I find writing short stories very difficult. I’m not even talking about writing good short stories, but simply competently told ones.
Not that my difficulty stems from a natural predisposition to writing novellas or novels, but rather my lack of discipline causes me to write spontaneous, irregular prose-poems that aren’t really about anything in particular.
I’ll be struck by an image. Seized by a mood, or a concept. A spark in the darkness, and I sit down at my laptop, animated and eager to capture that moment of brilliance. I write it down in a torrent, and then sit back, having captured that moment. But is it a short story? Does it have a theme, a meaning? What is it about? I don’t know. It’s not about anything, I think, but rather seeks simply to evoke a sense of regret and melancholy on an Autumn afternoon. It’s not about anything, I think, but rather a way to explore an interesting scientific device from the future.
Short stories are hard to write. Each word must play its part, must contribute to the whole. It must be a so perfectly constructed that the reader does not notice its part, but merely their sum. Yet one cannot approach a short story like a car mechanic, armed with knowledge of point of view, theme and setting. The result would be a Frankenstein’s monster at best, laborously constructed and artificial.
I read my short stories, and shake my head. Why did this character do this, I ask? Because it struck me at the time as an interesting thing for him to do, I respond, but ‘an interesting thing to do’ is not a sufficient answer. What is this story about, I ask, and can only shrug my shoulders. It’s about what it’s about, I think helplessly.
I think I need to approach this in a different manner. My natural impulses are imaginative, vivid, at times evocative even, but terribly flawed for all that. I may yet be able to salvage some of my stories, but it will take work and some serious rewrites. I’ll need to sit down and ask myself some hard questions, figure out what’s going on, and bring that to the surface.
In the meantime, I plan to read a fantastic collection of short stories by Ann Charters entitled The Story And Its Writer. It has everybody from Zora Neal Hurston to James Joyce, from Julio Cortazar to Yukio Mishima. The great thing about this collection is that it also includes essays on writing by the same authors, and their opinions of each other’s stories. Herman Melville comments on Nathaniel Hawthorne. Milan Kundera on Kafka. D. H. Lawrence on Edgar Allen Poe.
I’m going to read a story a day, and write out my response. Unpack each story’s heart with words, and divine their secrets. Ferret out their genius, and learn from the masters. No longer will I approach their telling like an ingenue, but rather as a craftsman, having sat at the feet of the miglior fabrios and learnt their trade.