Writing short

If you’ve read my story collection, The Arc of the Cosmos, you know I’m capable of writing short short fiction. And yet, I have a hard time writing short, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, although stylistically I tend toward writing lean. I just seem to have a lot of story to tell.

I am currently in the process of revising a longish short story, “Earl,” the original draft of which runs just a little over 6,800 words. As I revise, that count keeps moving up. And as I revise, I wonder if the story will end longer than it started. Which makes me wonder if my original idea is too expansive for a short story.

I love short stories, love learning how to write them. I like the “window of the world” stories present, as much as I like the expansiveness of novels.

I’m not averse to stories like Joan Didion seems to be in  this essay from Brain Pickings.  Like Didion, I like having “room in which to play.” But am I playing with too much room?

I think about this too after a recent interview—due out next month—with science-fiction writer Lou Antonelli, who is known for writing lean, swiftly moving prose. He told me his revisions tend to shorten his stories.

How much expansion is too much expansion? How much tightening is too much?

—Todd

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The Romance of Carl and Bobbi Jo, or a Little Silliness Brought on by Wine

While playing around on Facebook and drinking wine  last night,  I composed this piece of flash fiction:

The Romance of Carl and Bobbi Jo

Another work day over, Bobbi Jo was too tired for having fun. She had been working in the coal mine.

Then Carl showed up. “Hey, Bobbi Jo, you want to slip on down to the Oasis?”

“Carl, you know I got friends in low, low places.”

Later that night, much much later. Both were drunk, Carl and Bobbi Jo. They stood on Bobbi Jo’s front porch, under amber light.

“Lord, I am so tired,” Bobbi Jo said.

“Too tired for having fun?” Carl said.

“No, hardly Carl.” She embraced Carl and kissed him deeply. “No, my dear, I want you to pretend you’ve been working in a coal mine.”

Carl was a bit slow, given the 42 shots of gin he had drunk. He stared at Bobbi Jo, puzzled.

“And you’re goin’ down, down.” She grinned.

Carl grinned, too. It was a pretty good night.

Even later:

“Oh, Carl, you spin me round, right round,” Bobbi Jo said.

“Right round?” Carl said.

“Like a record, baby. When you go down.”

Carl looked at the clock. “Baby, it’s five o’clock in the morning.”

 

Writing and living on the edge of Darkness Visible

I used to romanticize Henry Miller or rather the character of Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer and the film Henry & June or even the man biographers portrayed. I imagined myself living on the cheap, writing a masterpiece on a typewriter borrowed from a sultry lover. Then wandering the streets and drinking and dancing and talking til dawn.

I believed I could live on the edge like that and a life like that would inspire great works. Masterful writers who put you in their worlds do that. They make you feel you can do the same.

Except . . . I’m close to the edge now. Very close. No borrowed typewriter. Only an aging computer.

Instead of Paris, I’m in Fort Worth, Texas.  I have no liasions set up with a banker’s wife. And I’m finding little inspiring me to write as I sit in my sister’s spare bedroom wondering if I can write more than a blog post, worrying if I’ll find gainful employment, and longing for any sign my wife might want to reconcile our marriage.

Since early November I’ve been stuck in the middle of yet another attempt at a novel, attempting to write in an genre — science fiction, a first love —that’s both foreign and familiar. As all my current chaos closed in, my writing shut down.

Perhaps, too, I feel crippled by a storm darkening my mind, ripping away the drive to write, the same crippling storm that raged through William Styron’s beautiful essay Darkness Visible. In fact, the storm in the mind is Styron’s trope for the melancholy that afflicted him.

I know, at least for me, living on the edge isn’t inspiring, it’s terrifying.

The Influence of Anxiety, Part Deux: Or If Not Writing, What?

A little over a week ago, I wrote a post about my recent bout with self doubt (maybe bad poetry is my real calling?), and since then have received some great encouragement from commenters.

One commenter, Richard Gilbert, sent me a link to Junot Diaz’s essay “Becoming a Writer” in O, The Oprah magazine, in which Diaz talks about the doubt and despair he went through when composing his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2008.

I had heard about Diaz’s essay in passing and had seen one quote frequently pop up:

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

A very powerful statement. (I have to recommend this essay to any writer, whether you’re struggling with self doubt or not. It’s one of the most evocative essays about self doubt and the writing process I’ve ever read.) But the image that struck me most was this:

While I waited for September to come around, I spent long hours in my writing room, sprawled on the floor, with the list [of other professions Diaz might be qualified for]on my chest, waiting for the promise of those words to leak through the paper into me.

Diaz had gotten to the point of wondering whether or not he really was a writer after working on his novel for five years without success. He was planning to go back to school. He had made a list of professions he was qualified for or might be qualified for. Nothing suited him. And yet his future as a writer was in doubt. What else was there to do but to lie on the floor and look to the void for answers?

While my circumstances are different Diaz’s, I can picture myself with a list of options on my chest (I keep an unsatisfying list in my head) and I can see myself sprawled on the floor looking up to the void to waiting for an answer.

If not this, what?

Part of my anxiety is the dread of doing anything other than writing or editing. I’ve worked in such worlds as retail (a nightmarish experience that awakened me fully to Sartre’s “Hell — is other people”). And while ideally “a writer is a writer . . . when there is no hope,” I sink at the prospect of not writing professionally in a day job (no one seems to want me); I sink at the prospect of having to work outside of  professional writing.

And yet that Sartrean nightmare Reality demands I have an income. In my mind I lay on the floor, looking up, wondering, If not writing, what?

As far as my novel goes, I’ve set it aside, though an inkling of inspiration came to me Saturday after hearing a talk by Elizabeth Berg, who at one point addressed the conflict between the writing life and “real” life, one of the larger conflicts in my life at the moment. I may tinker with parts of the book. There may be some potential in it, yet.

But I’m still fumbling with self doubt. My writing has been sporadic — blog posts, journal entries — as I sprawl on the floor asking, What do I write? and If not writing, what?

The Influence of Anxiety

When I avoid something that I know I must do, I end up feeling guilty.  So every year as summer approached and I had ten weeks of free time, my anxiety level would begin to climb. I knew I had two and a half months in which to write if I wished, and I was terrified to begin because I had a number of fears that I just did not want to face.

— Elizabeth George, Write Away

This morning I picked up and read for a few minutes in George’s book on writing novels to jump start myself into working on my novel, and came upon the above passage, coincidentally after I had been thinking about the necessity of anxiety to the writing life.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve gone through periods in which I’ve felt detached from my old self, a faltering sense of self as a writer. A routine appendectomy almost a year and a half ago left me in such a state. Or rather the aftereffects of the surgery heightened a lost sense of self, a lost sense of purpose that had been creeping up on me after a 360-degree career change — launching from newspaper feature writer to adjunct writing The_Screaminstructor to textbook editor to no career at all.

From my recent studies of Buddhism I’ve gathered that a detachment from the Self is just what a body needs. I’m not sure how this is a good thing. It seems to strip you of purpose.

Which is what I feel — stripped of purpose. I should be revising my novel today. But I came to a point in the revision yesterday when I lost interest. I lost interest in the characters. I lost interest in the story. I lost interest, worst of all, in the process. I began wondering, Why am I writing this novel anyway? and Why am I writing at all?

When I first set out to write the novel, I knew why I wanted to write the novel.

First, I wanted to tell a story. A particular story. A fictionalized version of a romance. Though not a romance novel. Something along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (a grammatical aside: Why does “pastime” have one “t”?). A serious look at love and the relationships between men and women.

Second, I wanted to involve myself in the process of writing a book again. I had immersed myself into writing books before, completing two manuscripts, neither of which went beyond first drafts. This time I set out to immerse myself in the process, determined to stick it out draft after draft until I had something perfect enough to submit.

After a false start or two, I finished the first draft in about a year. Within another year I had teased out a second draft.

I set the book aside for various reasons after I finished the second draft. For the most part, I needed a break from the book, although a career change, then a period of unemployment, another career change, several moves, a marriage, and further unemployment, along with an extended bout with detachment from my writerly self also contributed to the manuscript gathering dust.

As I think about it, I set the book aside because I felt detached from my writerly self. For some reason, my desire to write had grown stale. The energy I got from writing had flattened. I tried to galvanize my desire: blogging more, writing a long piece on my first experience under the knife, writing and submitting a short piece about my struggles with religion, writing a couple of freelance pieces.

These things briefly electrified my system. Still, something was missing. Time? No, I had plenty of time, especially because I wasn’t working.

When I first set out to write, I always felt anxious about finding time to write. I chipped out times to write, scheduling around work schedules and family. Once I set a schedule to write, like Elizabeth George, I would feel guilty if I missed a set time to write. Anxiety would build up. The anxiety would get to me. It drove me to the desk, to the keyboard. I had to write. Otherwise I would feel guilty, and overcome by the anxiety that I had failed myself as a writer.

Now I have time to write (and yet that free time creates another form of anxiety—the stresses of not having a job). For several months now, I’ve been writing, a set schedule, working around time spent looking for a job.

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked enthusiastically on revising my novel. A renewed sense of purpose came after receiving a critique of my manuscript and some encouragement from debut novelists Karen Harrington and Joe O’Connell.

That renewed sense of purpose spurred a whole new vision of the novel. I still had a vision of a serious novel about romantic relationships, but one that was funny, and not morose and bordering on the nihilistic. Now I have a vision of something closer to Nick Hornby’s How to be Good.

Over the past few weeks, however, several things have overwhelmed my psyche.

Like the band Styx, I think I have too much time on my hands. Paradoxically, all the years I that I worked full time and scheduled in time for writing, I craved working independently as a writer: I wanted writing to be my full time job. At the moment, I don’t have anything to schedule around. I’ve been losing the feeling that if I don’t write I have failed myself as a writer. I miss and crave the anxiety of making time to write.

Also, not working has conjured up a whole new state of being, a whole new state of anxiety, one that’s not good for the writing life. Or for the self at all. Almost daily I experience a free floating purposelessness, as if I’m living in a nihilistic vacuum. There are moments when I really have no idea what I want. In this state, I’m numb to writing.

Over the summer, one event numbed my psyche against writing more than anything since: the hope of returning to work, to my old newspaper job, got crushed by an absurd rehire policy. Rejection by my former employer — a place where I developed my writing more than anywhere else — was a kick in the sternum. Besides easing the stress of not having a job, this rejection cast more doubt than anything else on my ability to write.

A new anxiety cropped up. Each time I’ve sat down to write since the rejection, doubt has cropped up.

Yesterday it surfaced again as I started working on my novel. My imagination seemed to fail. I lost interest in the process. Suddenly I’m facing a fear I’ve neglected to face: The question of whether or not I’m a writer at all.