thoughts on writing short stories

In this awkward time when I am preparing to release one novel, getting ready to edit another, and halfway through writing one vast and terrible behemoth that is going to take many, many months of work to finish, I have been working on a couple of short stories.

These are stories that have been sitting in my mind for a long time--because all short stories sit in my mind for a long time, lurking in the shadows for months or years before I feel ready to write them. It might not seem to make sense, from the outside, that I can dive into writing a novel with very little preparation but require eons of contemplation to get into a short story. But it makes sense to me, and I've been thinking about why.

Short stories are, for me, a way of capturing a very specific sort of difficult-to-define emotional state--like the literary equivalent of those internet lists of feelings for which we have no English words. You know the lists: this or this. Only instead of learning Inuit or Portuguese vocabulary, I write short stories.

For me, a short story always begins as an image. This is not necessarily a visual image, although there are usually visual elements in it. It tends to be more about vivid sensation than specific detail at this beginning stage. The feeling of being alone in the woods and knowing that something has changed just beyond sight. Finding an object that brings up bittersweet memories from long ago. Realizing that protective denial or numbness about some dark truth is breaking down. Being determined to do something in spite of the crushing inevitability of failure. Looking onto a familiar landscape and finding that it has become unrecognizable.

These are the sort of foundations that I build my short stories on. They sound vague, but they never are, in my mind. They are rich and detailed and complicated, and that's why I write a few thousand words exploring them, making them exist. I will spend months (or years) thinking about what leads to and follows those kinds of feelings. What person embodies them. What their life is like, and what they want their life to be like. What their world looks like, whether it is very different from our own, or very much like our own with only a few degrees of difference. What external story surrounds their internal evolution. What I want to say.

A short story is only a few thousand words, and it can take only a few days to write a first draft. But then it takes me many more weeks or months to revise. I fiddle with every paragraph and every sentence to capture the right atmosphere and emotions, to do it with the most beautiful sequence of words and satisfying hints of the larger world and necessary feeling of change. Change in a story--any story, of any length--can happen on multiple levels, from the most obvious plot points to the most subtle character arcs. I like subtly in my short stories--often to the point of incomprehensibility (or so I've been told, but I'm working on it). Emotions are not static things; the act of feeling is an act of change, one that is often messy and unsatisfactory and complex.

I suppose it's a fool's quest to continually attempt, over and over again, to capture messy and unsatisfactory and complex concepts in the space of a few thousand words, but I keep trying. The process of bringing clarity to that which is often undefinable is why I love writing short stories. The sharp, almost selfish satisfaction of capturing a moment in time that exists only in my head, and distilling it to a vivid experience that requires a few pages to illuminate and no more, is very unlike the sprawling, heady sense of achievement that comes from writing a novel. The focus and attention to detail and obsession with language required to explore the complexities of human experience in a handful of sentences is uniquely challenging and daunting.

I wouldn't say it's ever really fun, not the same way that charging headlong into and fully inhabiting a novel often is, but I definitely find a quieter, more personal fulfillment from working on short stories. It also serves as a sort of mental reset, an almost meditative focus that brings me back to thinking about the craft of language on a very small, very intense, very exacting level, especially when that work is lodged between work done on big, messy novels.

There's this belief in some parts of the literary world (mostly in parts not inhabited by actual short story writers) that writing short stories is practice for writing novels. I've never understood it, not only because it's unwise to think that you can practice writing novels by doing literally anything besides writing novels, but also because in my mind the two types of stories occupy such very different internal and artistic spaces. They are never wholly separate, of course, because the lessons and habits learned from writing one never vanish when I sit down to work on the other.

But it's the difference between doing yoga and taking a long hike. I'm using my muscles, lungs, blood, brains, but in different ways, for different purposes. My ultimate goal of writing fiction--to throw myself and the reader into the visceral experiences of a character's life, essentially--is roughly the same for both types of stories, but the way I go about it feels very different. With a novel, I feel like I have an entire sprawling tapestry with which to create whole characters in a believable world, whereas with short stories I choose a few careful snapshots to imply an existence far beyond the events contained on the page--and what that existence looks like depends, necessarily, on what the reader brings to the experience of reading. That's a feature of short stories, I think, not a flaw, that the reader is not only permitted but expected to bring all of their baggage into this voyeuristic moment of intruding upon a fictional character's turmoil.

I like, also, that writing short stories pretty much matters only to me. Short stories are never going to make or break my writing career. At most a short story sale pays, oh, half a month's rent. At most. It's not that I don't write exactly the kind of novels I want to write--I do, and it brings me great joy--but for me short stories offer a very personal kind of artistic freedom, the freedom that comes from knowing that when the external, practical stakes are so very low, I can explore those odd, nebulous, undefinable internal landscapes without worrying if anybody else will care, and if it doesn't work out, even after I pore over every word and every line a thousand times, fine, fine, I'll learn from it, I'll move on, I'll try something new next time.