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Experimental (and Exploratory) Storytelling

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Last Woman.

Book cover Last Woman

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Experimental writing tells a story in unexpected and surprising ways. That’s it, that’s the tweet.

It does not require a specific use of language, or a particular tone, or any other rules that the gatekeepers of the realm might cling to. It doesn’t have to be written on an old typewriter, pulled from a dusty Value Village shelf and taken home on a ten speed bike in the rain. You don’t have to smoke Marlborough reds to write an experimental work. Readers don’t have to be erudite or brilliant or even particularly clever to understand it. They don’t need to have read any other experimental works. They don’t need to able to rattle off a dozen other titles that the piece references. Like autofiction, there are certain experimental works that might share characteristics, but that’s often more about shared social or geographic qualities. After all, it would be silly for a bunch of writers eschewing convention to just heap on a bunch of new conventions. Right?

Here are some things I believe about experimental storytelling. It will often lake longer to write than conventional fiction/nonfiction. I’ve had more than one creative writing student jot down some random thoughts twenty minutes before class and claim “experimentation,” and let me tell you, it’s painfully obvious. I don’t recommend this method. Lydia Davis’ micro fictions weren’t generally whipped off in a few hours, even though they are sometimes just a paragraph long. In a 2021 Guardian interview she said: “It’s true that even the quite short stories can be exhaustive: it might just be one paragraph, but it exhausts all possibilities to the point of slight absurdity.” The potential for absurdity, in its many forms, is one of my favourite elements of experimental storytelling.


I’ve had more than one creative writing student jot down some random thoughts twenty minutes before class and claim “experimentation,” and let me tell you, it’s painfully obvious.

In her Lit Hub essay, On the Finer Points of Experimental Fiction, Marissa Crane says, “the experimental form should relate to and enhance the themes and narrative—not distract from it,” and while I don’t love to see the word “should” applied to conversations about writing, the pieces I’ll be talking about in this list adhere to that principle. To sit down and read a story that immediately reveals its unexpected nature but also invites us inside its world is such a pleasure. It’s a workout for the imagination. We don’t all exercise the same way, so some fiction experiments will speak more strongly to you than others. Regardless, it’s pretty brave for a writer—or at least, a writer who needs to sell books to live—to choose an experimental style, considering how likely it is that some readers won’t like it.

I don’t know if these authors would consider their work experimental, but I do. And since I don’t consider experimental fiction to be an elite club with limited enrolment, I hope they won’t mind. It’s certainly not intended to be a definitive list. Anyone who tries to sell you a definitive list is an undergrad bro in the university of existence. But I hope it will help expand the idea of experimental storytelling, and move it away from the glib, elitist space it has occupied.


The potential for absurdity, in its many forms, is one of my favourite elements of experimental storytelling.


Book Cover Falling Hour

Falling Hour, by Geoffrey D. Morrison

Falling Hour is a 220 page novel that takes place over a single evening. While reading it, I thought a lot about how deeply engaged author Geoffrey D. Morrison had to be in this evening he created in order to document it so thoroughly. The premise is absurdly simple—a man takes a picture frame to the park, to meet a potential buyer. But the story isn’t entirely told in real-time. Morrison brings in scientific, philosophical, cultural, and literary ponderings that last for pages. Readers will encounter the voices of Louis Riel, John Keats, and most notably, a red-winged blackbird.

I wonder if, in describing this book, I’ve made it sound like a big-brain endeavour. The kind of book you need a Masters degree to read. If so, I’ve failed it, because Falling Hour somehow accomplishes it’s mammoth narrative task while remaining very accessible. I’m sure I missed several mythic references and maybe even entire narrative layers, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I seldom re-watch TV shows but I’ll definitely re-read this book to hopefully pick up more of what I missed the first time around.


book cover i become a delight to my enemies

I Become a Delight to My Enemies, by Sara Peters

The description of I Become a Delight to My Enemies includes the word experimental, so I’m not off track with this one. It’s not an easy story—exploring the physical and mental effects of guilt and shame—and with its fractured vignettes and chopped sentences this book certainly doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. What is truly remarkable to me is the world Peters builds for us. It is utterly imaginative, like a twisted fairy tale. It’s totally immersive. Also, Peters’s use of body horror taps into a deep-seated pain that is still being unwound today, in books like Jessica John’s Bad Cree, and Genevieve Scott’s The Damages.

Whenever I choose to read an emotionally challenging book, I have one very important condition. Am I in good hands? That’s going to mean different things to different readers. Some of us need language so sublime, we feel cradled through the painful bits. Some of us want a structure that makes the approaching gut-punches abundantly clear (I always consider this a literary power-move) and trusts that shock isn’t needed for effect. As far as I’m concerned, I Become a Delight to My Enemies succeeded in both these elements, while also taking me through a narrative that did not pull punches.


Book Cover Anecdotes

Anecdotes, by Kathryn Mockler

Writing fiction about the climate crisis is one of the strangest tasks a writer can take on. It demands walking the line between confrontation, acknowledgement, and entertainment. Metaphor might seem too gentle, and directness might alienate readers. Kathryn Mockler is so very good at it. 

This collection of stories does not care what you think a collection of stories should be. Mockler blends traditional form with conversation deconstructions, one liners, and flash fiction. “Past and future” is a reoccurring motif, and provides an organic pathway to explore the trajectory of the climate crisis in our lifetime, and the media’s all too common “how did we get here?” refrain. Mockler’s look at social nostalgia is particularly satisfying, with wildly relatable stories that offer the possibility for rosy recollection, and then yank it away with a grin. Discomfort as art, grimy realism without a glamour filter, part coming of age and part end times.


Book Cover Care Of

Care Of, by Ivan Coyote

Whether read or listened to (but particularly when listened to) Ivan Coyote’s stories flow so smoothly they can make writing seem effortless, though I guarantee that’s not the case.

Care Of, Coyote’s non-fiction collection of correspondence, was (partly) created during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, a period of global unease (to put it lightly) that forced many of our imaginations into new and unsettling ground. Loneliness, disconnection, and stillness had an undeniable effect on creative perspectives, and out of this time came this gorgeous book about human connection.

I could maybe refer to Coyote’s work here as exploratory, though to break new social ground one must experiment with different methods of communication. Since many of the letters in Care Of involve Coyote advocating for their own humanity, the effort is apparent. So is the love, humour, wisdom and care.


Book Cover God Isn't Here Today

God Isn’t Here Today, by Francine Cunningham

Genre blending is inherently experimental. Literary fiction and horror (for example) do not fit together without some effort, and one way of handling this blending process is by exploding one’s imagination. The stories in Cunningham’s God Isn’t Here Today are so deeply imaginative they do the work of a novel in under 20 pages. And by “the work” I mean they pushed my mind’s eye to its fullest extent—building mental movies full of sound and colour and scent that felt beautifully nightmarish at times, and uncomfortably expressionist at others. The probing proximity of Cunningham’s narrative camera makes it impossible to ignore the visceral capabilities of storytelling. Her writing is absorbed cerebrally and physically.

In a literary landscape of sameness, and particularly the choking sameness of our CanLit cul-de-sac, a wild deployment of imagination refusal of realism is an exploratory feat. Cunningham’s writing is powerful, transformative, and elegant.


Book Cover Laser Quit Smoking Massage

Laser Quit Smoking Massage, by Cole Nowicki

Full disclosure, I blurbed this book, and this is what I said:

Urban poodle art, corpse flowers, and Craigslist's enduring humanity. These are the things that keep Cole Nowicki up at night. With warmth and wisdom to spare, Nowicki takes readers through a mix of imaginative and deeply entertaining topics. This is not just an essay collection, it's a guidebook of curiosities and family histories usually reserved for locals. Laser Quit Smoking Massage is a lozenge of literary absurdity that might just as soon sell you a watch as blow your mind.

Looking back through this list I guess what I’m saying is that imagination and experimentation are inextricably linked. Not exactly a breakthrough statement, but what makes a work like Cole’s exceptional to me is that it sidesteps the glibness of so much experimental writing. That thing where a story points at it own wackiness and elbows us in the ribs. Nowicki never falls into that trap. These essays are completely weird, and completely honest, with a deep, generous humanity.


Book Cover Last Winter

Last Winter, by Carrie Mac

You know what is pretty experimental? Writing an expansive, fleshed out character who is mentally ill. A character who is at times empathetic and at times infuriating. A character with a sense of humour. A character who makes mistakes and experiences wins and losses. I’m not saying it’s never been attempted before, in fact it’s common enough that Goodreads has a lengthy “best books with mentally ill characters” list, from Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I’m saying that even today, mental illness remains a deeply taboo topic that is often misunderstood, feared, or ignored. And because of the dynamic nature of psychology, what we understand about mental illness is always changing. So, a writer must constantly question and occasionally reinvent established literary techniques to tell a story like this. 

Fiona, Last Winter’s protagonist, suffers deep insecurities, impulse control issues, and relentless anxiety. She is also self-centred, rude, and often deeply unlikeable. This is not a story about what a hero Fiona is, this is a story about the complexities of survival. I have never seen a character portrayed in such a disarmingly honest way. Some of us share Fiona’s challenges, and some of us know humans who do. For me, that didn’t make it easier to read, but it did make the experience utterly memorable.


Book cover Last Woman

Learn more about Last Woman:

From one of the country’s most celebrated new writers, a blistering collection of short fiction that is bracingly relevant, playfully irreverent, and absolutely unforgettable.

There’s a hole in the ozone layer. Are teenage girls to blame?

Floods and wildfires, toxic culture, billionaires in outer space, or a purse-related disaster while on mushrooms—in today’s hellscape world, there’s no shortage of things to worry about. Last Woman, the new collection of short fiction by award-winning author Carleigh Baker, wants you to know that you’re not alone. In these 13 brilliant new stories, Baker and her perfectly-drawn characters are here for you—in fact, they’re just as worried and weirded-out as everyone else.

A woman’s dream of poetic solitude turns out to be a recipe for loneliness. A retiree is convinced that his silence is the only thing that will prevent a deadly sinkhole. An emerging academic wakes up and chooses institutional violence. A young woman finds sisterhood in a strange fertility ritual, and an enigmatic empath is on a cleanse. Baker’s characters are both wildly misguided and a product of the misguided times in which we live. Through them we see our world askew and skewered—and, perhaps, we can begin to see it anew.

Carleigh Baker’s signature style is irreverent, but her heart is true—these stories delve into fear for the future, intergenerational misunderstandings, and the complexities of belonging with sharp wit and boundless empathy. With equal parts compassion and critique, she brings her clear-eyed attention to bear on our world, and the results are hilarious, heartbreaking, and startling in their freshness.

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