The short story that eventually grew into Constellation was the first fiction set in Russia that I'd ever written, and that was right around the time I was giving up on a doomed, never-to-be-seen first novel. While I saw it could be something bigger, in hindsight fortuitous timing was as responsible as anything.
A good mixtape didn't just gather together a bunch of love songs, but instead created an emotional narrative specific to your affection. The stories in most of my favorite collections are collected more like songs on a mixtape than, say, collected like spare change. By which I mean they are in conversation with each other and work to become larger than their parts.
Sometimes it bursts from your imagination fully formed, sometimes you absorb from nonfiction, sometimes you're able to imprint your own autobiographical experiences on a world you never yourself were a part of. A decent number of the one-liners in the title story originally came up in conversations with my girlfriend or my neighbor.
From personal experience, I completely agree that it is often easier to go for monotone sadness. When I was starting out, I wrote a gazillion short stories that ran the gamut of human suffering - drug addiction, child abuse, terminal illness, loved ones dying by all manner of misfortune, etc. In hindsight, it's clear that I mistook the power of the situation for the power of the story.
Entire years had passed when he was rich enough in time to disregard the loose change of a minute, but now he obsessed over each one, this minute, the next minute, the one following, all of which were different terms for the same illusion.
There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren’t even a memory, you’re only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.
We all know to feel sympathy for those who've suffered from drug addiction, child abuse, and terminal illness, so the set up elicits an emotional response that the story itself very well may not earn. Energy generated by the fiction itself is likely to produce more light.
She praised his book and he embraced her from gratitude rather than lust, but she didn't let go. Neither did he. She kissed his cheek, his earlobe. For months they'd run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric. The circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed. She sat on the desk, between the columns of read and unread manuscript, and pulled him toward her by his index fingers.
What parts had she discarded for the sake of her sanity? What had she cut from herself? Had he stared into her pupils he would have emerged, bewildered and blinking, on the far side of the earth. Was he awed by her? Absolutely. Did he respect her? Unequivocally. Want to be anything like her? No, never, not at all.
He was losing her incrementally. It might be a few stray hairs listless on the pillow, or the crescents of bitten fingernails tossed behind the headboard, or a dark shape dissolving in soap. As a net is no more than holes tied together, they were bonded by what was no longer there." (ARC p. 63)
In my own work, humor is necessary, for the reasons stated above, but also because forbidding your characters silliness, absurdity, irony, and vulgarity forbids them aspects of the human experience every bit as universal as sorrow.
There was a time when she had indulged in the hypothetical for hours a day, plotting the map that had led her here. But no life is a line, and hers was an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb, searching for the light it once held.