Number three in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review. Actually, this week you’ll get two for the price of one.
That’s why I like short stories. You’re always trying to keep the person interested. In fiction, you don’t need to have the facts up front, but you have to have something that will grab the reader right away. It can be your voice. Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.
The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 176, Amy Hempel
That last bit might be true of me if I was a short-story reader instead of a wannabe short-story writer. I fight my way through to the end of a lot of stories that I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t trying to figure out how to write them. I actually forced my way through an entire anthology once. Believe me, I really was dying to get away from some of those stories.
It’d probably help me to adopt Hempel’s attitude toward my stories. I have it when it comes to editors and slush readers–I know they only need the slightest excuse to reject me. It’s okay, though. I don’t hate the players. I don’t even hate the game. Of course, there’s the matter of what “the game” is, exactly. This is where folks in some circles talk about “the death of the short story,” or how it’s irrelevant, or how short stories are written “not to entertain people, but rather to help improve the resumés of the people writing them.”
Let me pause to beg you folks: No “literary vs. genre” or “character- vs. plot-driven” “Great taste/less filling” debate in the comments? Please and thank you.
Anyway, the fact is, whoever you’re writing for, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver in a short story. Every word you write matters, and in the best shorts, sometimes the words you leave out have an impact. This is what’s always intrigued me the most about the form. That, and the myriad of available techniques for keeping a reader interested because the one tool you just don’t have is the room you have in longer forms, like the novel.
There’s another side to the time factor when it comes to short story writing. I was going to use a different bit of Raymond Carver’s Paris Review interview in a future post, but he did make a comment that’s relevant here.
After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novel, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project. I needed to write something I could get some kind of a payoff from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories. I was beginning to see that my life was not—let’s say it was not what I wanted it to be.
I don’t have kids, but I can relate to that desperate sense of urgency. I mean, I didn’t start this writing thing until I was thirty. And it’s taken me seven years to reach the my current rank of “Small Potatoes” by trying to figure out this writing thing with short stories. I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work, and it’s been important to my process to get feedback through submission and rejection–and even acceptance and subsequent editing.
Lots of my writer-friends ask me, “When are you gonna get that novel out?” I do have an outline or five, but the truth is, I’ll get that novel out when the idea of working 2-3 years on a single piece of work that could all end up in the toilet doesn’t scare the shit out of me. I’ve only now gotten to the point where I can accept that notion for a 3,000-5,000 word piece that maybe took me a month or two.
I watch all of you novel-writers in my circle very carefully. Each and every one of you, without exception, has guts that I just don’t have. You continue to struggle with your first drafts, or your tenth drafts, or your query letters, or with getting or even keeping agents… I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it.
Still, I know it’s a YMMV kinda thing. I’ve heard more than one novelist talk about how difficult short stories are to write. I remember in my previous life in mental health work, I worked primarily with adolescents and knew a guy who primarily worked with homeless adults, literally, in the streets. I’ll never forget what he said to me once. “You’re a better man than me. Adolescents? No way. I’ll take my psychotics and drug addicts any day of the week.”
We writers pick our poison, I guess, just like everyone else. And short stories are mine.
Next time: The kinds of stories I like.