Sentences and the Senses: Where Rick Bass Discovers Stories

by Marylee MacDonald in For Readers, For Writers Doing Revisions

Sentences are where stories begin, according to Rick Bass, winner of the prestigious Story Prize.

“What I’m hungering for as a reader is the visuals, the reminders that the world is a beautiful place, and I’m just trying to bring, you know, almost a painterly illumination on sentences, on objects, on subjects. And so there is going to be more attention to the brushwork. And I think we’re so hungry to have our five senses engaged-slash-re-engaged, that that’s the best way to do it — is with sentences. And the stories will take care of themselves from those sentences.” — NPR interview between Rick Bass and Kelly McIvers

The Story Prize is a $20,000 award for a short story collection. The prize is awarded at The New School in New York City. Three finalists read from and discuss their books, and then the Prize Director announces the winner.

For any working writer hoping to learn what separates “so so” fiction from fiction that is vital and alive, Rick Bass provides a wealth of information about the writing craft. Bass doesn’t go into a story with some big idea. His stories aren’t predetermined. He uses sentences to write his way in. On his voyage of discovery, he forms a partnership with the reader.

Below are the notes I made as I listened to Rick Bass field questions during a literary evening honoring the winner and finalists for the Story Prize, an award that bestows $20,000 on the winner and $5,000 on the finalists.

Rick Bass talks about sentences

Rick Bass, author of the short story FOR A LITTLE WHILE, believes that writers must connect with readers on the sentence level. Readers hunger for visual and sensory information.


The last third of the video–and it’s a long one–features Bass in conversation with the Story Prize Director, Larry Dark.

Sentences And Sensory Detail

“Don’t confuse the facts with the truth,” Rick Bass said, quoting writer Ron Carlson. “The specificity of the senses is what attaches the reader to a story.”

When a writer is uncomfortable, meaning when he’s in a story and not knowing where it’s going, Rick reaches for his five “go to” things: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.

He tries to go into a story not knowing. That way the author and reader go in as partners.

Bass discussed his theory that the short story has “evolved with us as a species,” and is a way for us to process emotional information.

As a viewer of this video, I found it fascinating to see him shape a short story with his hands: a narrow beginning and a swelling out that is the middle, which is where the obstacles and conflicts come in, and then the end that just happens.

“You don’t have any control over it,” he said. “All a sudden all of this emotion and conflict and narrative come to a point where it can’t go any farther. And that’s the end.”

Choosing Stories for a Collection

Larry Dark asked Bass about how he’d decided which stories to put in the collection, something I’ve wrestled with, and am wrestling with, as I choose stories for a new collection.

Bass wisely said he doesn’t have an answer; but he gave some ideas. Obviously, the best stories ought to go in, but what makes them best? And you want a wide representation. In the end, he and his editor went round and round.

Dark commented that Bass seemed to have chosen the stories the way he wrote them: “By the seat of his pants.”

Dark then asked Bass what he had learned about himself as a writer. Bass responded that he was really young at one time. Bass talked about being immersed in the process of writing and how we transcend our skills as a writer when we let the story go.

This is something I’ve seen and felt—that at certain moments, I’m writing out of a higher and better self.

Ultimately, for this collection, Bass decided to keep the stories chronological.

Working Methods

Knowing that Bass writes both fiction and nonfiction, Dark asked what steered Bass in one direction or the other. For Bass, fiction is “the default setting.” Fiction has a magic and vibrancy that lights up the “fiction” part of the brain.

Bass works on one thing at a time now. He’s lost the ability to multi-task.

Dark asked about Bass’s productivity. Bass responded that writers who’ve written fewer books than he has are “just lazy.” Somebody told him once that if he wrote a page a day, he could produce a book a year. “Shame on me if I can’t write a page a day. Fifteen minutes. Twenty a day. You do a book.”

How does setting affect the story, Dark asked, noting that Bass’s stories are set in many different places.

Again, Bass said, “I feel inadequate. When I enter a story, I enter a dreamscape.”

“My job as a writer is to get lost as quickly and deeply as I can and be down in the subconscious, groping around and looking for points of attachment.” After he’s written a story, he doesn’t have any interest in taking it apart.

Other Places to Learn About Rick Bass

If you’re interested in knowing more about Rick Bass, the first thing to do is read For a Little While. However, it’s often interesting to hear an author speak about his work. Here are two more opportunities.

2013 Wallace Stegner Lecture at Montana State University

Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature

For A Little While coverHere’s what reviewers have said about the book:

“[A] sustained achievement….Bass has used the short story form to pursue a searing vision of life….His people are almost always extraordinarily deep feelers, often wracked with pain (usually from some profound loss, recent or impending) and struggling to recover. At the same time, their eyes are wide open to the natural beauty around them, from their big skies to the sprawling landscape beneath.”―Kevin Nance, Chicago Tribune

“Glorious…Extraordinary…Heartbreaking…Transcendent…Bass is an acknowledged master of the short story…His greatest gift, what makes Rick Bass one of the very best writers we have, is his understanding of the soft hearts within even the hardest people.” ―Porter Shreve, San Francisco Chronicle

“Bass is a keen and relentless observer of woods and prairies and beasts of every variety….He writes with special feeling about loneliness….His best stories bring life and death within a hair’s breadth of each other…They display clarity and heart and moral vision, and glow like a well-stoked wood stove.: ―Dwight Garner, New York Times

If you’d like to improve your writing, then might I suggest a MOOC? Here’s a post about what you can expect to learn in these free or cheap online classes.


2 Responses to “Sentences and the Senses: Where Rick Bass Discovers Stories”

  1. 62668809 says:

    That’s awesome