How I Broke Up with for Good and Then Fell Back in Love with the Short Story
Yes, the short story and I were through. I’d written two books of stories but decided after one previous failure at writing a novel that I’d try again at forty-two years old. And this one worked. It worked so well in fact that I came to agree with what other writers have sometimes said: stories were only an apprenticeship to writing novels. And the short story form did feel, well, limited. Any good idea or great line or irresistible incident could fit somewhere in a novel. I began to believe as Cormac McCarthy opined in his dismissal of short stories in favor of novels, “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth the doing.”
I remembered my fellow MFA students who painstakingly spent their entire three years of graduate school working on a novel, with something akin to the faith in an afterlife. Instead of acceding to the common exhortation that they experiment with stories, try out different voices, explore a diversity of material, fool around, they thrashed onward, failure be damned. Maybe they had it right.
I lost interest in stories, stopped reading them except for when I had to teach them, and frankly couldn’t imagine ever writing one again. Some part of me as a writer felt I’d grown up, put on big-boy pants, and now could get on with my true calling as a novelist. Oh, sure, I still admired, nay, adored Chekhov and Munro and Carver and host of other short story writers for their mastery of and exclusive commitment to the form. And I believed the homage so many novelists paid to the short story was genuine, Faulkner among them, intoning that for a short story “every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t. There’s less room in it for trash.”
I valued the story’s purity, yes, but alas I had “larger” stories to tell and found the short story form “confining” and felt novels could be “expansive” and “richer” and “weightier” dealing with issues of “time” and “history.” Not only were novels the right form for life’s multifarious issues, but they would be a true test of my own depth as a person and a writer.
Before I pass this off as a delusion, let me explain that I still believe, as Lorrie Moore has said, that “a short story is a love affair, a novel a marriage.” Nothing in my experience has equaled the sheer stamina required to write a novel, including the surfeit of false starts, dead ends, and bridges-to-nowhere tangents; the lack of sleep when the last thing on your mind before going to bed and the first thing when you wake up is the scene you can’t get right; my incredibly low threshold for being disturbed by loved ones asking me to do the simplest thing for them; and the horror of finding out that you have written a book entirely from the wrong character’s point of view, a character who may not even belong in the novel.
I would have gone on with it. I would have happily continued had not the powers that be decided my subsequent two novels, after the first two published ones, weren’t wanted. This is no different from many of my fellow mid-list writers, and all writers have to deal with rejection if they want to continue writing. Some go on to write new novels. Some persist in reworking the same book in the hopes that they’ll either make it irresistible or the publishing climate will change or they will take advantage of digital opportunities or the once unthinkable route of self publishing. Some decide to write only for themselves. I turned back to writing stories.
I found myself radiantly compelled. The open-ended possibilities of the novel became the disciplined limits of a ship-in-a-bottle crafted work of exactitude. Each word could be labored over and still allow one to come up for air at the end of the day. Mark Twain’s maxim that the difference between the right word and the next to the right word as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug resurfaced as guidance for how to methodically attend to a short story, rather than the worrisome fear that I was wasting too much time on any given sentence when I still had 70,000 words of the novel to write. Not that momentum isn’t important in the short story—either writing it or reading it—but I could hold the whole damn thing in my head without wondering what happened to that character on page 40 who had disappeared like a runaway.
I thought: I’m back, I’m home. I remembered that I loved the shape of a short story’s body, how it moved: a sinewy grace that paced steadily ahead to an inevitable end, often the edge of a precipice rather than the vast open meadow of a new chapter or a fin de siècle expository summary. And a form that insisted in asking with each line, have you matched the story you tell with the reason for telling it? A form whose subtext thrums beneath its surface and can’t abide a stalled moment as filler.
Indeed, the surest way to find out the strength of a short story is to try to turn it into a novel. What once was essential and urgent becomes repetitive and distended. And what once captured to heightened effect a fleeting moment of time, turns into dilatory postponement without the keen-edged pacing and pressurized voice of the short story. My former notion of saving everything for a novel missed a central point: the short story insists on its own standing; it borrows from and imitates no other form; in its demand for originality it takes on material suitable only for its purposes. Try to fool it with content too thin, and you wind up with a stringy, half-naked narrative; force feed it extraneous, nutrient-less stuffing, and it will erupt with undigested bloat. But care for it just right and it springs alive under your fingers.
I wrote one story then another, and let’s be honest, they came neither easily conceived nor quickly published. Yet over a ten-year period, they did come and now a book of them. Humbled by how much I’d once disowned or condescended to the form, I owed my rejuvenated writing life to the practice. For which I am not only grateful but convinced of the short story’s unassuming power and survival.