PBR and Rejection Slips ~ Gina Frangello on “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers April 21, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Gina Frangello, OV Books, Short Story vs Novel, Tod Goldberg
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 April 19, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Alice in Cuba Land, Flash Fiction, Franz Kafka, Kate Chopin
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.” April 18, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Joan Didion, The Coward's Tale, Vanessa Gebbie
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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! ←
Tags: Gerard Woodward, Paris Review, Richard Ford, Roddy Doyle
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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
“The Grand Symbiosis.” Dennis McFadden on training… March 29, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Dennis McFadden, Forrest Gump, Patty McNair, short story, Vanessa Gebbie
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In the last installment of “Why The Short Story?” our conversation among writers, Vanessa Gebbie asked us to consider whether or not we thought the short story is training ground for the novel. Here then, is Dennis McFadden’s response:
Dennis: Is the short story a “training ground” for the novel?
Unquestionably. Undeniably. Until the cows come home.
Bear in mind, however: the novel is every bit as much a training ground for the short story.
Having begun my own writing “career” with the novel before moving up to the story, it’s not difficult to conclude which was the training ground for which. In fact, based upon empirical evidence posted a while back in this very blog, I would suggest that writing novels is a wonderful training ground for writing satirical, anti-English propaganda pieces. And writing satirical, anti-English propaganda pieces (at least in that particular empirical example) is a great training ground for writing short stories.
And what about the writing of blog-post-essay-rambles (while one’s fiction sits in want of affection)? Not to worry. Can’t hurt. Can only help.
In other words, practice, practice, practice…
Or, as Patty put it, work, work, work.
The only way to become a writer is to write. The only way to become a better writer is to write more. And the only way to become the best writer you can be…well, you get the picture. The more you write, the more you perfect your craft, and the better your product will be, be that product long or short. (There may be, and probably is, a point of diminishing returns, but dementia will probably intervene before that point is reached.)
All writing is a training ground for all writing. Novels or stories, or stories or novels, or anything in between.
Of course there are plenty of differences between the novel and the story, in addition to the obvious matter of length. The novel is far more inclusive, often more complex, and the art of excision, while still practiced by the novelist, is hardly as critical as it is to the writer of stories. The differences can be—and have been—endlessly debated, and Vanessa also brings up the sensible question of unlearning the rules and conventions of one form in order to successfully write the other. Exactly. It seems to me then that it is because of those differences that the best training ground for a novelist is not the short story, but the novel—particularly the first, second and third drafts of the novel he or she wants to write.
For all their differences, the short story and the novel are also tantalizingly similar, and when you throw in that bastard stepchild called the novella, the precise relationships—beyond training ground—are as slippery to grasp as a trout in a brook. Particularly in the arena of linked stories and novels.
The relationship among my own might best be described as symbiotic. Years after I’d written my first two novels, I revisited them and was able to extract a couple of fairly decent short stories, which were essentially condensations of the books. This took place long before I learned in a recent essay by Don Koia in the New York Times Book Review that John Updike abandoned his first novel, Willow, two-thirds of the way through (how does one measure two-thirds of an incomplete entity? Never mind…), but later “mined” the unfinished novel for short story material. So, were those novels training grounds for those stories? Or were they more like blocks of wood from which those stories could be carved?
Right now I’m working on a novel based on a short story of mine (no mining pun intended). Does that mean that the original story was a training ground for the novel? Maybe. Or maybe it means simply that I liked the characters, place and plot enough to go back and spend more time with them. Maybe it means that the story, in this instance, was an outline to be filled in and fleshed out, a seed from which the novel could grow.
Furthermore, when this particular novel was nearing completion, I realized, alas, it was lacking. It needed additional depth and resonance (I often realize, also with an alas, the same thing in the early drafts of my stories), so I thought I’d develop some minor characters into major actors, give them their own scenes and plotlines. A few dozen pages into the new sections, however, I felt I didn’t really know them well enough, so I decided to write a short story—a prequel to the novel—to get to know them a little better.
A few years ago, I liked a story I’d written about a dirty old man so much I kept on writing, and ended up with a novella (I think that’s what it was. Or is). Then I kept on going—picture Forrest Gump running—and wrote three more novellas from three of the other characters’ points of view, featuring the same people and plot. And what did I end up with? A novel? Four novellas? Four extended stories? Beats the hell out of me. Beats the hell out of every agent I’ve tried to peddle it to as well.
Training ground? Sure, maybe, call it that if you will, or call it raw material, background, drafts, seeds, outlines. Whatever it is, it’s all practice, it’s all work. Call it all a part of the grand symbiosis.
→So, friends? What say you? Do you think writing the short story trains you for writing the novel?←
“The Words, When They Come Right, Are Mine…” Vanessa Gebbie on “How the Short Story?” March 21, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Booktrust, Dennis McFadden, Gerard Woodward, Vanessa Gebbie
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Our partner in conversation, Vanessa Gebbie, just returned from holiday. Well-deserved her time off, I think. She’s been scribbling madly for our blog, as well as continuing on with her own, adding new bits and pieces almost daily. Among the news on Vanessa’s website is mention of her book Words From A Glass Bubble having been listed by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers.” Congratulations, Vanessa!
Below you will find Vanessa’s response to Dennis’s original questions and comments on “HOW the short story?” You’ll find, too, Dennis’s words in bold, Vanessa’s answers and ruminations in italics.
Dennis: The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.
Vanessa: I have to bow here. Talk about concision – yes, the goosebumps do have it. And, if you are so disposed, the tears have it. Or whatever – but the final sentences of several of my stories have had me, the writer, in tears, and I can’t ‘perform’ them at spoken events even now, without apologising for my lack of control. And it is a funny thing – those are the stories that have done the best for me. How does that happen? I write in a state of ‘knowingness’ – ‘awareness’ – but I do not plot. When I get towards the end of the first draft, I can ‘see’ the ending, with little detail. A blur. As I write it, the tears come. And in revisions – the ending is not touched. How does that happen? Well, actually, in a way, I do not want to know. I am just grateful.
Dennis: Now I’m curious as to how the short story. We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? …How does it happen? A theme? An event? A character? Something else altogether? Is there any discernable method or pattern, or is inspiration random and chaotic? …What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?
Vanessa: There are a lot of questions up there, and too many to be answered in one blog post, but I will try. For a start, I wonder if the decision process in a creator is quite as simple as ‘deciding’ to make something (leaving aside commissions…) or whether there is a pressure that builds up, some alchemy between the writer’s obsessions and a seed – a setting/character combination perhaps, or a phrase overheard, anything – that begins to grow despite the writer. The writer’s mind becomes the medium for that seed’s growth – not necessarily consciously – think Nietsche’s ‘active forgetting’…until there is no option but to release the pressure by committing something to screen or paper.
The only discernable method or pattern for this writer is the knowledge, gained after so many false starts, that to grab at the idea/feeling too early, ruins the piece. The product takes on a stilted, forced quality as I flounder about with a voice that seems clever, as opposed to the right voice for this piece. Or the characters refuse to become anything but puppets as I take decisions on their behalf and shift them from here to there, doing MY bidding. Not their own.
I know the words, when they come right, are mine, the product of a lifetime of experiences married to my value system – but I do know that the ancients, with their belief that genius was something external, working with the creator, and for whose visits the creator gave thanks, were much wiser than we are today… I have learned to wait for and welcome those precious moments when the alchemy works, the words flow, and characters do what they must and speak in the voices they must. And in that sense, yes, ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is, is using me, as much as I am using the seeds of inspiration.
I do get a bit tired of hearing that the short story is a ‘training ground’ for the novel? Is it? My own view (having written The Coward’s Tale’ over the last four years, at the same time as writing two collections of shorts..) would be quite complex, but might include these sentences:
“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, I also wonder if they might write a better novel, when they finally do, than they would if they were not.”
Patty: So fellow conversationalists, Dennis, Gerard, and Gina, do you think the short story is “training ground for the novel?” I know what I think, and my answer will be posted, too.
Secrets Revealed, the Code is Cracked: How the Short Story March 13, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: James Thurber, Michael Delp, short story
I have this friend Michael Delp, a writer from Northern Michigan. His latest book is a loving, funny, and sometimes disturbing collection of short stories called As If We Were Prey, published by the scrappy and very fine Wayne State University Press. Delp is a bit of a hermit, preferring fish and water to people and conversation, so it is sort of remarkable that he is such a hero to his students (he teaches at Interlochen Arts Academy.) Or maybe it isn’t remarkable. Maybe because he doesn’t have any real interest in saying a whole lot, the words he does parcel out while he teaches are that much more precious to those who are listening.
One of the things that Michael hates—hates—is the whole “process of writing” discourse. You may have seen a comment he left on an earlier blog post here about how the “why” of writing was more interesting to him than the “how.” I’ve seen him in the audience during conversations with authors, and when that question gets asked—Can you tell us about your process?—the one that I think may have overtaken that other one—Is this a true story? (perhaps the same question when you think it about it)—Delp tsks and shakes his head, rolls his eyes like his sixteen-year-old students do, and almost always leaves the room.
And in this disdain for the process question, Delp, I think, is not alone. For a while it bugged me some; a while, that is, after I stopped asking it myself at just about every opportunity I had. I remember sitting in a small balcony overlooking the main room of the Stone House, the location of University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Writers’ Conference, and watching as all heads leaned in to hear how Richard Ford would answer the same question. Pens poised above notebooks, the crowd (gaggle? bevy? flock? murder?) of aspiring writers listened closely to the answer. I can’t remember the answer myself now; maybe it was something akin to those writers who have answered this question before him: pen instead of computer, at a podium, in a bathtub, blue ink on the first draft, on the back of a wheelbarrow over nine days, on a continuous scroll of paper fed through a manual typewriter. Does it matter? It is intriguing, interesting, delightful even when we discover these little rituals of writers we love (Dennis McFadden told a grad student of mine that he can only write wearing his red thong; I think he may have been kidding, but who am I to judge?) but sometimes I wonder if there is something else behind our desire to know this stuff. Like maybe if we listen hard enough, try things out as successful others have before us, we, too, will become famous, loved, well-received authors. Like we are looking for a way to crack the code. As though writing were like hitting a golf ball or kicking a soccer (foot) ball: all we need to do is find the sweet spot, follow through on the swing, be one with the ball, and GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL!
It’s really not the same, though, is it? And yet, I think that in some cases, those writers who totally dis the process question (we all know these guys, right? the ones who say “I don’t have a process,” as though the writing is done on its own without any input from the one at the desk) want to believe that process is not nearly as important as muse or magic. As though talent were all anyone needs to write something and write it well. As though work, process, pushing and pulling and massaging the words onto the page weren’t part of what it means to be a writer.
Another tangent here. Another kind of writer: the one you all know, the incredibly talented one who calls himself a writer, despite not having written for months, maybe years. You knew this guy in grad school, right? Or maybe she was your student. These folks are more frustrating to me than those who are so prolific you wonder if they don’t have the muse on intravenous feed directly to their writing hand. Because those of us who also call ourselves writers, you know, the ones who are actually, well, writing, are often badgered or even judged by these other (non)writers who seem to want to know our recipes, our secrets, our ten steps to better writing. As though these bits of information are all they will need to start their own writing, as though those ten months, two years, decade and a half were just brief recesses from the work at hand.
And there it is. The real key to unlocking the secret code: work. Dennis said it already, and the others did as well in one way or another. Work. That’s the HOW of the short story. The HOW of writing. Take those students, writer friends, or friends who want to (think they can) be writers who say “It’s all up here,” and point to their noggins, “I just need to write it down.” Yes. You do. Because until you write it down, it ain’t writing. In his book “Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy,” Mark Kingwell says (writes), “…only by writing it down will you know the precise contours of the idea, as opposed to its vague outline.”
And there, too, it is: “the precise contours of the idea.” Let’s call this process, yeah? The other stuff—the human, practical stuff like bathtub writing and a page a day and arranging notecards like a quilt on a bed and counting lines and using only number two pencils and reading to the dog—is less process than ritual, perhaps. Moving from memory (my babysitting a young girl with Down’s Syndrome when I was a teenager like in my story “When is a Door Not a Door?” or hitting a deer on a country road and my fiancé at the time thinking an Xacto knife might be enough to kill the severely wounded animal as in “Deer Story” and so on) to published story is process. The way we hold these moments (or they hold us) until we need to commit them to the page, either highly fictionalized or in some other form, is part of process. In fact, holding these memories until we are ready to tell them to the page is (pardon the psychobabble) a form of processing, yes? And putting it on the page, choosing where to put the commas, the dashes, the mixing of diction, the fully realized images, the fragments and expansions, all of this is part of the HOW.
So let’s not be too quick to turn from the “HOW” of the short story, okay, Delp? Let’s talk about it. Why did you decide to name the daughter character in one of your stories the same name as your own daughter? HOW does that affect the way the story was conceived, written? HOW did the idea of a man sitting in the back of a truck answering every possible question from a local audience move from a seen image to a short story? What was the process? I’ll tell you about the time I shared a car on a carnival ride with a couple who let their infant crawl all over the place while the wheel turned hundreds of feet in the air, HOW I couldn’t help but worry the kid was going to fall, HOW I knew I would be forever changed if I witnessed that, HOW it would affect my ideas about God and faith and all that goes with that; and HOW I couldn’t stop thinking about that, what would happen if…, until I wrote it down. I’ll tell you HOW I listen to the stories I am told by others, scan them for possibilities for my own writing, use what I can; ruthlessly and selfishly sometimes. So much so that one friend would always say “This is my story, you can’t have it,” because she knew I was prone to stealing. And that would frustrate me because those stories never made it to print, she didn’t write them, and it always seemed to me like some form of betrayal, like a loss to readers everywhere not to be able to have access to these stories she wouldn’t let me take.
Short answer then: HOW the short story? WRITE the short story. Then REWRITE the short story. And WRITE it again. James Thurber said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” I’ll second that and raise him: “Don’t get it right, just get it written, and THEN get it right.” That’s HOW.
→For more on the HOW of Writing, join us at Columbia College Chicago for the Fiction Writing Department’s Story Week Festival of Writers. March 13-18, 2011. Up close and personal with writers, editors, publishers, and other writerly folk. Free and open to the public. Tonight, Sunday, I’ll be reading with Eric May, Lott Hill, and April Newman at 2nd Story, Martyrs’ on Lincoln in Chicago, the festival’s launch event.←
Tags: Best American Mystery Stories, Creativity, Dennis Lehane, Dennis McFadden, McNair
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Dennis McFadden answers his own question “How The Short Story?” with thoughts on creativity and hard work, pimple-faced student teachers, Dennis Lehane, artists, and craftsmen. “Diamond Alley,” a gorgeously written and deeply affecting story of the murder of a popular local girl (from McFadden’s collection Hart’s Grove) has just been chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.
Dennis: How the short story, did someone say?
I wish I’d asked an easier question. Or at least a less embarrassing one.
In that earlier post I mentioned the English teacher who spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise, the guy with the literary name of MacBeth (somewhat compromised by his given name of Bruce). Well, that same year, my senior year in high school, Mr. Bruce MacBeth had a student teacher from nearby Clarion University, who, as you might surmise, was only three or four years older than me, and who, I can only surmise, wasn’t the least bit impressed by that so-called talent, and was undoubtedly sick of hearing it touted (and was undoubtedly not the only one). I remember him as a pimple-faced, wise-mouthed dude with horn-rimmed glasses, and probably several other hyphenated traits that don’t jump immediately to mind.
The semester he was there, we endured one of those standardized tests schools love to inflict upon their students, and one of the areas it allegedly tested was Creativity. My score in that particular area was among the lowest in the class, a fact that Mr. Student Teacher (I’ve forgotten his name; were I more creative, I’d make one up) pointed out with buckets of glee to all who would listen.
Now I don’t put much stock in standardized tests (at least not since then), although I do remember my buddy bemoaning his low SAT score with these ill-chosen words: “I ain’t no good in verbal.” I would, however, like to point out to Mr. Smart-Aleck (there’s another one) Student Teacher, if he’s listening, that I, low creativity score and all, have had a short story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.
And I can hear his rejoinder now: Oh, yeah? Well, I’ve had spaghetti at my house three times this month.
Trouble is, the more I think about it…he’s probably right. Does writing a “successful” story have anything at all to do with creativity? I think not. Creativity does, however, have everything to do with how the short story.
What exactly is this thing called “creativity”?
When Gina mentioned writing some of her stories in a single sitting, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Dennis Lehane a few years back (yeah, me and ol’ Den try to chat every day). He was telling me and a few other people about writing his story “Until Gwen,” which subsequently appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2005. That was also a one-sitting affair, written outside on his porch (we were in his living room at the time) one summer day as he sheltered behind creeping vines, a thunderstorm raging all around. It was, he said, the most amazing creative experience of his life.
Ah, a creative experience. So that’s what they look like. As for me, I’m lucky if I can clear my throat in one sitting, thunderstorm or no. “Diamond Alley,” the story selected for Best Mystery Stories, took me over thirty years to write.
What exactly is this thing called “creativity”?
Damned if I know, but isn’t it the answer to how the short story? When we wonder does the author decide to write the story or does the story decide to be written, is the story willed into existence or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion, doesn’t the answer depend upon just how creative that particular author is?
The concept of creativity speaks to the alchemy in the writing process that both Vanessa and Gina alluded to—I suspect this alchemy visits the creative soul much more frequently and freely than it calls upon the rest of us. When Gina asked, “Why, then, do some people become writers, whereas the vast majority of the human race does not?” my guess is it’s simply that some people are creative, whereas most are not. And when she makes the case “that something in the writer’s psyche or brain is wired differently than that of non-writers,” I would suggest that that something is that very mysterious quality of creativity. Those writers who possess it are the chosen for whom the conception of a story is pretty much a matter of spontaneous combustion, and it did not surprise me to learn that I’m engaged in conversation with several of them even as we speak.
Look, I have a vague idea what it’s like. I didn’t say I scored zero in Creativity, just low. Sure, my characters eventually get their act together and start talking to one another on their own, visiting me in my dreams, waking me up with this newly minted characteristic or that, surprising me by doing this or that. But only after I’ve already put in hours of drudgery trying to attain lift-off.
That’s the difference between the truly creative and the rest of us. That’s the difference in how the short story. I have to work for my inspiration; some people get it handed to them for free. I’m a craftsman. They’re the artists.
So, do I owe Mr. Wise-Ass Student Teacher an apology?
Naw. Screw him.
→ Soon, the secrets to how to be a better writer will be revealed. Right here. On this page. No shit. —PMc ←
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Gerard Woodward “has an instinct for the kind of brimmingly charged image that short stories depend on…” says The Guardian. As part of our ongoing Conversation Among Writers, Gerard takes on the question: “How The Short Story?”
Gerard: I think it starts with memory. In fact, I think everything starts with memory, even the present moment, even the future. When you think about it, there just isn’t anything else. The present moment is so infinitely small that it flashes by too quickly to comprehend, and we are left with the aftershock. We trail in the wake of the present moment, enjoying its ripples and savouring its breeze, while it hurries on ahead, always slightly out of reach. That’s how I feel about it, but perhaps I’m just slow-witted. Situated as I presently am, on the top of a skyscraper with a wonderful panorama of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan visible through all-surrounding windows, I can feel wonderfully immersed in the present moment, but really it is just a blur of light and colour too vast to take in. If I do a drawing to try and capture it, by the time my pencil touches the paper, it is a memory. A very recent memory, but a memory all the same. What I’m trying to draw is not what is in front of my eyes, but what my mind has made of what is in front of my eyes. And the resulting drawing will be of a memory. Even more so, if I tried to write a poem or story about it.
So memory is where it starts. Recent or distant, something that happened just now, or something that happened forty seven years ago, (which is just about as far as my memory will stretch, on a good day). But that is only the beginning.
I should say that there are probably two other points of origin for stories, which are still memory-based, but at one step removed. That is – things we have been told, and things we have read. In a sense, the things we’ve been told, (and I include the deliberate tellings alongside the accidental tellings – that is, things we’ve overheard), are memories just as much as things we’ve experienced, but they belong in a category that could be called extended memory – the shared collective memory of people you know – friends and family, as well as strangers whose path you’ve crossed. Similarly, the things we’ve read (and I mean ‘read’ loosely to include everything kind of reading from ‘reading’ a painting or a movie, to listening to a song, along with the more conventional reading of newspapers, journals and – yes – short stories), are also things we remember, but perhaps belong in another slightly different category, you could call it archival memory – another form of extended memory that includes all the bits and pieces of things you’ve read and the other cultural jottings that you might, for instance, gather together in a notebook.
The notebook is important. Memory and extended memory offer a bewilderingly, near infinitely vast amount of potential subject matter. There can never be any excuse for not having anything to write about – writers’ block is just a kind of narcolepsy brought on by an inability to deal with the vastness of one’s extended memory, either through fatigue, lethargy or depression. It is vital to have a way of sifting and sorting and capturing the material that is floating around in the extended memory. Relying on ‘mental notes’ is not enough. I know that, no matter how good an idea occurs to me, if I don’t jot it down within ten minutes, it’ll almost certainly be lost for ever. It may come to the surface again in ten years time, but on that occasion I might not notice its story potential. Its qualities might no longer resonate with the self in the way it did ten years ago. There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes an idea will present itself so strongly that I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to, and stays at the top of my thoughts for days on end, and in fact won’t go away until I’ve written it down somewhere. Then one has a wonderful feeling, that in a notebook somewhere (as long as I can find it) is an idea so strong that, when I go back to it, I’ll be taken over and be in the grip of a narrative so potent that it will almost ‘write itself’ as they say. (It’s an annoying term, because stories definitely never write themselves).
So I’ve said where I think ideas come from, but the other question is what makes those ideas special – what sort of memories make their way into the notebook as potential stories?
Often the starting point is a dilemma or problem. What would happen if someone fired arrows at you in the open street? What would happen if someone stole your caravan while you were alseep inside? What would happen if your ex-partner set fire to themselves in your front garden? I would then start building characters around this idea, then places for it to happen, and so on. The story then would take this central problem and play with it – I very rarely have any idea, when I start writing, of where it will go or what the ending will be. Sometimes it will go nowhere, no matter how hard I push it or how many different turns I take. In which case it is put aside (never thrown away) to puzzle over later, or maybe never to see the light of day again. But with practise I think you develop a way of identifying ideas that could be good stories – and that ability to identify is one of the crucial skills – similar to the stereotypical idea of the journalist having a good nose for a news story. And it’s a very personal thing. Something in the dilemma or problem interests you for personal reasons, they resonate with you, you feel all sorts of other experiences and memories pinging off one another when you think about it.
Finally, the idea of whether you are using the story or the story is using you, is an interesting one. The thing about memory is you have very limited control over it. You do not choose what to remember, and you do not choose what to forget. Sadly, we tend to forget pleasant experiences while bad experiences stay fixed in the mind. I suppose if the opposite were true then all the world’s problems would end instantly. Though probably not – there are good evolutionary reasons for remembering the bad (it reminds us not to repeat mistakes, it helps us readjust our concept of ourselves and perhaps be nicer to people). If humanity could only remember good things it would soon die out (from forgetting that fire was dangerous, for instance). However, this lack of choice in what stays in our minds is crucial when we think about what subjects drive us to write about them. Some subjects do choose themselves – or that’s what it feels like anyway. We might resist (for various reasons – perhaps because we just don’t want to go there, or because we might write about things that will offend or upset people we love), but should we? I’d say no. As long as you are not setting out to deliberately hurt, insult or defame (in which case you probably deserve to be under some sort of restraining order), you should follow the subject wherever it takes you, and bear the consequences with gritted teeth.
But this is just the very beginning of the process, before one even puts pen to paper (or finger to key). What happens after that is rather more complicated, and perhaps should be left for another time.
→More responses to come from Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and me, as well as the results from the Favorite Short Story Survey. Yeah, I know I said that I would have published those results by now, but I keep getting new answers from very smart readers. Soon, I promise…←
Gina Frangello on “The Curious Alchemy of Writing” March 2, 2011Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
Tags: Dennis McFadden, Gina Frangello, Slut Lullabies
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Once he had answered “Why The Short Story?” Dennis McFadden asked us, his fellow writer-conversationalists, “How The Short Story?” (Sorry, Delp.) Gina Frangello, author of the collection Slut Lullabies, wasted no time in providing an answer.
Gina: How the short story? Dennis has posed this question to the group: Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? This is, simply put, one of my favorite questions in the world. It’s the essential mystery of “being a writer,” isn’t it? After all, every human being alive has a story. From domestic to political, from day-in-the-life to epic, we all lead lives worthy of story, and meet other story-worthy individuals every day. Some writers craft stories almost precisely out of real experiences, whereas others are inspired (as Toni Morrison famously claimed of her novel, Beloved) by newspaper articles, or by stories told to them by friends, by a snippet of dialogue on the bus. Some writers run off to join revolutions and live grand adventures, while others toil away in the proverbial solitary attic —there is no special life one must live in order to write. There is no secret handshake involved when it comes to having “material” that could be turned into story.
Every writer has met somebody who tells him or her, “Wow, do I have a story for you—you should write this down!” or, “I’m going to write a novel someday, I’ve really had a crazy life.” And all but the most painfully introverted among us have orally told stories to our friends. In other words, again: we all have material, and we are all to some degree conscious of it, and we all employ “story” in our daily lives.
Why, then, do some people become writers, whereas the vast majority of the human race does not?
This question fascinates me. It is no more fascinating, of course, than why some young children compose music, or why some people are driven to drizzle paint on a canvas in a brand new way. The impulse to create art is profoundly human, even among those who are not “artists” per se. We knit sweaters, we tend gardens, we decorate our homes, we keep diaries, we sing in our showers. Yet most people engage in these pursuits within the perimeters of their larger lives without ever crossing that invisible threshold—that crazy, heady, at times masochistic threshold—of devoting their lives to their art.
Writing (most art, for that matter) pays poorly. It requires the ability to seriously delay gratification: some novels or stories take years to write; one could build a house from the ground up in less time. It is one of the few professions (again, along with other arts) for which you can go to graduate school and even obtain a PhD with little to no certainty that you will ever be able to earn a living or even get a job in your chosen field. One of the most commonly given piece of advice to so-called aspiring writers is this: If you can do anything else, do it. This is a shitty bet. If you can imagine your life without this in it, then be glad and go home.
Do we write the story or does the story write us?
As I see it, there is the practical answer to this question (Ah, yes, of course the writer writes the story!) and then there is the answer I have lived.
The writer’s stories are no different than anyone else’s stories, in terms of a life lived. But the writer is, quite simply, one obsessed. The story demands to be poured out, to get itself onto the page. It will not rest. Characters speak to us in our cars. We turn on the radio and songs remind us of them—of these people who do not even exist! We go into a store and see a saleswoman who looks like our protagonist’s estranged sister; we browse through a rack of dresses and see the exact dress our heroine was wearing to a party that never took place. We want to call our pretend people on the phone; sometimes we want to have sex with them. Lines recur in our brains, not letting us rest until we write them down. Images haunt us. Here is one: two tall, thin men who were at one time antagonists to one another, embrace in the dimly lit hospital corridor, as seen from the half-open door of one of the hospital rooms . . .
Who are these men? Why are they holding one another that way when they never liked each other before? Who is watching them? Why does the hospital not look like any hospital I’ve been inside, like it belongs in another country? The image keeps playing in my head until I begin to work it out. Perhaps I already “know” the characters involved, and simply didn’t know I knew them. Maybe one has already been in a novel of mine, and another is in a novel I mean to write but haven’t started yet, and the third is a mystery. Perhaps this scene takes place at the very end of a novel that will be 400 pages long, and the image will become the goal I am writing towards. At a certain point, it will become clear that the hospital is in Morocco, though my characters do not live there. And then—the curious alchemy of writing being what it is—when we all arrive together, my characters and I, surprise: one of the men will have changed. He will be another character entirely than the one I thought he would be. How has he gotten here? How did he become more important, more crucial to this scene, this ending, the woman in the hospital bed who watches the embrace, than the man I thought would be in his place?
Writers are not the only people who have ever been in a hospital. We are not the only people who have lost friends and family; we are not the only travelers. We are—in fact—not the only ones who make up invented scenarios in our heads. All children play make-believe; all adults spend sleepless nights ruminating on what they “should have said” and play scenarios out in their heads.
We are the ones who write things down. Why would we do such a thing? Well. We write them down because we must.
There is no story without its writer, hence to say a story “writes itself” would be a literal fallacy, even if it rings emotionally true to many of us. But likewise “to write” is, for the serious writer, often not a rational, practical or well-thought-out choice.
Ah, but I am supposed to be talking about the Short Story. I realize more and more as I move through these questions that the length of the piece is less looming for me than it is for some writers. I feel I am falling down on the task of defining “how the short story” as opposed to “how the novel.” If this is so, however, I think it is only because the hows are not radically different for me. Both begin with a similar kernel of obsession. Both must be able to sustain that obsession to be more than a fragment or a whim, but to become complete.
What, though, are the differences in the forms and how I write them?
Well, for starters, short fiction is a trickier paradox. The writing is even more “channeled” through the writer—even more intuitive, obsessive and raw because it remains fresh, is not stretched out over years but rather over a few days or weeks—and yet because of the length the writer is permitted fewer digressions, fewer missteps, wherein every word must be crucial and resonant. This would seem hard to swing when the story is writing you! But perhaps the reverse is true. All work—novels or stories—will be revised and edited by the writer once the first draft is complete, and I’ve often found that the stories that simply pour out in one or two sittings require surprisingly less editing than those that I really pondered meticulously over a long stretch of time.
Short stories write themselves far more than novels can. Many of my published stories (including “How to Marry a WASP,” which was mentioned in Vanessa’s earlier post, and which is more than 30 pages long) have been written in a single sitting. Often they begin with a single idea, image, character, line, and I simply write from there until they are “done.” By the end, I am absurdly, probably comically, wrecked. My short stories seldom involve any outline or pre-writing. My novels, on the other hand, are far more crafted. The ideas or characters that inspire them may take months to germinate, and often I write sample scenes before really sitting down to formally begin. By the end of a novel, I invariably have an “outline” I’m working from, based on ideas I’ve already have that I am now writing towards, and while the outline is flexible and often changes, I have never had an outline at play in crafting any short fiction.
And so if one were to make the case—as I seem to be doing—that stories are written because they demand to be, and that something in the writer’s psyche or brain (as opposed to in his/her life) is wired differently than that of non-writers, then this may be even more true of the short story than of novels. Short stories are even more intuitive, more subconscious or id-based in terms of the imaginative realm. This may be one reason they are so damn hard to write, in addition to the fact that they don’t allow for many missteps before the reader tosses them aside. Written short stories, one might say, require a certain type of brain as their conduit in order to emerge.
This may be why, even though they only take a week or so to write, most writers don’t write nearly as many of them as such a timeline would seem to imply. If I write 6 new stories in a year, that’s a productive year without question. Yet it seldom takes me more than a week to write one. Wouldn’t this indicate that I should be writing 30 or 40 annually? (Or at least that I should have done before I had kids and two editing jobs?) Yet the thought seems impossible! To be the conduit for a short story requires the writer to deeply enter a space highly specific to that story. Whereas in a novel, we may inhabit that space for four or five years—learn to live “around” it so as to go on with our real daily lives—with short fiction we inhabit it all at once, intensely, fully, before exiting confused and (often) a little bereft . . . already missing it before even having realized we were there.