My Difficulty With Short Stories

Posted by on Jul 1, 2008 in Writing | 10 comments

Sure, I’ve had a few short stories published, but in reality I’m not an adept short-story writer. In fact, I find them curiously difficult to pin down. Limit me to a few characters and a moment in time, and my brain freezes.

A few weeks back, I came upon a quote by Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright:

I like living in a novel — there is great company in it for the few years it is in your head, and I feel a real sense of loss when I come to the end. Short stories are, for me, a more instinctive form. They come or they don’t come, and I don’t spend lots of time figuring them out.

Instinctive? By Jove, there’s my difficulty: I don’t have a short-story instinct. Which is to say that I don’t read enough of them. Some years ago I subscribed to The New Yorker magazine so that I’d at least read its short stories, but now I’m thinking the stories the magazine likes to print aren’t the kind I like to read (and therefore to write). So, that hasn’t been helpful. These days, I browse the magazine for its articles. (Wait, where have I heard that one before?)

Now I’m staring at five short-story collections that have been sitting on my nightstand for awhile.

I ought to read them.

Unfortunately, I seem to remember that in this post, I vowed to lower my nightstand piles by reading only nonfiction until further notice…The piles, alas, remain.

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Insightful post. I don’t have a short story instinct either. I wrote a few that were organic in that they came to me, hit the paper and are complete. But I do like “living in the novel.” And, it is sad when it ends. http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com.

  2. I love short stories, though I tend to write them a bit too long and the response I sometimes get is: “Have you ever thought of expanding this into a novel?” I think I need to learn to better reel myself in… but when I became a writer I originally only wanted to write stories. It’s funny… sometimes I work on a single story off and on for years, longer than a novel. How is that even possible?

    But enough about me. RUNAWAY by Alice Munro is breathtaking. Her stories contain entire worlds, like novels themselves. Just seeing the book in your picture makes me want to read the collection again.

  3. Daniel, I like living with my characters for awhile also; I like the complexities of the longer form. By the way: like your blog and website! Congratulations on finding a publisher-home for you novels!

    Nova, I hear you on writing the loooong short story. I’m the same way! A few years back I tried to trick myself into writing more short stories by imagining them linked into a larger whole — this strategy might still work for me one day.

  4. I love short stories, reading more than writing them as I, too, tend to write them too long and have realized there is at least one book in me instead of several interlinked stories. I have recently found, however, great enjoyment in writing flash fiction on my story blog, more fun for me than anything I’ve ever written, trivial as they are.

  5. w.r., I wouldn’t say flash fiction is trivial! I’d say it’s plenty hard to distill something down to its essence while maintaining coherency.

  6. I think one is either gungho for short stories, or
    one is not.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. love the bookstack – interesting to note that three of them (at least) are Canadian writers…and I like the perspective that comes out of there. Short stories get to sit around, though, unlike novels, they are ‘pick ups’ that do not drive you with unified tension from cover to cover as does a novel.
    And the New Yorker? I am a subscriber, don’t like to throw them out ’til I’ve read the short story, thus a terrible backlog. I totally agree: the stories are … difficult. I try to imagine why they are there more than I do what the story is about (which more than half the time hangs me up, too.)

    I suspect we could all do a themed-blog on our bedside bookstacks!
    That’s it. I’m heading out to the chaise lounge with books, right now. (and have added Wallace Stegner to my B&N shopping list.)

  8. Terry, thanks for visiting and commenting! I agree about the “gung ho” — some writers just seem to have a natural instinct for the form. However, for the rest of us, I believe it can also be learned…

    oh, hi! Glad to hear someone else is on the same page with me, so to speak, when it comes to The New Yorker’s stories! For awhile, I thought I was missing something!

  9. I’ve never been a short story fan myself, but I’ve recently come to enjoy them more, since I’ve found a way to read them that works for me. In the past, I attempted to read a short story collection as I would a novel – in fits and starts, a chunk of pages here and there. But I found that if I read one short story in its entirety, and then set the book aside for a while before moving on to the next, the stories became more complete, enjoyable entities.

    Alice Munroe is a master of the form. I also quite enjoyed both Jhumpa Lahiri’s collections.

  10. That’s a good strategy, Becca. I have a notion that I’ve gotta read a book cover to cover, which is probably why I haven’t started those story collections yet.

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