But I’m not someone who’s quick to anger–at least, not with anyone outside my family.
Still, certain topics get a rise out of me. Certain words are fighting words, even when I don’t want them to be.
For instance: don’t tell me what to write.[bctt tweet=”Don’t tell me what to write.”]It’s not that I don’t want people critiquing my work. Critique away. It helps make my stories better, more taut and tense and full of conflict.
But when someone tells me what to write about–“Hey, you’ve got to tell this story” or “Write thrillers, they sell!” or “Romance, that’s the ticket”–well, that pisses me off.
Recently, an agent at a party asked me and my writer friends about our current projects. When he got to me, I said I was finishing up a short story collection.
Before I could continue, he said, with a slight smile, “You know what I’m going to tell you.”
I could feel myself flush, and not from hot flashes. “I know, I know. Write a novel.”
He nodded. His smile widened. “Short stories are a dead end. It’s impossible to get collections published. You know that.”
I nodded along with him. “I do,” I said. “I do.”
Which wasn’t what I wanted to say.
This agent wasn’t looking to rile me. He was giving me good advice.
The accepted wisdom of the publishing world is that novels sell; story collections don’t. So focus on writing a novel if you want to get noticed.
There’s truth to that advice. It’s hard enough to get a single story published, much less a whole collection. While these days there are more short story collections being published, they’re usually by established writers: Edith Pearlman, Junot Diaz, Elizabeth McCracken, Anthony Doerr, to name a few.
Or the collections getting published nowadays contain stories with strong thematic, geographical, and/or character links. Or they’re so startling and quirky and vivid and fabulous that they’ll sell themselves.
So if you and your stories don’t fall in one of these categories, then hang it up and move on.
If you consider writing solely from the perspective of becoming well known, short story writing is isn’t a smart move. It’s less than a crap shoot. I know that.
Which is why I don’t just write short stories. I write novellas, personal essays, blog posts. I’ve started numerous novels that are waiting to be picked back up.
The novel I’m currently working on is based on a murder that my grandmother helped clean up in the seventies. It’s complex and cumbersome and fun to write. The expansiveness of it. The limitless possibilities.
But short stories are always lurking in my mind, begging to be written. And I listen to them. I ply them with drinks and sweets. I tell them to ignore that pesky, chubby novel in the corner. They don’t have to play together. They just have to coexist.
Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature and recognized as a “master of the contemporary short story,” often cites convenience as the reason that she was initially drawn to short story writing. She was raising children, helping her husband run a business. Finding the time to write a novel felt daunting. In a 2001 interview with The Atlantic, she said:
I couldn’t look ahead and say, this is going to take me a year, because I thought every moment something might happen that would take all time away from me. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation.
Time limitations–that’s part of my choice to write short stories. My son is young, still young enough to need–and want–me around. He relishes family time. He wants to play Horse with me and my husband at night, a hand or two of Uno after homework. Any board game he can convince us to try. He wants to hang out.
So I strategize my teaching and writing time around his schedule, his needs and desires. I don’t always drop everything for him. In fact, I say no all too often. Just the other night, he got mad at me for staying inside while he and his dad played basketball. “You’re always working,” he said when he came inside at dusk, then he huffed into his room and slammed the door.
A short story I can put aside midstream to attend to family obligations and still find my way back with relative ease. I can knock out a finished draft, complete with beginning, middle, and end (even if they don’t all quite belong in the same story) fairly quickly. I can spend a bit of time here and there, refining, rewriting, ripping and tearing and remodeling until the architecture of the story is sturdy and supportive.
But there’s more to my love of short story writing than its adherence to time limits.
There’s an elegance to conveying a lifetime and tackling a character’s most urgent desires in a constrained space. I sculpted for years, drawn to the puzzle of carving away chafe until the essence of the form remained. Short story writing offers the same satisfaction. Carve, carve, carve until only the essential remains to convey a fuller, larger, more lush story than you could have imagined possible.
And the variety of lives I get to live. I can linger for a while with a group of characters to see what makes them tick, then move on to more people, more conflicts, more settings and scenarios. I get to change things up by closing one document and opening another.
And if a story isn’t working one day, then I can eenie-meenie-miney-moe my way to another one that offers a whole new world of possibilities.
Maybe I’ve got my head in the sand. But writing short stories is what I love. Writing short stories is what I do. What I’ll keep doing.
Right along with writing blog posts and essays and novels.
Who’s to say what I should write?
What short story collections do you love?
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