The Milk is Free ~ On Writing and Earning

Recently Gina Frangello—one of the conversationalists in our series “Why the Short Story?”—asked the rest of us about how our writing life affects our financial life. Do we make a living as writers? Did we ever consider pursuing a more traditional livelihood? As I watch a number of my students prepare for graduation and the now-more-than-ever complicated task of finding work that both satisfies and pays the bills (among them very big student loans), this question seems particularly interesting to me.

I have been working since I was 13. When I was in junior high, I breaded mushrooms at a sandwich shop and babysat every single Saturday night pretty much all the way through high school. I had a job as a shampoo girl, worked at McDonald’s, did filing at my father’s office, baby sat some more, spent a summer scraping and painting a family friend’s fence, and baby sat some more. Oh, and I was a candy striper, too. When I went away to college for the first time (it took me a few attempts to get it right) I had board jobs that included working in the cafeteria and housekeeping in the common areas of my dorm. Off campus I waitressed at a pizza joint and I bartended.

I guess I liked to work, for some reason. Did I need the money? Maybe some, but I think I just liked to earn it. I liked it to come from my own endeavors. Most of my friends worked in high school; we all had summer jobs. That seemed to be just how it was. Years later, when I was teaching (part-time when I was a grad student, when I was also working fulltime for a commodities firm, and teaching aerobics part-time) I asked my students to write about their worst jobs. And—this kills me—about one quarter of those students HAD NEVER WORKED.

Now we all know the legends of writers who’ve worked and the jobs they held: Kafka in insurance, Hemingway in a brothel, Tom Lynch as an undertaker, Dennis Lehane parking cars, and so on and so on. Work, I mean work outside of just the work of writing (and it is work, don’t let anyone fool you; if you think it is not work at least sometimes, then you ain’t doing it right,) might well be necessary to a writer. Don’t you think? There are those experiences we rack up and write about (have you ever read Aleksandar Hemon’s short stories about selling magazines in the Chicago suburbs? Don De Grazia’s account of factory work in American Skin? The odd jobs Nami Mun’s main character holds in Miles from Nowhere?) but there is also our extrication from the deeply internal gaze of the writer, the one that sometimes takes us so deeply into our creative mind that we lose all sense of the wider world, the external audience, the very important context of life outside our imagination. It is, I think, important for us to lift our heads and look around once in a while.

But this isn’t what you asked, is it Gina? Is writing a lucrative choice for a career? It can be, but for a very, very few. I write a bit of freelance, and that has helped pay the bills some, allowed me to—in all good conscience—write off my home office space when I do my taxes. My fiction has paid me little: a few prizes that usually come at a very, very good time; some small royalties and one-time token payments by journals and anthologies. When I first started writing seriously, the money mattered very little. This was when I was still working in the financial markets, back office manager, and then vice president of a small managed accounts firm. I made good money. Really good money. And I could pay my way through school as I went. But then one day I was sitting in a seminar at a commodities dealers’ conference, listening to a speaker talk about compliance documents and client responsibilities and series 7 exams and certifications, and I thought: What in the hell am I doing here? And that was when I started to make a plan. I moved out of my gold coast apartment in a high rise with a doorman and into a small courtyard building in Uptown (my car was broken into and my bike was stolen within a couple of months of my move.) I gathered a small nest egg. And I quit my “real” job. It wasn’t easy. There were times when I sold pieces of jewelry and much loved books so I could pay for the train to school. I ate a lot of noodles. But after a while I started to teach more (you know the adjunct dance, where you have gigs all over the place—five classes at three different schools was my record) and survived.

(I should say that after a year of near-poverty I married my first husband who made enough to support us both, but my desire to make my own money sent me back to a full time job as a bookkeeper for an insurance company while I was still teaching part-time. Luckily it wasn’t too long before I landed my tenure-track job at Columbia.)

So what am I trying to say? I would love to be able to live off my writing alone, but I am sorry to say that it is in all likelihood not going to happen. And I write, like so many of you all have said, for the writing’s sake, not for the money. But isn’t it a shame that we have to make that distinction? That our writing (and maybe I mean the kind of writing that some call “literary” here) doesn’t have a more recognized monetary value? That most of us can’t—as our ancestors did—get paid for a short story? That we are expected to almost always give our work away? And think of the journals and their editors and publishers. Not only do they give their work away, but I would imagine that most of them work at a loss, putting some of their own hard cash into the production. Why is that? Flower arrangers don’t give their work away. Professional ball players don’t. Strippers don’t. Are writers just cows who don’t mind giving their milk away for free? No moos of complaint?

BUT. This all sounds as though I am bitter about the writing for publication and profit thing. And I don’t really think I am. In fact, I very much like collaborating with small presses and with upstart journals—those venues that are not in the position to offer much (if any) cash. See, the thing is, when a small journal publishes my work and the time comes around for them to nominate pieces for various awards and prizes, my odds of being one of the nominations is significantly better than if I were published in one of the richer, glossier, wealthier publications. The same goes for book publishers. I am running in a narrower field in these smaller presses, and that can lead to some good things. I have won two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards after having been nominated by smaller, lesser-known journals. I have received a number of Pushcart Prize nominations. And these small presses are often run by other college teachers or students, and so it is not unusual that I get invited to read at various events. And sometimes, too, I get paid for that. And, like Vanessa Gebbie mentioned, I get invited to teach at various writers’ conferences and workshops, something I enjoy very much. (There are two of these coming up in just a few weeks’ time this summer.)

Each of us needs to negotiate this money/writing thing in our own way. Dennis McFadden works very hard at everything he does, writing and project managing. He has a family that he takes very good care of, and this is important to him. Would he be happier just writing, not knowing how his family might eat? I doubt it. Not having to worry about these things can make the writing go easier, I’d bet. And writing, I would imagine, also makes his daily work go better. Me? I’m willing to put the writing on hold now and again in order to do a good job at the other things I get paid for. But I will always, always, always come back to the writing. And doing other things makes me all the more needful of writing. And yearning is a good motivator for me. And let’s not forget how convenient it is to have a built in excuse (I gotta work) so that when the writing isn’t going well, we can put the blame on our busy-ness and not on the limitations of our own writing that day.

Writing students often look for jobs in writing, but I’d caution them to be careful. It is hard to want to write the things you want to write if you have had to spend all day in front of a computer. Teaching writing is not always the right choice for a writer. Being surrounded by the writing of others, your eyes and brains full of work-in-progress can also get in the way of your own work. I know a woman who went back to tending bar after one semester of teaching just because it was easier for her to think about her own writing when she didn’t have to think about someone else’s. Another friend teaches part-time and works in a grocery store. The grocery store work brings him into contact with other people’s lives and their stories, not bad experience for a writer.

So, to recap: Working. Yeah, it’s a good thing. Making money? Also a good thing. Writing? Now that…that is the best thing of all.

Gina Frangello will answer her own questions about writing and making money in a few days, and Gerard Woodward will weigh in on this, too. Oh, and the clever cartoon is from http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com. Thanks for reading. -PMc←

Sheep Herding and Shrimp ~ Dennis McFadden on Earning as a Writer

As part of our on-going Conversation Among Writers “Why The Short Story?”, Dennis McFadden takes on Gina Frangello’s questions about the financial implications of a writing life.

Dennis: Man, talk about déjà vu. How many times has something like this happened to you? Standing around at the old writers’ conference cocktail party, having wormed your way into a conversation among a few faculty members, you throw in a couple of comments that aren’t too terribly far off the mark, and they all look at you appreciatively, as they might at a trained seal who’d managed to nose the ball through the hoop. Then they chatter on amongst themselves for a while until one of them asks if anyone’s tried the shrimp yet, just as you’re popping another shrimp into your mouth.

Did I mention my “traditional” career? A project manager with the New York State Department of Health? Not that I can blame Gina. Turnabout is fair play, after all. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bunch of us project managers were standing around trying to have a decent project management conversation when some writer (usually with misbegotten aspirations of someday becoming a project manager) tries to horn in. We might patronize him or her for a little while, but that gets old pretty soon, and we eventually forget he or she is even there.

So I certainly can’t blame her for not noticing me standing here, munching on the shrimp. I’ve never met her, and her rejection slips from “Other Voices” didn’t convey a lot of her personality, but I’m willing to bet she’s a nice woman. So, just to keep the conversation going, let’s take her questions one at a time and see if we can unearth any relevancy for a project manager and part-time writer.

What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? None, now. Not much then, either. When I left college, I was branded a good writer, and I knew two things: I would probably always write, and I would probably always have a “traditional” job. My background was strictly blue-collar, I wasn’t all that far removed from my parents’ Great Depression, and I harbored a subtle but actual dread of ever being in the position of not knowing where my next meal was coming from. A career in writing was every bit as likely as a career in outer space.

Naturally (having been branded a good writer), I also harbored a distant, vague notion that someday I might meet with some writing success, perhaps even enough to be able to chuck my day job—about the same probability as perhaps winning the lottery someday. Of course taking a decade or two off from writing probably didn’t lower the already formidable odds against that ever happening. But when I finally did get around to writing again, I turned to the novel, not the story, a decision that was probably financial to some degree (relevancy, at last!). If that remote possibility were ever to occur, it wouldn’t be because of a short story I’d written, it would be because of a novel. As the wonderful writer Manette Ansay would tell me years later, “I love the short story, but it’s the novel that pays the bills.”

How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? The money I’ve earned from my book and the stories I’ve published in magazines that actually pay in American dollars (Confrontation sprang for forty bucks!) might have almost covered an all-expenses-paid vacation to downtown Albany, but the writing expenses—those conferences ain’t cheap, never mind postage, envelopes, paper clips—precluded my dream vacation. So I’ve resigned myself to being content with the tax write-off.

Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? You mean besides getting up at 5:00, 5:30 every morning? Besides pissing off my wife by going to those conferences nearly every year, then having to eat bad food and read untold numbers of ungodly stories and try to come up with something nice to say about them? And having to try to talk to faculty members and hope they remember I’m in the conversation? Besides all that? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. These are the sorts of sacrifices one has to be prepared to make for the sake of one’s art, aren’t they? Nobody promised us a rose garden.

Oh, you mean financially? No.

Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Many years ago, as I was climbing the bureaucratic ladder, scratching and clawing my way to the middle, I was sorely tempted to just say the hell with it and become a shepherd. As a matter of fact, I went so far as to fill out the paperwork, but that was nipped in the bud when it came to light that I was allergic to wool.

But maybe that isn’t all that relevant to this particular conversation.

Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? As a grandchild of the Depression, I’ve never met an indecent dollar. You know the rest. If you’ve been listening.

What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, as I’m not sure mine qualifies as a “writing life,” at least in the context of the question.

But I’m willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

The harsh realities of economics (I can remember when gas was twenty-five cents a gallon, and the snow was up to here!) mean that I have to keep my day job, so the cons would include the aforementioned early rising (hey, I’m getting older, I get sleepy) and the other sundry aforementioned sacrifices. Of course, the pros were also mentioned afore: seeing your work in print, knowing that someone else besides you is actually reading the stuff, reaping in those glorious forty dollar checks. And writing. The pure, unadulterated pleasure of it. Creating lives where none were before, watching them strut and fret, feeling the goosebumps rising…

I could go on, but I think I’ll go stand over there and munch on some shrimp.

Hart's Grove

Stop by our View From the Keyboard series tomorrow and you’ll see Dennis McFadden’s 5:00 AM writing space and his trusty writing partner. Dennis, thank you. -PMc←

Prizes and a Patron ~ Vanessa Gebbie on Earning as a Writer

Vanessa Gebbie is the first of our story writers in conversation to answer the questions Gina Frangello posed in her last post to our series “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. Just to remind you, here are Gina’s questions: “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?”

Vanessa?

V: Let me stop laughing before I type my reply.

Ahem.

Money paid no role whatsoever other than a negative one, in my decision to write fiction. Prior to that, I was being paid a small sum now and again to write non-fiction as I was a journalist of sorts—the sort that doesn’t get paid much. That’s not quite fair—I was also owner of a one-woman marketing consultancy, and had been for some eight years. I was earning thanks to that—and sometimes, decent sums.

As soon as I stopped to write, I earned not only nothing, but a negative sum. There were course fees to find. There was the purchase of a computer. Paper. Ink. Workshops. Not to mention the books. Books and more books! And I was no longer adding to the family ‘pot’. But let’s put this into context. I wasn’t exactly a youngster. My husband, bless him, had two rather useful attributes—firstly he was in a well-paid job, and was more concerned with my happiness than my financial contributions. And thus it was that I acquired what used to be called, in the olden days, a patron. I was just married to mine.

Without my income, we had appreciably less money. Even the odd competition win, bringing in a thousand or two in a good year, was laughable when compared with the income I’d given up.

I’d had my various careers. I’d done a languages degree, then worked for the Ministry of Defence in London, had one son, requalified in management specializing in HR, done an MBA, taken on senior management roles, had second son, started up the marketing consultancy… then suddenly, enough of the treadmill! Time to do what I needed to.

My husband (mon patron) pays the bills.

Short fiction has paid me very very little, if we are only talking cash. Publication fees can be measured in tens of pounds. I have been lucky and won competitions—even they don’t pay much—the best was a Bridport second place which raised £1000. ($1657 apparently…) I have two collections out and a text book, with one of the largest most respected indie presses in the UK. They pay no advances. Royalties are tiny. 7.5%. We make a little on the books—can buy them for a 35% discount and lug them round readings, festivals… But know something—I am not a saleswoman. I am a writer.

I wrote a novel. It took me five years to write. Well, from my previous post you will know it was a glorious series of short stories which was bullied into a different shape, firstly because I wanted to see if I could write something longer, and secondly because I had an agent (acquired thanks to a single short story, incidentally…) who wanted a novel to sell. So I am counting the advance I got for that as allied to the writing of short stories, if I may. A decent, not high, but very welcome five figure sum.

Wow. Five figure sum, huh. What, literary fiction? Yeah. But before we get too excited, remember it took me five years to write. That’s (if my maths is right) a cool and not-high four figure sum for each year spent working on this thing. If I take into account the money my darling patron spent on multiple stays at writing retreats (it was written in Ireland) flights and car hire to get there—over the five years…he has just about broken even.

I ought not forget teaching—as if I could. I love doing that, and have had some terrific times—being writer-in-residence at Stockholm University this time last year, for example—working at Winchester Writers Conference in July, running a week long workshop in Ireland next month—a workshop at Bridport in November—teaching pays well.

However. I am a writer, and a teacher when asked, not an academic. Is writing an academic pursuit…now there’s a question?! If I let teaching become a job, I would worry about what would happen to the writing—and am happy to leave it to those who can juggle the demands of both disciplines much more effectively than me.

Financially, I have run very far and very fast to stand absolutely still. By anyone’s measure, for a lit writer, four books in four years must be doing OK, product-wise…but then I read today about a debut author getting £600,000 in a two book deal. I felt sick for a moment. Then I looked at what her novels were about—nothing I could write in a million years…and felt much better. I do what I do and am happy. Just about. It remains to be seen whether I have the reserves to do this all over again, despite the fact that I have a brilliant idea tapping at the windows of my heart…oh what the hell. Writing will see me out one way or another. And there is one certainty. When I do shuffle off this mortal coil, my estate won’t be able to pay for solid oak and brass handles. I’ve ordered plywood.

Thanks again, Vanessa. There’s a whole lot more about this writing stuff on Vanessa’s website and blog:  www.vanessagebbie.comhttp://morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com/. You might want to check them out. Next up, Dennis McFadden on eating shrimp with project managers. -PMc←

PBR and Rejection Slips ~ Gina Frangello on “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers

Gina Frangello answers fellow conversationalist Vanessa Gebbie’s question about whether or not writing the short story is training ground for the novel. While Gina’s latest book is a collection of short stories called Slut Lullabies, her first fiction work (besides editing projects,) was My Sister’s Continent, a novel. (Begs the question: What came first, the novel or story? Or maybe it doesn’t. Sorry.)

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, from 1997-2007, I regularly got phone calls, letters and emails from writers I’d published, wanting recommendations as to where they could submit their collections of short fiction. Basically, their situations went like this: “Every story in the collection has been published in a good journal—some have won awards—but I can’t even get any agent in New York to read it.” Agents kept telling these writers that short fiction “didn’t sell.” Even if, on occasion, an agent read a writer’s work and loved it, the agent’s brand of encouragement was often reduced to, “Please get in touch when you have a novel.”

Reactions to this attitude can be varied, of course. There are many young writers out there who do “begin” with short fiction—often because it is the traditional form for university creative writing workshops—with the implicit assumption that they will write a novel “someday.” Of course, even these writers rarely enjoy hearing that their short fiction is totally devalued by the publishing industry. Writers who write both short stories and novels are not any less attached to their short fiction—work no less hard on it and believe in it no differently—than writers who write short fiction alone, and so even these writers (myself among them) have experienced many frustrations regarding the market’s attitude about the short story. Our agents often don’t want to submit our stories until/unless we’ve had a “big” novel first, for example, and we may spend four or five years toiling on a novel that never reaches those heights while meanwhile we have a collection literally collecting dust in the proverbial drawer.

But let’s forget those writers—writers like myself—for a moment. What about the writers out there who don’t write novels at all? How does it feel to be constantly told that your art is a mere training ground for some other form in which you have no inherent interest or drive? Isn’t this a bit like going to audition for the New York City Ballet only to be told that you’re amazing, but to come back when you’re ready to tap dance?

If agents and book publishers have so little interest in the short story form—and this has been true now for almost two decades: the entire careers of many working writers today—then doesn’t it necessarily relegate short story writers to that beautiful “ghetto” of literary magazines, essentially guaranteeing them that they will never find wide readership, much less make money, for their craft?

Most of us in the literary world (or certainly the independent publishing world) would readily admit that literary magazines are the gatekeepers for some of the best writers in the country. The vast majority of these magazines, print or online, are freer from marketing concerns than book publishers are. All but an elite few subsist mainly on arts grants and donations, so while of course all journals want subscribers/readers, the model of “making money” on a literary journal is all but completely passé, especially in this era where so many journals are free online. Therefore, to some extent the only thing that matters in these publications is “quality.” Nobody gets rich running them. Nobody has to answer to corporate shareholders. Lit magazines are rarely “crowd pleasers,” as most people . . . well, barely know they exist. What they aim to do, quite simply, is to rock the worlds of their own small audience. They have scant interest in publishing something simply because it seems marketable, hip, palatable, crowd-friendly—their editors strive to fall in love, and once smitten they don’t have to pitch anything to the marketing department for approval, they simply send an acceptance to the writer. Sure, some editors tend towards the incestuous, publishing all their friends or only reading solicited work while everything else languishes in the slushpile, and this can lead to homogeneity or compromised aesthetics . . . but those things are true in “big publishing” too, perhaps to an even greater degree. So in many senses, literary magazine publishing remains our purest and perhaps our highest quality forum for literature, and many writers are very content to build careers on these pages, perhaps eventually coming out with a collection from a university or indie press after they are already a “big name” in lit journal circles. They don’t necessarily hanker for more. Their small audience adores their work, and they are home.

But . . . what about the short story writer who yearns for something else? The big deal? Even the medium sized book deal? How about just a freaking agent? Well, unless they’re from a trendy country with which the United States is having some highly publicized skirmish; unless they’ve already published a successful novel; unless they are at minimum an Iowa alum with a bunch of fancy blurbs, Pushcart Prizes, and a short story in the New Yorker—probably they’re shit out of luck.

I’ve seen more writers go through this process than I can count. Even my co-editor at Other Voices, a talented fiction writer whose stories were being widely published in journals and anthologies in the 1990s, met with a similar fate. After spending years polishing her collection, devoted to her craft, she could not find an agent to represent her and was told so many times to “write a novel” that—for a time—she stopped writing anything altogether. Though she did eventually find an agent, even he pushed her to write something more commercial, i.e. a “women’s fiction” styled novel. Is it any wonder that so many gifted writers of short fiction end up focusing primarily on editing, teaching, or some other aspect of the writing world, giving up their early publishing dreams?

In the end, there is this: on a craft level, the short story is not a training ground for the novel. They are different beasts. That said, writing is training ground for writing. If you write enough short fiction and you get to be pretty damn good at it, chances are you could also write a novel if you truly want to and you work long and hard enough. And so, while much can be made and dissected (as we have, to some extent, already done in this blog series) of the difference between the story and the novel, the real difference here—the essential difference—has to do with what a writer wants out of his or her career vs. what the market wants. The short story can be mere “training ground” for the novel if the writer sees it that way. However, such writers should keep in mind that writing a novel is no neat guarantee of selling a book for good money at a big New York house either. Deciding to write “to the market” is a risky endeavor—one that can drain your pursuit of its passion yet not lead to an end-goal reward of fame or fortune with anything resembling predictability. Even if a writer is willing to forego all aims of writing literary work and crank out chick-lit novels or thrillers . . . well, think about it. If you think there are a lot of unpublished literary fiction writers out there, when hardly any Americans even read literary fiction and literary fiction writers make crappy money, just how many unpublished thriller writers do you think there are? Would you like to have Dan Brown’s money? Yeah, so would everybody else.

If there’s any moral (well, other than “the publishing industry sucks a little”—but what industry doesn’t?), it always comes down to the same thing. Write what you love. If you love novels, write one! If your only love is short fiction, stick to that. Your audience may be smaller. You may never make a living. You may never even publish a book, instead remaining in the mags forever, and for many ambitious young writers that can be a bitter pill to swallow. But if you were in this for money and the guarantees, you’d have been an attorney, or an options trader, or a doctor, or even a plumber. If you’re writing for guarantees, for money, or to be what the market wants, you’re probably at the wrong party anyway, and you should leave while you have a chance, because the party on the next block might have some caviar, and all we’ve got over here is PBR and rejection slips wallpapering our walls.

In the end, I got so many of those calls, letters and emails from my writers at Other Voices magazine, that I ended up launching Other Voices Books (www.ovbooks.com), where I have been honored and privileged to publish some of these brilliant short story writers myself, like Tod Goldberg, Corrina Wycoff, Allison Amend. We don’t make much money. Sometimes we lose money. We can’t publish all the books we want to publish, because we’re poor with a tiny and overworked staff. But you know what—we’re proud of every book we put out; we’re passionate to live, eat and breathe these books and their writers for a good year-plus of our lives. We no more see our work as, say, training ground for an editorship at HarperCollins, than writers of short fiction should see their work as a training ground for anything at which they do not wish to be trained. We do it because we love it. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Uh, unless you’re starving and living in your car. Which kind of brings me to my next question. As a publisher/editor as well as a writer, I notice that my answers often involve “industry” or market concerns, which invariably do end up relating to money. I tend to take a combination jaded/idealistic view on that front, essentially boiling down to the fact that, yeah, we all need to eat, but if you’re writing for the money you could really have found a simpler way to make ends meet, and that writing needs to be primarily pursued for the passion of it. Not everyone agrees with this, clearly. So, for our next question, particularly since we all write short fiction, a form that is now (as opposed to in Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s time) notoriously underpaid: What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?

 

 →Thanks, Gina. Well, the question is back to our conversationalists, Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, Dennis McFadden, and me. Money? Fame? Real jobs? Hey, don’t forget to troll around on the website here for some other cool stuff like John McNally’s writing nest and Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile. And Faulkner half-naked. And Dorothy Parker on lingerie. -PMc←

The Long and The Short of It ~ One Writer’s Training

We were out at our house in Mount Carroll, Illinois for a quick turnaround weekend away. Mount Carroll is a small town just ten miles away from the Mississippi River, a quiet place where we try to step out of our city lives. Where we try to slow down.

So there I was in my writing room, a small space on the second floor with an artist table a great-great-great (or so) aunt stored her paints in and my mother used as her bedside table; a remarkably heavy “portable” typewriter made more than half a century ago; books, shelves, and an array of gewgaws mined from family items, antique shops, and auctions on the now (for decades) defunct college campus in town. I was nursing a cup of coffee, rocking in my overstuffed, secondhand easy chair with a gold velveteen re-upholstery job, looking out on our huge European Larch tree that a local tree expert told us must be over 200 years old. Our house was built in the 1890s. That means the tree was there long before the house was. (I know I’m a writer, but I can still do a little math—see? Oh, and this reminds me: the novel was around long before the short story.) My journal was open and I was trying to figure out a way to gather my thoughts together in order to finally answer Vanessa Gebbie’s question posed a couple of weeks ago: Is writing short stories training ground for writing the novel? And even as I scribbled, I found my mind wandering, going over the lists of things I had to do before we packed up and headed back to Chicago, the things I had to do when I got there, the things I have to do tomorrow, this week, the rest of this semester, this summer, and before school starts again in September. Oh yeah, and in September, too.

This all actually has to do with what I want to say about short story writing, about novel writing. It does, I swear.

At Columbia College Chicago where I teach in the Fiction Writing Department, we are always assessing and evaluating our curriculum. Part of this work is to consider new courses, often proposed by other faculty members. And recently, different ideas for a class with the subject of Flash Fiction has come up. “Writing the Short-Short.” Or “Fiction Writing Topics: Flash Fiction.” Something like that. And here’s the thing: I hate this idea. I hate the idea of making a whole class out of little, tiny stories. Of teaching students to write short. (As though people who text and tweet and blog and shorthand through most forms of communication need us to encourage them to keep it short!)

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I love the perfect short-short. Adore it. Think “Bucket Rider,” by Franz Kafka; “The Porcelain Doll,” by Leo Tolstoy; “The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin; “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway; “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid. These are stories I turn to often, stories I learn from and I use in teaching. I have my own short-short stories, too, in The Temple of Air. “The Joke.” “Deer Story.” “Hand Thing.” But you know what? I had to write hundreds of pages in order to write these two and three page stories. I had to write long long long in order to really do the short-short thing.

So you’re thinking I’m just slow, aren’t you? You’re thinking only someone simple-minded would have to learn how to write long in order to write short. But here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that a writer needs to allow herself the time and room to enjoy the deep distraction it takes to find even the smallest nugget of story. My story “The Joke,” was a page from the 200 + pages that became my thesis. I had to write that novel in order to write that short story.

So maybe I’m saying what Dennis said a couple of weeks ago, the novel is just as much training ground for the short story as the story is for the novel. Yeah, that’s part of it. But there’s something more. And it has to do with sitting in my overstuffed golden velvet chair in the quiet hours of early morning with trees and horses out my window, and not being able to see any of that very clearly because my mind is spinning and spinning and spinning. Our desire to jump from one thing to the next, to click the link, to change the channel, to scroll through the headlines should not be the thing that moves us to read short stories; and perhaps more importantly, it should not be the thing that compels us to write them, flash or otherwise. In order to combat the shortening of our attention spans (real or imagined) it is essential that we lose ourselves in story, dive in deeply, fully, submerge ourselves. For two pages or for 200. A fine story does that, it draws us into—as John Gardner called it—the “vivid and continuous dream.” We come to after the last paragraph, at the final punctuation mark, blinking against the stark light of not reading. And we cannot create this dream state for others if we cannot experience it ourselves at the keyboard.

And that is what we need to train for. Creating the “vivid and continuous dream.” A novelist I met once spent years on a novel that she eventually abandoned and grieved for. She just couldn’t make it work. So she palpated the manuscript until she found its pulse, determined the size of the alive part of it. From there she discovered the story, and it was a short one. Still, she wrote it, published it, and received accolades for it. Here’s the truth of the matter: page count isn’t important; story, writing, is. And yet, I’d wager that Tolstoy, Kincaid, Kafka, Chopin, Hemingway, and even John Gardner each wrote many, many, many pages in order to write the perfect few.

And that (if you’ll indulge me) is the long and the short of it.

And just in case you are interested, an excerpt of my novel-in-progress-of-trying-to-find-a-publisher (Alice in Cuba Land) is here on the “Excerpts” page. And by the way, Gina Frangello has more to say about this as well. This short story – novel thing, that is. Coming soon.←

Is the Short Story Training Ground for the Novel? Vanessa Gebbie says “No.” Er, “Yes.” Er, “No – Yes.”

A short while back Vanessa Gebbie posed a question to our writers in conversation, and now it is time for her to answer her own question. Vanessa?

 

 I do get a bit tired of hearing that the short story is a ‘training ground’ for the novel?  Is it?

I posed this question initially without really thinking, expecting my own response to be ‘of course not’… but after consideration I’m now not so sure. Quite apart from the fact that any piece of creative writing surely has some small bearing on the next, being a step on a journey, I thought short fiction and novels were so different, that the one would have little direct influence on the other.

But I have just spent the last five years writing a longer work – at the same time as producing enough short stories to fill two collections and plenty over. And I am now convinced that the answer to the question is not as simple as a straight ‘yes, it is’ or ‘no, it isn’t’. At least, for this writer – the only one I can speak for.

In some ways, being comfortable with creating short fiction has not helped me make a coherent piece of long fiction. I am avoiding the word ‘novel’ now – because that conjures ideas of lengthy narratives with several side alley explorations. Side alley explorations that are not actually vital, but which help to pad out the page count. Don’t they?  No? How many novels have you read (as a writer yourself) without wanting to reach for the red pen – ‘Why is this here? What’s it got to do with…?’ And I must admit, I would not at this point, consider writing one of those single main narrative works, because I don’t enjoy reading so many of them for the very reason outlined, so why would I?!

As an aside – I have just re-read a very well known novel written within the last few decades. A novel studied for ‘A’ level English by one of my sons not that long ago. And one I thoroughly enjoyed on first reading – already a modern classic. Reading with a writer’s eye, I wonder if it could easily be 25% shorter, and be better for it?  So says I, the short story writer! And thank the lord for subjective opinions.

However. Inasmuch that successful short fiction has no room for extraneous material, my skills as a writer of shorts, such as they are, did not exactly help when I wanted to produce something they call a novel. And although it might have been perfectly possible to go in depth into each deliberate gap, (those gaps that render short fiction successful reading experiences as far as I’m concerned) to fill them with matter, flesh out the prose, add lengthy descriptions where naturally, I might have given a single word or phrase or even nothing – this was not right for anything that had my name on it.

My response to the problem was to create the only sort of long work I can imagine I will ever do – one that could be approached in the creation stage as individual short stories. Sure, the settings were the same, and all the characters wandered in and out of each other’s stories at will, gate-crashing their parties. In this way I made twelve facets of the same thing. And just as working on a stand-alone short, where I would go deeper but sharpen at the same time, I split them again, each one becoming either two, or three distinct stories – until I ended up with over thirty in all. Two timelines, same setting, different generations of the same families.

So far so uninteresting – another writer blathering about their process, which may or may not have relevance to yours. But. The point for me is this – it was this approach that actually led the project in more ways than one. Not just structural issues emerged.

I do not plot when I write a short story. I start with a character who fascinates me enough to want to spend time with him/her and a problem, and the story finds its own direction and shape, after time. Careful revision sharpens the whole. I couldn’t imagine approaching a longer piece of work, say 100,000 words, in the same way, without there being a lot of meaningless meandering, and one helluva lot of pruning as the thicket was tamed. However. As I wrote The Coward’s Tale each story informed the next, in more ways than one. It was not just the characters who appeared again – it was the distinct shape of each story – the rhythms in the bigger sense.  And, most importantly, the theme.

Joan Didion is credited with saying, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I have to say I never understood that. Of course we know what we think! But we only know what we think if we are addressing an issue consciously. Each of my stories, as they appeared, was singing the same song in a different key. Of course, there needed to berestructuring, to undo the story arcs – I was in danger of leaving it as a series, not a coherent whole…but it was only when I was able to look back at the almost finished first draft that I could see what I’d been doing. The minor and more accessible themes were rising and falling fine – but the overarching one only became clear after Id finished the first draft – during the year I spent polishing and shaping the final structure with the help of the wonderful and perceptive writer Maggie Gee, thanks to an Arts Council Grant for the Arts. I needed to have it pointed out to me.

That structure was the hardest thing to get right – so that no longer would each section be stand-alone as well as part of a whole. So that the main threads of the narrative were sharpened here, moved there, echoed, and echoed – and the tapestry that started full of holes ended up good and whole.

So what are the understandings and craft skills I think helped The Coward’s Tale along, learned at the knee of the short story? I think I will start with a nebulous one – the real respect that the short form has for the reader – not requiring them to spend a long time on a voyage without at least giving them the confidence up front that the voyage will be worthwhile. Delivering the goods, on time, and in time. It works both ways – a short story creates a need for a careful reader, not, as is so often trumpeted, one who wants to charge through a short narrative in a grabbed twenty-minute space between train rides, on a busy station. If anything, a worthwhile short story is LESS suited to today’s freneticism and short attention spans than other forms… (but maybe that is another topic?!)

Perhaps the most important direct craft skills for my novel, learned in short fiction, are as follows: characterisation, wrought by a word, a glance, a single attribute – where lengthy descriptions are so often de trop, best left to the reader’s imagination. Allied, the use of dialogue, which works so hard and so effectively on many levels. Constant awareness of pace and weight, of each and every word, sentence, paragraph, scene, and their effects on the reader. Awareness of thematic coherence – aiming for a holistic creation in which everything fits, matches, sings the same song. I could go on – the importance of a strong and intriguing opener. And a hundred thousand words later, an ending that lifts, makes the heart beat a little faster – an ending that seems the only ending possible.

What am I doing, listing some craft issues?! You know them all, and plenty more. My point is, I relied on those, and The Coward’s Tale is OK. And I answered my own question [in and earlier post] instinctively, without thinking.

“I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, when they finally do, I wonder if they might write a better novel than they would if they were not short story writers first.”

 So actually – not a very good training ground, as that assumes a natural effortless slide from one to the other. The slide from short fiction to long fiction, in my case, was definitely not easy, but I am happy to put my name to the end product. I tip my hat to writers who are able to create successful long single narratives – and I celebrate our differences. And I can’t wait to get back into writing a stand-alone short story!

Why The Short Story, a Conversation Among Writers continues tomorrow with thoughts on Flash Fiction and the Continuous Dream. Thanks for reading! ←

Gerard Woodward on the “sagging, ungainly corpses” of bad short stories

Gerard Woodward has picked up the thread of our conversation and provides us with his response to Vanessa Gebbie‘s question “Is the short story training ground for the novel?” It is an interesting juxtaposition to Dennis McFadden‘s answer earlier.

Gerard: I have a playwright friend who says he gets very annoyed when people apply to do his course so that they can ‘improve their dialogue’ in their novels. I can imagine this would be very annoying, just as much as if the opposite happened, and someone took one of my novel-writing courses in order to improve their writing of stage directions. The point he was making, of course, is that dialogue works very differently in dramatic work, and that it is a big mistake to think writing a play will help you with your novel – a category error, almost. I don’t know enough about writing plays (in fact I don’t know anything about writing plays) to know if he’s right. It couldn’t do any harm, you might be thinking – any writing in any form will help whatever you’re doing, it’s bound to feed in some interesting stuff – but maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t be any help at all, maybe it would even do some damage. If you learnt how to write successful dialogue for a stage play, and then applied that same technique to a novel – well, think about it, a novel full of stage play dialogue – what would that be like? Maybe a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel? I don’t know.

Anyway, I take my friend’s point, and I feel similarly with regard to the short story and the novel. I think it is a big mistake to think of the short story as a practice ground for the novel, a stepping stone towards the longer form. This is because the two forms tend to work along opposite lines of force to achieve their effects. The novel is all about filling big narrative spaces, while the short story is all about suggesting those spaces and using the restrictions of space and time to powerful effect. Short stories written with the same blithe disregard for the boundaries of narrative as a novel are usually very sorry-looking things, and many British anthologies are littered with their sagging, ungainly corpses, often begotten by distinguished novelists.

Of course, a short story may sometimes become so gravid with character, plot and theme that it mutates into the larger thing, by which time it will have spawned a family of sub plots and sub characters, and will fill its space with ease, but this doesn’t mean that the two forms are easily interchangeable. As I said earlier, they are more like opposites. Short stories are not just truncated or abbreviated or compressed novels, they are more like the opposite of novels, they are inverted, or reversed or exploded novels. Their power is delivered in an entirely different way.

If you are using the short story as a training ground for writing a novel, both forms will tend to suffer. You will write weak short stories because you will have little respect for the form (because you will simply be seeing it as a prototype of something else) and you will write weak novels because they won’t have the bulk and meatiness necessary for the panoramic scale of a novel. Write both forms by all means, but don’t treat one as the poor cousin of the other, they both need distinctive approaches and different sets of skills.

On the other hand, they do share much. In America there is a great tradition of the collection of linked short stories – as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts. The series of connected stories, or the novel-in-stories, has emerged as a form in itself. But it is a very different thing from a novel. It is interesting how publishers these days often try and present a collection of short stories as though it is a novel, and it’s not until you begin reading it that you realise it is in fact a short story collection. Then, even if you are a fan of the short story, you can’t help feeling a little bit cheated.

I’ll finish with a quote from an article on the novel versus the short story that has just popped up on The Guardian’s blog pages – “The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different.” As Richard Ford once told the Paris Review, recalling arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel, “Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.” Which sums it up nicely. The rest of Guardian article, which ties in to a lot of the issues that have been raised in this debate, can be found here http://gu.com/p/2zxg3