This short story is not on the list of Best Short Stories. I read it because a friend recommended it to me, since I was writing a story with a similar scope. I had presented my writing group with a rough draft of a story that takes place basically on the computer, in the space between the keyboard and the woman sitting at it. It brought to my friends’ minds other short stories that have appeared over the years, with such a limited space. Thus, I located and read “I Stand Here Ironing,” by Tillie Olsen.
The story is stream-of-conscious, taking place in the head of the mother, as she stands ironing. It is addressed, in her thoughts, to an undefined guidance counselor who has contacted the mother about her eldest daughter, in some sort of trouble. So yeah, it’s just the mom thinking as she irons. It reminds me of every conversation I’ve ever had with myself, often while driving, after having an altercation with someone. I think of more things to say, better things, I give other people my explanation, my life story, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. Which is actually an interesting setup. So familiar and yet not really done a whole lot.
Written in 1961 and published in a book of short stories, “I Stand Here Ironing” is one of Olsen’s most-referenced stories. I am no expert on the history of short stories, but I bet this story felt more groundbreaking in the 60s. Now, I feel like it needs another level of innovation to make it a fresh story. I wouldn’t, except that the story seems to be just the innovation of it being a conversation in her head coupled with the surprise that not everything is peachy keen. Coming out of the 1950s, a woman standing there and admitting to failing as a mother, messing up her daughter, and making some really tough and unconventional decisions would have been much more exciting to the reader. Today, it reads as a little tired and therefore boring. If the language had been especially beautiful or tight or the length been truncated, the voice stronger, I might have been drawn in, but it strikes me as really standard writing. I suppose one could use this story to teach (story or history), but I fear it has become otherwise unexciting.