This March, I had the opportunity to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Chicago. One session was called The Long and Short of It: Navigating the Transition between Writing Novels and Short Stories, featuring Bruce Machart, Hannah Tinti, Melanie Thon, Erin McGraw, and Kevin Wilson. While some of the panelists’ remarks were less helpful than others (as a writerly friend points out, if trusting our instincts was enough, we would be successful writers already), some had interesting perspectives. Wilson, for instance, suggested a short story is stealing a car and crashing it into a tree, whereas a novel is stealing that same car but resisting the urge to crash it.
This transition—novel and short story—has always vexed me. I remember becoming serious about writing in fifth grade, coming home from school every day and sitting down at my family’s computer, listening to the same Dar Williams CD on repeat and eating Gardetto’s and writing for some indeterminate span of time, and even then, I was writing an eleven-year-old’s version of a novel. It ended up around two hundred pages, give or take. I entered it in our local 4-H fair’s fiction category. The year after that, they instituted a ten-page limit (at which point I took the first chapter of my new novel project, single-spaced, and shrunk the font down until it fit in ten pages, thus driving them to institute further restrictions).
I have, as far back as I remember, preferred novels to short stories, as a reader and a writer. Sometimes I think I know the reasons for this, and sometimes I don’t, but it’s pretty consistent.
The problem is, short stories are a practical form. Looking ahead to MFA programs, I recognize that stories tend to be stronger samples than novel excerpts, and it’s much easier to publish in journals than it is to publish a novel, making short stories a faster way to begin building a writerly resume.
This transition, then, is one I would like to learn to navigate. I can appreciate a good short story, but I have never fallen in love with a short story the way I have with select novels. Even the best short stories don’t have the same payoff for me, which I suspect is why I have trouble getting really excited about them.
Right now, I’m between projects. I have a loose concept for a possible short story collection, but I don’t yet love it like I’d hoped I would (though this could be due to a lack of clarity about the project as much as anything else). I got coffee with a friend today to discuss my paralysis. At one point, I remarked that I had once known how much force it takes to bite off your tongue but couldn’t remember.
“That,” my friend said, “is what you should be writing about. You know all these weird things—you should have a collection called Weird Fucking Shit.”
The title might not be a winner, but it’s a fair point. We each have a unique set of interests and passions and perspectives we bring to the page (or keyboard) with us, and we do ourselves no favors when we don’t take advantage of them.
I don’t know what I’m going to write next. This friend suggests a story about a body farm, so perhaps I’ll follow that. I want to be able to love short stories to the point I honestly want to write them, as opposed to viewing them as a necessary exercise, like an audition tape or application essay; I just haven’t found out how to develop that. Maybe body farms are the way to go. After all, who doesn’t love a good body farm?