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A little closer. Just a little closer.

June 26, 2011

As a composer and voracious reader of short stories, I was amused, intrigued and inspired by a few items that drifted through my news feeds.

The One Story blog recently posted their list of “‘classic’ stories; stories we’d read again and again and still learn from every time.”

It was a neat dodge of Flavorwire‘s request for them to list what they thought were the 10 best short stories ever. Zzzzzzzzzz. Flavorwire loves lists. In May, the website listed their favorite stories of 2011 thus far, and another list named the “10 Novels That Will Disturb Even the Coldest of Hearts.” That was a list I could stand behind.

One Story made a good dual list of “classic stories” — a top-10 list plus a longer list of generally great pieces. Unfortunately, I didn’t see one of my favorites — Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Also, I’ll admit, there are few stories I’ve never even heard of. Time to get to work. Writer Jim Breslin will certainly be of great assistance. He’s using his blog to review every story on One Story’s long list.

I discovered One Story only a few months ago, and I fell in love at first sight. Instead of publishing a standard journal with several short fiction pieces, the editors select and focus on the no-frills publication of a single story. As they wrote recently, “our goal was to celebrate the form of the short story and support the authors who write them. Now, with over 10,000 subscribers, One Story is more than just a literary magazine — it’s a community of writers and readers that feels like a close-knit family.”

Indeed. I’m very happy to be a part of that family. It’s a good deal. Just $21 for 18 issues a year. I never thought I’d be providing free advertising on this blog, but I’ll make an exception for them. Check them out.

Naturally, reading the completed work of others eventually requires me to ask the reflection in the bathroom mirror: “Where’s my work? Where’s the long promised first, second and third novel? What’s holding me back? Are short stories enough, or I am strong-willed enough, confident enough, and intelligent enough to write the long-ago-conceived yet not-yet-born novel? I have plenty of ideas, but will anyone care about them? Will anyone want to read it?”

In April, GrubDaily posted these concerns from a writer: “I’ve always been a short story writer, but I recently made the plunge and started writing a novel. At first, I thought: ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be that hard. It’s like writing 15 short stories that are all about the same people.’ But of course as I’ve been working on the book, I’m finding it to be much harder than I thought it would be. Do you have any tips for the short-story-writer-turned-novelist?”

Novelist Jenna Blum provided a reassuring response: “As long as your 15 stories are about the same people, the same world, the same subject, you could just group them together and call it a day. But you want to write a more traditionally structured novel from your stories. The good news is, you already know how to do this. If you can write a short story, you can write a novel — because both of them have beginning, middle and end. … The short story contains its own arc. The novel imposes its arc on a series of chapters — or stories.”

Her first big tip: Have a theme. “What are you trying to SAY with what you’re writing?” Check. All of my novel ideas have an overarching message. Her second big tip: Make an outline.

Another piece of advice that I’ve heard countless times and which I shared with others countless times: Write every day. Don’t go to bed without having written something that day. One of my role models, narrative historian David McCullough, said that he was fascinated and inspired by a man who had written 100 books. He asked the man how he had managed to write so many books in his life. The man responded simply, “Four pages a day.” McCullough asked, “Every day?” The man nodded, “Every day.”

I tell myself to write badly, as badly as possible, every day. Somehow, more often than not, I end up writing well. I recently told a friend that I had finally stopped caring whether or not I was a good writer. It was like an oil tanker was lifted from my chest. I could breathe and sleep again. What I wanted to be, at this point, is a prolific, thoughtful and interesting writer, even if no one ever read anything I wrote, even if I was never published. I write simply because I love to write, and in my words — and probably only in those words — are found my purest passions, desires, fears, loves and ambitions. They’re preserved forever, like a tall tree growing from my grave, infused with my nutrients, gently comforting those who sit under its dark, cool shade. There’s something so comforting about that.

I spent many years in the newsrooms of daily newspapers, perfectly situated at the nexus of information from all parts of a tumultuous, tortured, beautiful world. My first great mandate was, as an editor, to intelligently translate and present the events of that world to my print and online readers in a balanced, fair report. It was a titanic challenge every hour of every day, and one I deeply loved.

Occasionally, however, I would take a moment to imagine my future self. In that future I saw myself as a fiction writer, as a novelist. The novels I would write, I thought to myself, would be my essays on civilization, history, love and tragedy. My historical analysis. My humble summation. They would be the rich synthesis of everything I had learned in those newsrooms, everything war, disaster, triumph, destiny and relationships had taught me. Being a serious novelist — an author of literature — is one of the only two serious ambitions I’ve ever passionately pursued.

I’m reminded of what Deborah Eisenberg said in an interview with The Millions. The piece on the author, who was quite recently published in the New York Review of Books, concluded with something I’ve said many times myself: “This is a very interesting moment to be alive, and that is the only thing that makes it bearable.”

Bad writing or not, every day, with every page, I get a little closer. Just a little closer. That tree is getting taller.

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16 Comments
  1. Enjoyed reading !

  2. Marcella permalink

    This was such a good post- informative and I felt like I got a good sense of your voice from it 🙂

  3. Erwin A. Dence Jr. permalink

    I’m going to check out the short story site you endorsed. I’m not big on ‘how to be a writer’ things; more in need of legitimate ‘I read your stuff and I want to publish your works’ offers.
    I’ve been trying to group related and non-related stories together for a while.

  4. Very interesting. One of my favourite short story books is by Tim Winton, and although each story is complete on its own, they all interlink in some way. For me, he is one of the best writers and this would be my fave short story collection! I read it (and have just looked this up as it is on the list of books read by my book group) in 2008, and it has stayed with me – not many books do that.

  5. What a great read! And I am not saying that

    I was really taken with your article, mind you I have to question if there is such a thing as “bad writing” although I have to qualify that by saying that I am more used to writing in my ‘native’ language ‘Cat’ and for years have had to rely on the translations of the less than reliable Mr John Woodcock to make my voice heard in the human world.

    Happily even his ham-fisted translations haven’t stopped both of my books becoming best sellers which is something of a relief as you must know because it takes such a lot of effort and time away from a nice warm window sill to write the darn thing.

    Purrs,

    The Cat

  6. A very interesting site with much that looks interesting. A return visit in order to explore some more is certainly required.

  7. Stephen King quotes one of the best advice he was ever given in “On Writing:” “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” He says in the first stage, you write for yourself. With no distraction. Once the door opens, it’s the reader’s.

  8. Your blog, one of the few I read to the end. I’m very glad I found it! I still work in news media ( a fact that surprises me every day). The real world is such a rich source of great stories, they are all there, waiting to be told well.

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