, which won first place in the Zoetrope: All Story short story contest. I first read this story years ago and have loved it ever since. It’s moving, funny, and fulfills that guilty pleasure of reading about writers and writing programs.

You can read the full story here. The opening lines:

There are three things I’ve learned, so far, in my graduate creative-writing program:

  1. Deny, at all costs, that your fiction bears any resemblance to your real life (First Commandment of the MFA program: Autobiography Is Sin);
  2. Sleeping with an attractive male classmate who is widely admired by fellow students will yield positive feedback on your stories (attractive male will comment enthusiastically, and admirers will echo his opinions);
  3. Tequila shots in the women’s bathroom before class enhance your ability to stomach painful criticism of your stories.

I first read Margo’s fiction in an issue of Glimmer Train years ago — I believe that story was an excerpt from her novel, Cures for Heartbreak. I was drawn to the story of a girl who loses her mother to cancer, so I searched for more of Margo’s work and eventually found “How to Tell a Story.”

Cures for Heartbreak includes an afterword that details how the novel mirrors Margo’s real-life experiences of losing her mother and how autobiography fed her creative work. This intrigued me — like the MFA students in Margo’s “How to Tell a Story,” many fiction writers I know don’t exactly announce how autobiographical events might have impacted their work. I’m not saying they should, either, just that it was both surprising and refreshing to read the afterword in Margo’s book.

In the years after my mother died, I wrote characters who lost their mothers at a young age. I wasn’t writing down my own history but rather making sense of it in fiction. Writers do this all the time, of course, and just because certain story elements might resemble their lives or experiences, it doesn’t mean the work isn’t fiction. Several of the stories in Living Arrangements contain details that you could tie to my life if you were so inclined (more on that in a later post, perhaps) but honestly and truly, they are fiction. (I’m sorry to break it to you, but I never worked as a lingerie model or a bagel shop employee or an elite figure skater.)

In any case, enjoy Margo’s story, which carries its own theme of writing truth into fiction.

1 Response to Shared Stories: “How to Tell a Story” by Margo Rabb

  • bookfraud says:

    at the risk of sounding like a name dropper, i linked to this in my blog a while ago. though i happen to have met her (ok, my wife and her are friends), i can say objectively that she’s a terrific writer.

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