Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Few Pretty Much Random and Quick Reasons Why I Write Very Short Fiction

(This is a longer version of an essay I wrote for Laura Ellen Scott's VIPs on vsf blog a while ago...)

1. I used to write poetry

This seems surreal to me now, but it’s true, there was a time when I wrote poetry. And I have a dusty rubber-banded stack of old Mac floppy disks to prove it. All my groping attempts at verse are backed up on those disks, which reside in a box in my bedroom closet, packed away and ignored for more than a decade.

A few things got published, but I was never much of a poet. What I liked, though, and what’s stuck with me and informed my fiction writing since then, was the satisfying sense of finality and completion I experienced after finishing something short and brief (whether four lines or four stanzas). I also really liked the compressed impact that a poem can have—I wanted my short fiction to be like that too.

My future wasn’t in poetry. This was a detour and I knew it all along, having always gravitated toward fiction. But as the years went by, and I switched back to fiction (a couple of unpublished novels; “traditional” length short stories), I also started writing shorter short fiction, all the while influenced by my brief foray into poetry.

Poetry taught me about the need for language to be disciplined. The way words fit, the way they speak to each other, the way they sound, even the way they look on the page—these things were important. In a poem, you can’t, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, include the parts that readers skip over. Every line, every comma, every line break needs to be exactly where it should be and everything needs to be just so. There should be resonance and echo. Each word should seem inevitable and haunt the reader with its inevitability.

Likewise very short fiction. A 20-page short story better be tight. But a 3-page story? That sucker better be fucking airtight. The reader should be breathless by the last sentence, simultaneously left wanting more and hungry but also fulfilled and completely satisfied. There is no room for a whimsical digression or long-winded description about the color of a leaf.

Get in, get out, leave a mark, hint at or pull back the veil of human mystery—that’s what I look for as a reader of very short fiction and it’s what I strive for as a writer too.

2. Grace Paley

During my last year of college I took a creative writing seminar. One of the assigned books was an anthology of very short fiction. It included people like Borges, Kafka, Nabokov. And it also included Grace Paley’s story “Wants.”

This was a revelation. It contained so much in just a few pages. It read more like a novel to me than a three-page story. It felt complete, whole. Nothing more needed to be said. It’s a story I go back to again and again.

David Foster Wallace has a story called “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Boundaries (VI).” It consists of three sentences. When I read it for the first time I admit I scratched my head a bit. But then it sunk in: yes, that was a story, that was all that needed to be said here. Stories could be extra large and supersized. They also could extra small and undersized.

3. The way my life is right now

So yeah, that’s a big reason why my recent writing output consists mostly of very short fiction. The form suits my life.

With three young children (including 18-month-old twins), a full-time job, and a hairy commute (I know, blah blah blah), it’s difficult to find long, uninterrupted blocks of time to devote to fiction writing. That’s my current, self-chosen reality.

For me, writing longer fiction seems to require a deeper kind of immersion, both time-wise and head-space-wise. At some point I know I need to get over this, and stop my internal worrying/rationalizing, and just work on my novel, but for now, in my present situation, it’s much easier (and satisfying) to sit down for one or two sessions (usually brief, usually interrupted) and come away with a draft of a very short story. This gets back to the satisfaction completion mentioned above.

The point here, I think, is to write what you can right now and not stress over it and just write. Any writing you can do is a victory. I’m reminded of J. Robert Lennon’s collection Pieces for the Left Hand. If I recall correctly, he wrote the 100 very short stories (mostly about a page in length) that comprise the book while his son took his afternoon naps. That kind of makes him my hero. I wish I’d been able to do something like that. Maybe one day I will.

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