I’m just not a short-story writer, a few fiction writers have said to me recently, young authors who’ve written one or two novels. I’m struck by the statement, because I wonder often about this – the difference between long form and short form, process-wise – and have been tempted to make the declaration (to myself, at least) as well. At this point, I empathize with the statement, but am not quite ready to go there.
I wrote short stories earlier in my writing life because, well, that’s what They told us to do. And They were right. You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter. Of course you can practice and develop all these by writing a novel; but it will take you much much longer. Consider how many story drafts get partially or completely tossed into the literal and/or virtual garbage as you figure out what you are really writing about; how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.
But I never felt like I hit my stride with short stories. I published several, and even won some awards, but of all the stories I’ve written, I’m probably proud of one, maybe two of them. One story, which won a fairly prestigious award, was so bad in my opinion, that I completely destroyed it – hard copy and digital. (I recently contacted the publication that sponsored the award, and they too have no record of it; poof! – I am not a short-story writer.)
When I happened upon the novel that would become Long for This World, it was liberating and exhilarating. All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view. The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea. This is my medium, I started to think; this is how I experience life – big and messy – what existence means to me. I am a kitchen-sink writer: throw it all in, everything you care about in one, interconnected world, glorious heterogeneity; then shape something out of it.
But look: I’ve written one novel (and a second monster of a novel draft), and I’m not even 40 yet. Is it really time to decide what kind of writer I am? Developing as a writer is indeed so much about knowing thyself; about riding the tailwinds of your strengths, not spinning your wheels trying to be a different kind of writer than what you are. David Means said recently in a New Yorker podcast, referring to Raymond Carver, “Style is a maneuver around what you can’t do […] around things you can’t deal with.” Barry Hannah said, “Be master of such as you have.”
On the other hand, the sculptor Henry Moore said that contentment is having an impossible goal, the absorbedness (Donald Hall’s word) of pursuing it. To me, the short story is this miraculously compressed form, elegant and complex, small in shape but large and deep in meaning; it has the capacity for perfection in a way that the novel does not. Many writers work their way “up” to writing a novel; perhaps my artistic trajectory will be to work my way “down” to writing gorgeous, perfect short stories. Who knows? I look forward to finding out.
In the meantime, I am lately obsessed with the form we refer to as “linked” stories. Sometimes these are called “story cycles” or “a collection of tales about _____.” As a reader and developing writer, I cannot get enough of this form: compression and vast heterogeneity in one! The stories in this sort of collection may vary widely in style, voice, point-of-view, scope. Often they are held together by a single character, or perhaps a place/culture; or both.
The “link” can be strong or weak, explicit or implicit. From where this writer sits – aesthetically, developmentally – the linked collection is a potential new “home” for development of craft. If 20 pages never quite feels like enough; if you and your world /your character have more business to tend to at the end of this particular narrative arc; or if that minor character got cut from a story but is still breathing and pulsing and waiting to go on stage; well then off you go to the next story in the “cycle.” At the same time, you can work within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity. Ah, the joy, the absorbedness, of the impossible goal.
Some of my favorite linked collections:
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – short “tales” of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Winesburg. We get to know many different characters, and all the stories reveal the essential (and ironic) loneliness of living in a place where everybody knows your name. Haunting, romantic, a masterpiece of the achingly grotesque inner lives of human beings.
Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber – both form and content are stunning in this National Book Award finalist. The collection is subtitled “A Ring of Stories,” and indeed they are meant to be read in sequence; a minor mention or character in one story becomes the heart of the next (and we start and end with a contemporary character named Alice). In between we traverse centuries and continents, along with the timeless experiences of faith and passion, each story novelistic in scope. Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely,” and there is that delicate, not-quite-taut sense of wholeness in Silber’s work.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal and unforgiving place, but not one that we can’t all on some level relate to: you may not be a rodeo bull-rider, but you probably know what it is to feel wounded and constrained by your parents’ flaws; you may not be a gay cowboy, but you may know the pain and dangers of hiding (and revealing) your deepest passions in a hostile environment. I particularly love the diversity of form within the collection; stories range from two to 40 pages long, from sharply humorous flash fictions to vast, novelistic canvasses.
Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant – like many devotees of Gallant, I don’t know what took me so long to get to her. Her stories I suppose are difficult, in the sense that the prose is dense, intelligent, original. This is not “summer reading.” The series of five Linnet Muir stories are the ones I’ve enjoyed most and exemplify exactly what I love about linked stories; each story stands alone, but together they sing. I recommend them for anyone who is weary of mopey-smart-girl stories but wants to be inspired by excellent mopey-smart-girl stories.
Stories by Leonard Michaels — I love the stories about a character named (Phillip) Leibowitz, as both a youth and an adult, including “Murderers,” “City Boy,” “Getting Lucky,” and “Reflections of a Wild Kid.” The character may not be exactly the same character in all the stories, but again that’s the beauty of the form; maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Michaels didn’t assemble these stories to form a collection, he used the linked form more liberally. Before he died in 2008, Michaels was also working on a series of stories about a mathematician named Nachmann.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson — the nameless through-line narrator of these stories is an excellent study in compelling unlikeability. He sees the world so vividly, and ecstatically; though only when he’s high or experiencing some kind of violence or brutality. The reader lives in that uncomfortable tension throughout, and enjoys it. By the final story, our anti-hero settles down a bit, though (we find ourselves hoping) not too much.
Fidelity by Wendell Berry – in these five stories, Berry revisits the world of Port William, Kentucky, the territory for all his fiction, and even some of our favorite characters like Andy Catlett, Berry’s presumed fictional persona. Berry’s fiction is both warm and harsh, in the way that perhaps only a farmer-poet-essayist-fictionwriter-activist can be.
Stories by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov’s stories are not linked, per se, but as I wrote in a previous essay here at The Millions on the good doctor, there is something to be said for reading them in groups, in succession – as if together they make up his Great Novel, his population of characters all really aspects of One Universal Character. To my mind, the stories are linked by Chekhov’s acute vision of humanity – as flabby and flawed, yet earnestly suspended in perpetual longing. As readers, we recognize that longing, its tragedy and vitality.
Lastly, it’s been many years since I’ve read either of these, but The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Dubliners by James Joyce are two widely acclaimed and beloved linked-story collections that are worth mentioning here. John Gardner wrote about the former, which revolves around two characters, Flo and her stepdaughter Rose: “Whether [it] is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, it’s wonderful.” The latter, of course, is Joyce’s searing portrait of his home city in the early 20th century, captured in 15 stories, one of which, “The Dead,” is considered by some the greatest short story ever written.
Art is long, as they say. Writing well, in any form or genre, is a marathon, not a sprint. Far in the distance, many training miles ahead, I see that perfect gem of a story, those immortal 5,000 words that will leave the hundreds of thousands of others I’ve scribbled and typed, maybe even published, in the dust.
(Image: Chains – rusted from knottyboywayne’s photostream)
1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball
Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?
Reply hazy, try again.
Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.
All signs point to yes.
Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?
Concentrate and ask again.
Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?
Without a doubt.
And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?
It is decidedly so.
2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance
Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”
So. This is me. Paying attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.
But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.
3. A Story is Not a Paper
Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”
I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”
The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.
4. Origin Story
I was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:
Cathy, here’s a story.
And here is a story.
Over there, that is a story, too.
Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.
I was lucky.
Typically, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.
But how to you do that?
5. This is Not How You Do It
I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
6. This is Not How You Do It Either
Syllabus: Fiction Workshop
This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”
This argument proved to be quite persuasive.
The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.
We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”
This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.
“They write critiques of each other’s work.”
Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…
“They write responses to the assigned stories.”
Papers? they asked excitedly.
“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”
“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”
Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?
And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.
Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.
7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon
In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.
There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.
Perhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”
Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House
You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!
This is how you write a story.
This is not how you write a big thing.
You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?
Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”
And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.
9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed
Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.
Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.
Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.
Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.
So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?
For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.
But these days, I’m not so sure.
10. Shame Management
In This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.
Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.
The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.
I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.
Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.
(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)
It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.
It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.
We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.
He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.
Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.
Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.
More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.
For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.
Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.
He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.
He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.
I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.
I think: what the hell am I doing?
He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)
I think: what the hell am I doing?
The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.
You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.
Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.
I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.
He asks me if I am on Facebook.
I write yes.
Let’s be Facebook friends.
Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)
I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.
Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer and Floodmarkers by Nic Brown are short story collections from debut writers with enormous gifts. Their work is beautiful, funny, and delightfully weird. Matthew and Nic were my classmates at Iowa, where they proved to be not only talented writers, but also sharp and passionate readers. Since they’re pals, I thought it would be fun if Matthew and Nic interviewed each other about their books. It’s a real thrill for me to see their stories in print, and to have them on The Millions.In this first installment, Matthew talks to Nic about his book. Floodmarkers is a collection of linked stories that take place in the fictional town of Lystra, North Carolina, on the day Hurricane Hugo hits in 1989. Daniel Wallace calls it “smart and funny and sexy,” and Publisher’s Weekly compared it to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio but, “simultaneously pared down and amped up, read to the sound of a jangly Strat.”Matthew Vollmer: My favorite thing about your book is that it’s a total freak show. We’ve got a character who’s in love with his cousin, another who makes out with his friend’s wife, a veterinarian who’s into child porn, a guy who makes his mohawk stiff using microwaved gelatin, a guy who keeps a dead dog in his deep freezer, a former bodybuilder who’s feeling guilty about causing the death of a Vietnamese kid, and (my favorite) an aspiring actor who works in a hot dog factory and helps a fellow employee pop a zit on his back he can’t reach.Nic Brown: Well, we’re all freaks! These people, if I wrote about the least interesting aspects of their life, might seem totally normal. Might. But we all have secrets or oddities, and that’s what I like to write about. I mean, we live in a weird world, but it seems like most people ignore the weird and claim that everything is normal. I am trying to do the opposite.MV: Where did the idea for this book originate? Did you have a collection of characters first, then realize, hey, it would be cool if I followed these guys during a freakish weather event, or was it the other way around? In other words, when exactly did your vision for this project begin (what, exactly, did you envision the first time you thought of the idea) and how did that vision change over time?NB: For a while I found myself writing stories set in the late ’80s, many of which had extreme weather. This tic made me recall Hurricane Hugo, and I began to hang all of these disparate scenes onto that one event. I think I was drawn to the ’80s not because of the decade specifically, but rather because I was 12 or so at the end of the ’80s, and at that age everything is magical and very important. So it’s a sweet spot in my memory. As for the weather, I don’t know. Storms are exciting. Hugo was very memorable for me, more for the build-up than the actual event. In Greensboro, where I was living at the time, we thought we were all going to die. We ended up just having some moderate flooding. But for the most part, the stories arose from the characters, or from a particular scene that I wanted to have happen. The weather was always secondary, and more a structural device that gave all of these events a shared catalyst.MV: Once you knew that you wanted to write a series of stories set during Hugo, how did you proceed (apart from sitting down at your typewriter and pecking the keys with two fingers)?NB: I decided to break the day into four sections (before sunrise, morning, afternoon, and evening), and try to make each proportional to the others. With this structure, I’d find that I had a character or event I wanted to use, then I would look at what I had written thus far and pick what part of the day needed to be filled. Writing short stories is so hard, because with each one you often have to create a whole world – a new setting, a new voice, a new tempo. This shared setting and structural formality made the writing a lot easier for me, and ended up producing a book that is somewhere in between a novel and a short story collection. It’s a novel about a town; it’s a story collection about a group of individuals.MV: Were there other characters and/or stories and/or ideas you ended up not including? If so, talk about them and why you didn’t use them.NB: I did cut stories. One involved a group of friends who drive to Randolph County to a dance hall called the Rand Ole Opry where, during a barn dance, a man gets on stage and plays “Auld Lang Syne” on the accordion. It was really beautiful, but… I don’t know. I guess it didn’t go anywhere. I wrote another one about a blind man who lives in a duplex and falls in love with the woman on the other side of the house, then goes over there during the storm because he thinks he can hear her pets in distress (due to sensory compensation, he has super-sensitive hearing). He gets locked in and ends up breaking a bunch of stuff, then the woman comes home and finds him in her side of the house. I don’t remember what happens after that. It made readers very nervous.MV: Are any of your characters based on real people? Are you nervous about people recognizing themselves in the book?NB: Many of my characters are based on real people. The most obvious is Manny (the trampoline thief in the story “Trampoline”). I have a friend who is Manny. Different name, and he never stole a trampoline or actually did any of the things the fictional Manny does, but he is basically the most uninhibited person I know (and one of the most unique looking – he looks like Sandra Bernhard). I have spent so much time with him that I can envision the type of thing he would say or do in a situation, and I enjoy embodying that uninhibited voice for a while. It’s a great character to write about. My new book features a version of the same character much more extensively.As for all the others based on real people, yes, I am nervous. And so I am going to say nothing more.MV: Did you ever get sick of Lystra? Did you ever feel, when writing the book, that you were boxed in? Like, man, I would love to write a story that’s NOT taking place during a hurricane? Or was it like hey, in this next story I’m gonna write, I’m excited to explore this part of this little universe I’m creating.NB: I never got sick of Lystra – the structured format really helped my creative process – but I did long to write a story that involved different weather and took place over the course of more than one day. I think it is no coincidence that my new novel opens with a scene of extreme sunlight, told in first person.MV: How much research did you have to do for the book – and what kinds of primary sources did you consult?NB: I YouTubed weather reports from Hurricane Hugo. That was about it.MV: You are known for liking small things. You drive a small car – when you’re not driving a moped, which is like a small motorcycle. I also know that you enjoy small burgers. And shots of something called “cacao.” Now, your first book is a book of short stories. And, unlike some collections, many of these are truly “short.” I haven’t counted the pages of most of your stories here, but I remember in workshop you used to turn in 15 or 16 pages like clockwork. I think most of the stories here are about that length. What can you say about the (relatively) short length of your stories?NB: Hm. That is all true, and had gone basically undiagnosed until you pointed it out. It’s an aesthetic preference I have across medium. When I play music, I prefer very stripped down arrangements. I work at an art museum, and when I have to discuss certain artworks, I usually lean towards the figurative and simple. And the same goes for my food, my modes of transport, and of course – my stories. I am not against extreme complexity or complicated structures or narratives, it’s just that I respond more to something that I can grasp on all sides and feel like I have enough room to find every angle on it. For example, if I had a Ferrari, how would I ever explore all of the things it could do? And where would I park it? Whereas, with my moped, I know exactly how to maximize all of its engine capacity at every speed, I can work on its engine myself, and I can park it anywhere. To me, it’s just as fascinating and fun. It’s the same with my stories. If I can break them down enough where I feel like I’ve cut out everything unimportant and boring, then I can focus on a few simple aspects that I can get the most out of. If it works right, these smaller stories should be as complex as anything larger. And also less boring. I hope.MV: One thing I saw you do especially well in your collection was to give readers a sense of what’s at stake immediately and save background information for later on down the road. In almost every story, you pull back at some point to deliver a tight, punchy paragraph of expository writing that provides context about the character. These paragraphs are usually only about half a page long, if that, but they become nice little windows for peeking into characters’ histories. Was it important for you to limit background information and flashbacks? And if so, why?NB: I often write stories hoping to do without any backstory whatsoever. Backstory, flashback, exposition – I always feel like these are the areas that are most likely to lose a reader. That said, when I write a story without exposition or backstory, I usually find that I do need it, so I create these small condensed bits that give us what we need to know but don’t ruin the tempo I’m trying to set.MV: You wrote a novel (which I read a draft of last year and found hugely entertaining) while your collection was shopped around. Can you discuss the writing process and how it differed from Floodmarkers? What might you say about the novel that would make someone want to read it?NB: The novel is called Doubles and is about a professional doubles tennis player who is trying to get back into the game after being in a temporary retirement. While writing it, I spent a lot of time with an actual professional doubles player (who let me accompany him to a bunch of tournaments, including the US Open – where he made it to the semifinals and I got to be on CBS sitting in the coach’s box. Hilarious). In the process, I saw into the weird world of this ubiquitous yet obscure sport. The structure of a doubles team is like a marriage, of sorts, and I was fascinated with the personal relationships as well as the tennis side of things. I don’t know. Mostly the book has nothing to do with tennis. It’s about a complex love triangle, basically. But I am obsessed with tennis, so it was nice to work that in.MV: I’m gonna throw you some names: Cliff. Cotton. Gary Malbaff. Pat Doublehead. Scoville. Evelyn Graham. Leanne Vanstory. Welborne Ray. Bojangles. Casper. Payton Craven. Confetti. Kylie Crook. Hyun Dang. Matthew! Explain how you come up with your AMAZING names!NB: Well. Let’s see. Matthew is named after you. Bojangles was the name of my old bloodhound. Scoville is the first name of one of my favorite tennis players. Other than that, I just I just made them up, or slightly adapted names of friends that I liked the sound of. I actually never thought of any of those listed as being that weird. Now I’m getting a complex. You always do this. You notice things that are obvious but that other people don’t notice. That’s why you do those impersonations that are so creepy. Like when I last saw you and you did my walk. Or my point. Neither of which I really knew I did until you did them. I thought the weirdest names were Janet and Dan Organtip. Those are pretty ridiculous.MV: Is/was Meats and Treats (a place mentioned in your book) an actual place? Explain!NB: Meats and Treats was indeed a real place. All I remember them having stocked was cigarettes, giblets, and turkey necks. It was located on Airport Road in Chapel Hill, and is now Fosters Market, a place run by one of Martha Stewart’s homegirls.MV: What’s your next book (after Doubles) gonna be about?NB: Come on now. One or two at a time. I’m not talking about number three just yet.Read part two in which Nic interviews Matthew.