“I never realized I liked short stories,” one of my students said to me this morning, “until I took this class.”
I understood immediately what she meant. I teach an Introduction to Creative Writing course, the type of class which is well suited to (both the reading and writing of) short fiction, for reasons that are more practical than aesthetic. For many of my students, they’d never even imagined writing a story before (never mind giving it to 15 near-strangers, who’ll then talk about it in front of you for half an hour), and the short stories they’ve read have been confined, for the most part, to dry high school English classes. Short stories were written by old white men who died decades, even centuries before the students' own birth, Melville and Conrad and Chekhov and Faulkner and Carver.
I never realized I liked short stories, either, for exactly this same reason, until my junior year of high school, when a story called “Lust” in the pages of my English text book caught my seventeen-year-old eye, and I realized for the first time that stories could be about the emotions and situations that teenage girls like me experienced, and not stupid things like war and servants and necklaces.
I realize that it was lucky I had that experience, as it’s shaped my writing life considerably. But most of my students haven’t read the type of stories that appeal to them, or written about the type people they recognize, until now.
And it’s not just my students –- the short story’s lack of popularity as a form is baffling. Despite our anxiousness as a culture to process information quickly, to condense a dramatic arc into 43 minutes of viewing time, for some reason, Americans simply don’t read short stories.
The short story is impossibly hard to market –- the only collections that have achieved any sort of financial success in recent years are those written by the already very famous, and those that are built with stories that are linked, usually involving the same narrator, and therefore can “trick” the reader into thinking she’s reading a novel.
So stories are relegated to the center pages of the New Yorker, usually one at a time crammed in with all the political, social, and economic commentary, comics, poems, reviews, and usually one or two articles about architecture; the smaller literary journals that survive on contributions and contest fees more often than paid subscriptions; and creative writing workshops like the formal one I teach and the informal one I am a member of.
I always knew as a writer that I’d eventually have to graduate from short stories to novels if I wanted any chance at publication, and five years ago, I finally attempted to write my first novel.
It was hard –- though not nearly as hard as the years of anticipation lead me to believe it’d be –- but I finished several drafts of a book-length manuscript, went to grad school for creative writing, and then began what would be my second novel, which has taken up the last two years of my creative life almost exclusively.
And it was only as I’d come the end point of novel number two that I realized that I’d adapted, either subconsciously or not, the same attitude about novels vs. short stories: that the former was an elevated art, one that was somehow higher and more accomplished than the latter.
Just around as my student expressed her newfound appreciation of short stories, I had my own epiphany of sorts: I still love short stories, too. Not just reading them -– but writing them. Crafting tiny worlds where emotions play out, where people do very bad things to each other and aren’t redeemed, where relationships fall apart, where anything can happen because it’s just a few pages, and if it doesn’t work, I can either revise or throw it out without the fear of losing two years of effort because a character just can’t figure out how to get on the page.
I love the economy of prose that’s necessary to craft a short story. There’s no room for flowery descriptions or unnecessary adjectives. I’m thrilled by the challenge of making sure that each line of dialogue does at least two different things, that every detail I choose to include in a story isn’t wasted.
In general, writing a short story is quick, it’s painless, and it’s instantly gratifying. The approach is so different than novel writing, which often times involves just putting in the work, an often repetitive and futile effort. The highs are very different: with a novel, I work for weeks just to get a conversation between two characters right, and when I do, I’m satisfied that my work led somewhere.
With a story, the highs are much more instantaneous, come quickly as plotting falls away and my characters do what they want, their actions coming from seemingly out of thin air as my fingers fly across the keyboard in a direction completely unimagined just moments before.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m in the middle of one of those highs at this very moment. A week ago, a sentence popped into my head (you’ll eat when you’re dead), and within two days, I had twelve pages of something completely new. I built this world up, and every day since, I’ve carried around a printout, and practically raced home each night to keep at it. I gave my main character everything she’s ever wanted in 4,978 words, and over the next 600 or so, I cannot wait to snatch it all away.
I can’t talk about plot -– I can never talk about plot, whether in my stories or my novels, because I’m a total failure at summarizing my own work into a sentence or two, as my husband, who had to listen to me spend half an hour trying to describe action taking place on the first page, would testify -– and that’s one of the countless problems that this story already has. It’s very possibly an awful story; if I were to look at it critically, there are already seven points on my “What is Hopelessly Wrong with This” list. (A highly unbalanced tell/show ratio; about sixteen years are covered between pages one and ten; use of the extremely off-putting second person narrator, to name the big ones.)
But still. This story may be nothing, it may fade from my life within a week, but for right now, it’s what allows me to define myself as a writer, gives me the rationale to stand in front of my students every day and try to explain to them why short stories are so important, not just because they are so easy to use as examples because they can be read, quickly, and re-read over the course of the semester. But because they mean something, because they are a powerful expression of the economy of an art form not always recognizable.
And because it’s a really, really cool feeling to create something new, and complete it, in almost no time at all.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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3.9.07 @ 9:03a
My college creative writing professor, Dr. Andrew Nelson Lyttle, maintained that short stories were much more difficult to write than novels. I was a lowly sophmore who had to get his permission to take the junior level creative writing course, which was easy enough, I thought. The first day of class he announced, "This is a short story course. I'll expect you to turn in a short story at least every other week." I immediately secured an appointment with him and asked, "Since I'm in the middle of writing a novel, may I please turn in chapters of it instead of actual short stories?" His immediate response was, "Of course, you may." So I flounced through the semester getting rave reviews from him and my classmates for my chapters, getting A plusses on all the quizzes, tests, exams, and was quite surpirsed when the grades came out and mine was a B. I went rollicking back into his office and said, "I think there's been a mistake. The list says I have a B." He squinted at me and flicked his cigarette ash onto the floor and responded, "No, no mistake. You never did turn in a short story."
"But, Dr. Lyttle," I exclaimed, "remember the little talk we had at the beginning of the semester in which you said it was okay for me to turn in chapters of my novel instead of short stories?"
"Oh, yes," he said, "I remember it well, but I never said I'd give you an A for it."
3.9.07 @ 9:23a
The market for short stories is much, much smaller than it was a hundred years ago, and I think that's a shame, because I have more affinity with the short form as both writer and reader. A well-crafted short has an immediacy and impact that gets diluted over novel length. In the world of genre writing, where SF and fantasy magazines were a going concern until fairly recently, it's possible to find not only more recent shorts, but shorts that have been expanded to novel (or later, series, because that's what genre fans tend to expect) length, and it's often instructive to see what's lost. A short with almost no words wasted loses focus when the author is given more room to work, and what was a small but memorable portrait becomes a diffuse work too difficult to take in.
3.9.07 @ 10:42a
I read shorts almost exclusively these days. I'm reading an old issue of the Ontario Review now.
I asked my instructor two summers ago at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival what I had to do to write short stories and he said, "Write short stories." Duh. Then he added, "Read short stories. A lot of them." I've been reading more than writing in the past year, unfortunately. If I'm going to get into The New Yorker I need to get on the ball.
3.9.07 @ 6:26p
The 1940s and 50s were in a way a golden age of the magazine, and short stories thrived because magazines bought short fiction. Women's magazines like Good Housekeeping, Lady's Home Journal, Redbook, and family magazines like The Saturday Evening Post were full of fiction. At the age of 7 or 8, I waited expectantly each week for The Post and each month for the other magazines subscribed to by my mother, aunt, and grandmother, all avid, but busy, readers. Later, as a teenager I discovered fiction in The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and, surprisingly, in Playboy magazine. I miss the volume of adequate to good short fiction that once filled magazines.
I miss the genre. Nothing is better than a short story for the dentist's or dentist's waiting room or for diversion while I eat my lunch at work.
3.9.07 @ 10:05p
Given the short attention span of the average American reader, I'm surprised this form of fiction isn't extremely popular.
3.12.07 @ 9:56a
As I've continued to grow as a writer, I discovered I truly love short stories. I love settling in with a novel, certainly, but when you kick back to read a collection of stories, it's a totally different and focused experience. You can't fall into an easy rhythm like you do with a novel - you're constantly shifting gears, trying on new characters' hats, crying one minute and laughing the next.
I adore that.
3.12.07 @ 5:22p
Short stories are lovely. These days, I don't have the same amount of time to ease into a novel, and short stories are a great way to have some illumination- condensed, but still awesome nonetheless.
3.17.07 @ 1:53a
I've always thought of literature as music, and maybe novels are akin to operas and symphonies, and short stories are just rock-n-roll songs.
I'll quote Mike Watt: But 26 letters is enough to write a real good novel. You don't have to invent new letters. Just be original with your words.
I'll quote Mike Watt again: Fucking make it econo. Make your head-butts count. And if the wall seems like a door, attach new hinges to it so you can use it.
I think the main thing is that novels, which since Don Quixote have been the de facto vestibule for all things literary, have been so overdone that they have become a passe writ of passage. But why waste someone's time just for the sake of displaying one's ability to concoct reams of witty prose?
Unless you are a prodigy, a demonstrably peerless student of human nature, there's very little reason to write something that takes days upon days to read unless your goal is to mindlessly occupy a stretch of your readers time.
However, like a good rock song, almost anyone can craft a short story that's poignant, moving, and respectful of the audience's efforts.
3.17.07 @ 2:23a
I gotta add something to this. It boggles my mind that someone as freakishly talented as Kerouac never wrote anything short but poems. He claimed to be a jazz poet, and he certainly captured th3 improvisational moments that sing epiphany to us, but he was pretentious enough in his desire to be considered a serious writer, a 'novelist', that he wrapped them in enough blather to be dismissed as a serious novelist. Then we get a writer like Carver, that does the exact opposite, but doesn't found a 'generation' in the process, and most modern Americans don't know who he is. It's fucked up that the market for short stories is bad enough that true masters of the form can't make a living on it.
3.17.07 @ 9:36a
I'm reading Carver's collection, Cathedral, now. Not every story gets under my skin like "Cathedral" and "A Small, Good Thing," but they all drip reality. You learn from his work. The stories are about real people saying real things to each other, drinking, smoking, eating, doing real-life things like the doctors who sugar coat the injured boy's diagnosis and the woman who digs wax from her husband's ear with a nail clipper.