3.03.2009

Notes on a Short Story

This is a list of things I want to remember about writing as I begin my next piece later this week. It's basically impossible to have a sense of clarity about your work when you're in it, so I'm taking advantage of this quiet space between pieces to nail down some writing lessons that will make the next go-round much easier if I can manage to trust them.

A quick scope for the non-writing readers:
I finished a short story this weekend and sent it off as part of my application to a summer writing conference. I won't hear if I am accepted or not until May. If I do get accepted, I'll get to spend two weeks working closely on a manuscript (see: short story, either the one I submitted or a new one) with a small group of writers and a couple of well-known authors. It's kind of a dream.

Ok, now I'm just going to dive in.

Listen for the story
This story came to me while I was sitting on my couch one Sunday evening last fall listening to a Conor Oberst song. I didn't get the whole story, just one character, and really just one moment. I put the song on repeat and let him tell me his side of things. This resulted in about four paragraphs, which I conveniently tucked away in a file somewhere never to return. Until...

Revisit old scraps when the going gets tough
When I originally heard about the conference, I was going to apply as a fiction writer. Then, after 3 or 4 long afternoons spent toiling at Starbucks, it seemed that fiction writing was out of my league. In a moment of self-pity and frustration, I opened every file in the Fiction folder on this laptop. I stumbled upon the Conor piece. I put the song on and suddenly content started pouring out again.

Don't forget to read
It had honestly been a few months since I'd read fiction and I felt like I needed to keep nourishing my piece with some models. I picked up The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao and Water for Elephants, which are very different types of novels. Both, however, were fun reads and reminded me how stories and characters work.

*Note: My parents' attic is filled with approximately 20 boxes of my books. It breaks my soul a little bit knowing that they are there and that I've been moving around for the past 5 years without them. I'm hopeful that I can install shelves and bring a larger chunk of them to my next apartment just to have them handy. I would have given anything to have my William Trevor books near me while I was writing this piece... reading his work is like listening to a walz. I get the rhythm stuck in my head and it has a beautiful result on the page.

Share the piece when it's time
The single most important thing I did while writing this story was share it with someone else. I was resisting. Oh, how I resisted! "Send me your story when you're ready," friends said, "I'd love to take a look!" And while I appreciated their offers, I just wasn't at a point where I could release this mess of paragraphs to anyone.

There came a time, though, when I'd spent three weeks avoiding my computer entirely because I felt I'd boxed myself into a corner with the plot. I wasn't getting any bright ideas about how to move forward, though I spent most of those three weeks frustrated and anxious about the problem. You'll notice that I've barely written on this blog recently. I felt like I needed to spend what little time I had for writing working towards the piece... spending brain space and words on this blog made me feel guilty. Guilt/anxiety/frustration = badness. I decided to phone a friend.

Share it with the right person
Without going too far into detail, I'll just say that I first sent my piece to a girl I've never met. We correspond over email (she's a fellow NIFW writer) and it felt right to send my piece to someone whose presence in my life is due to a mutual love of the craft of writing. She had some great feedback, but the most surprising thing to me was the she completely misunderstood the scope of what I was trying to do. Seems like some of the last few paragraphs aren't necessary in this short story! was the gist of what she wrote. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I wasn't writing a novel, I was writing a short story.

Know what you're writing
This is tough. Imagine you're working on a sewing machine and all you can see is the part that you're stitching. Emma's comment about my piece being a short story was equivalent to someone walking into the room where you're creating a dress and saying "wow, great skirt." It totally changed the game for me and it wasn't something I was able to see myself.

Don't let yourself be intimidated
Even after Emma's brilliant feedback, I still avoided working on the piece until Saturday when Chris said "hey, when is the deadline for your conference?" I didn't remember exactly and I was too intimidated to look it up online. Ridiculous, but true! So he set about finding the dates and when we found out it was sooner than I thought, I immediately left his place and went to Starbucks where I finished the next round of edits. What can I say? Sometimes you need a kick in the pants.

This last point is interesting because I think writing it on this page sounds as though it's a lesson that I've learned. I haven't. I know I shouldn't be intimidated, but I am; perusing the information about the conference makes me incredibly excited and simultaneously self-conscious. I don't know if my writing is strong enough yet to be accepted to one of these things. When I look at the bios of people who've gone in years past, it seems as though they're leagues and miles ahead of me. That affects me.

But honestly, even if I don't head off to writing summer camp this year and even if my story gets passed over as too young or too inexperienced or too anything, there is this small, yet important part of me that's proud. Writing is a difficult hobby to have because it doesn't afford you many goal lines. I spend most of my time psyching myself up to even dedicate 60 minutes in the morning to this hobby that I say that I love. I truly fight a difficult battle with myself every time I sit down to the page.

Phew! Lots to think about, lots to remember. The great news is that I already have a few ideas for what story needs to be told next (they seem to come to me most often when I'm in a subway or a bus, so I've invested in a couple of new Moleskins to capture the inspiration at inconvenient moments).

Fellow writers, does any of this resonate with you? Or fellow creatives? What's your biggest advice for getting over the humps in your creative process? Would love to kick off a discussion in the comments if anyone has things to share... creating can be a very lonely process and it's always good to hear how everyone else is making their way through it.

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