I was so incredibly relieved to read recently that Junot Diaz — brilliant prose stylist, raucous storyteller and newly minted MacArthur fellow — admitted in The New York Times that he struggled with writing short stories. Relieved, mostly because I find writing short stories terribly, awfully, horribly difficult, too! It is really nice (in a non-schadenfreudish way, of course) to know that a certified genius writer struggles, instead of unfurling plumes of his geniusness with effortlessness and aplomb. I read his interview and felt twangs of relatedness when he described working on a short story for a year, only to scrap it — because I’ve done that, too! Grrr, frustrating…all that work for such an itty-bitty thing, only to have it turn out to be a “farrago of nonsense” (as he wonderfully puts it) at the end!
(Has anyone read Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her yet? I’m dying to read it.)
I don’t know why it’s such a struggle for me to belt out short stories. But in truth, short-form work has always been hard for me, much harder than writing long stuff. I liked the Times article’s notion of “creative metabolism”: mine is uniquely suited to writing long stuff. I can plod everyday just a bit, be dogged and persistent and disciplined — all good things to bring to the table when writing projects resemble marathons instead of sprints. Mentally, I think I’m a wider lens thinker — I like seeing the landscape of the story, the world of it, the connections between the different pieces. I like larger canvasses to work with. But the only short stories I’ve ever felt satisfied with were ones that wrote themselves, where I hammered them out like big guitar riffs and they just unfolded themselves out on the page — how do I repeat that kind of magic? I have no idea.
(Incidentally, I had the same problem learning to make short films in film school. Feature-length screenplays? Sure, no problem! A tiny yet perfect short film? Ugh! In the end, I realized that you couldn’t just cram the typical three-act structure into a short. And I also realized the type of short I was best suited for — an intimate, lyrical moment, a shift in consciousness — and just wrote and directed those.)
Strangely enough, my favorite short story writing experiences so far are when I am being playful and silly — when I wonder stuff like, Oh, what if Dracula was a playboy in New York? or Clairvoyant bikini waxers…how would that pan out? I call it the Tina Fey/”girl walks into a bar” mental approach to writing, a very TV-comedy methodology, taking something that sounds like a punchline and exploring and probing it a bit. Now, whether or not those stories are any good is a whole other matter, but at least I finish them.
(I’m thinking of revisiting some short story collections with more of a writer’s eye: re-reading Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter, for example. Any suggestions, dear readers? Sci-fi and supernatural/fantasy collections especially welcome.)
I set a goal for myself this summer to write more short stories, and I did, and I’m proud I pushed myself. But none of those stories are really working and I’m kind of in the middle of a big suckfest about it. (You know, the kind where you tell yourself, “Self, you suck!”) I tinker with the idea of creating a “short story bootcamp” for myself, but of course, I’m flailing in the dark on what to actually do. I’m frankly just relieved that this fall I’m going to start another novel. Novels, I can do. Short stories, I shake my fist in frustration and bewilderment at you!