Are you familiar with the Short Story Thursdays emails?
Every week for almost five years, Jacob Tomsky has been researching and sending a short story to an email list of rabid readers. He doesn’t write the stories (he’s a best-selling memoir writer and budding novelist), but he does curate them.
Driven by his mood, he plucks a story that speaks to him from the vast slush pile of Public Domain works, and sends it to thousands of his Internet friends. Not only that, but Tomsky writes a passionate (and often expletive-laden) exhortation to readers as to why they should read this week’s story. If Tomsky’s ‘dispatches’ are the amuse-bouche of Short Story Thursdays, the stories are the meat.
Since he’s been doing this for four years, he must always really loved short stories, right?
“I actually hated short stories for a really, really long time. Maybe I still kind of do,” he laughs. “I don’t buy short story books, I never did. I was never a fan. I love novels. That’s what I like to read and that’s what I like to write.”
How It All Started
So here’s how it all started: Tomsky had a full time job he hated, in a hotel.
Bored, he began printing out short stories from the web – using company paper and company toner– because it “would look like I was working, like I was just reviewing documents or something.”
When a similarly-bored bellman asked him what he was reading, Tomsky stumbled onto something that has kept him sending out his dispatches weekly, years after breaking free of the job he hated.
“This was not a man that you would consider being a lover of literature at all and he read it and said ‘what’s next?’” Tomksy said. “I really got joy not only out of the minor escape it gives you from work, but also the fact that I was exposing people to short stories that had never even considered it before.
“People were talking about literature and that was very exciting for me as a long time lover and a writer of literature. I was able to get people to read these short stories, [people] that had never read before.”
Why short stories? Well, apart from their utility as a good cover at work, Tomsky points out,
“Everything’s shortening, our attention spans are dropping. I don’t think it’s even a bad thing. Twitter’s 140 characters, Vine videos are 6 seconds. Everything is so short and people’s attention spans are rapid fire.”
Short stories seem like the perfect way to get people reading, “…and I pick really short ones. Really short. So it’s just something people can read on the train and not feel like they’re having to trudge through it.”
The Beauty of the Short Story
Because he’s posting stories mostly from public domain, Tomsky is rediscovering some older writers, some who have been largely forgotten.
“This week’s story,” he says, about a recent Dispatch, “is making people cry. I’ve had six people email me already and say this story made them cry… I couldn’t even find out any information abou this author. The fact that I get to breathe life into these forgotten authors is wonderful.”
Another advantage of reading older works is, “some of this langauge is just amazing. It’s not even antiquated, we just don’t speak like this. Some of these words have fallen out of favor. Phrases and just the tone of language has changed so much. To get to read something …that’s so different from any other sentence you’ll read in the rest of the week, has been wonderful.”
Of course, the short story form has evolved a lot since its invention, and many of the stories Tomsky finds irritate readers because they aren’t subtle or don’t have the emotional impact of modern stories. And, a frustration for Tomsky is that the public domain collection is ‘a sea of white males’.
Still, Tomsky sees a a benefit to reading these stories week after week. “There’s been some great writing…and it’s kind of great to see what we expected from short stories in the past. Those were pure entertainment in the past. It wasn’t entertainment that was vying for attention with any other form of entertainment, you were just happy to be reading anything.”
He adds, “There have been some stories I’ve read on public domain that I think are better than anything I’ve read publishing now.”
Benefits As A Writer
Although the New York Times called Tomsky’s whose memoir is titled “Heads In Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality” ‘an effervescent writer’, he wasn’t writing humor before SST.
“I had three novels pior to that and none of them had a joke in it,” he says. “It wasn’t until I started ShortStoryThursdays that I started with the humor. I think that really primed me for when I had to write a funny book about the hotel world. I was totally ready because I had been practising.”
Another, unexpected benefit of writing to a group of strangers every week was a surge of confidence in himself as a writer, that came simply from turning up week after week.
“It took out the whole ‘bullshit inspiration’ crap. You just have to sit down and write no matter what. You kind of trust that…there’ll be quality in there.”
Even In The Middle of An Ocean
No-one’s better at coming up with excuses than writers (it stands to reason: we’re creative!). But Tomsky even kept up his weekly dispatches during a four-month stay in South Africa AND during a ten-day crossing of the Atlantic on a freighter from Liverpool to Philadelphia.
“So I told [everyone] I’d be missing a week,” but in reality he queued up a post and had a friend hit ‘send’. “Then, when I was in the middle of the ocean, it just dropped on them,” he laughs.
Track Your Progress
Another tip for boosting your confidence as a writer is to keep track of how much work you’re doing.
While working that hotel job that he hated, Tomsky started tracking his progress.
“I was like, I’m putting 50 hours a week into a job that I hate, that’s going nowhere. How much time am I putting into my art? So I used to clock myself and tape the papers up on my wall. That was very helpful.”
“It’s such a weird, ‘spooky art’. Any way that you can normalize it and bring it into some kind of standard reality, it’s helpful. And if that’s clocking it—like you would yoru time at work—that at least gives you a feeling of progress. Feelings of progress are extremely rare in this art.”
So is he cured of the writer’s enemy: doubt? Tomsky gives a qualified ‘no’.
“It still happens every week. Every Thursday I’m like, f*ck I don’t know if I can write anything good, but I do it consistently, and somewhere in my head that helps me …Looking back on a rather successful string of SST dispatches really does give me the courage just to sit down.
“Definitely more writers should do that,” he says, equating writing practise with the benefits of going to the gym. “I always tell people tha—and not just to bring up the fact that I’m going to the gym! The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better you get at it. It’s not even magic it’s just straight up practice.”
Two of Jacob Tomsky’s favorite short stories in the public domain:
Arabesque The Mouse by A. E. Coppard
The Inconsiderate Waiter by J.M. Barrie
To sign up for a new short story in your inbox every week email: firstname.lastname@example.org
And check back here during May 2015 for Jacob Tomsk’s Guest Writing Prompt!