SHORT FORM (AND THE NOVEL, ALWAYS)

I came to writing through poetry. I still have the composition notebook I started in 1980, at age 10, of my first poems. I wrote about nuclear war and fortune tellers and the great unknown that was after death. (Although it was probably at age 11 that I switched my thinking to the great nothingness.) I wrote and read a lot of poetry all through high school and college. A year after college, when I decided to apply to grad school in creative writing, I filled out my applications for MFA programs in poetry. These were paper applications – so quaint. Then, like a true twenty-three year-old, I was struck by the epiphany that I already knew how to write poetry. I’m incredulous as I write this. So I re-did my applications for fiction, thinking I should learn something new in grad school. I had about three weeks to write my first two short stories. How, oh how, I got into Sarah Lawrence College for fiction writing cannot be explained in this life or in the after-nothingness.

As soon as I arrived in my MFA program, I was intimidated by the short story. Within weeks I began writing the novel, The Sign for Drowning, which was published about 14 years later. And in short order I begged my way into the graduate poetry workshops, where I felt the most comfortable. But at the end of the day (degree) I had committed to fiction. But not fiction merely, only the long form, novels. Nothing I wrote was shorter than 100 pages. I wrote a novel, several novels still in-progress and a novella. I never really attempted the short story. Gradually poems evaporated.

This year something changed. I think my increased on-line reading had something to do with it. Finally recognizing how much gets published every day, how much there is to read- all short form. (I am a person that always has an actual book, a novel, in my bag. I am always reading a novel, one to the next.) I also grew increasingly aware of the huge number of literary magazines, on-line and in print, that publish short form works. And I think I matured as a writer. I have probably said a hundred times, “I don’t write short stories,” without ever questioning that statement or fact. I know I grew frustrated and impatient with the one and only form I’d embraced taking about ten years to come to fruition. So I stepped away from my third novel for a while. I practiced creating a narrative arc in a 6000 word space. I adhered to the third person, which has been such a refreshing change for me. I wrote two short stories that stretched me and gave me the gratification of finishing a piece of writing. I have submitted them out into the world. And I’ve written a personal essay and some poems again. I consider this blog the greatest example of my decision to take on the short form. To have another kind of writing, straying from my primary relationship with the novel, a relationship which is such a long-term one with all that entails. This short form writing might have even helped me take the plunge again into the third novel. I did return to write chapter 7 with renewed energy and focus. And the chapter has its own narrative arc almost like a short story. I think there’s a great lesson in that, a lesson that was partially learned by not saying anymore, “I don’t write short stories.” And writing anything I want to.

Finally, with good cause, I’m about to enter a long process of revising a novel, my second completed novel. And my writing brain has been taking deep, deep breaths for the last week, knowing the dive will be deep and the time underwater long. But I’m going to maintain the short form, in this blog and elsewhere, as little islands to land on between the huge crossing.

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8 comments

  1. Hi Rachel, isn’t it interesting how we close ourselves off to some forms of writing only to discover how much we enjoy them years later? I started out writing nonfiction, but now find myself drawn to fiction. Sadly, I’m discovering that enjoyment doesn’t always equate to talent! Still, good to try different things. Love the line, “. . .like a true twenty-three year-old, I was struck by the epiphany that I already knew how to write poetry.” Oh yes. Been there. Have the sonnets to prove it.

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  2. You write so well. I very much enjoy reading your blog and understanding better your thinking-writing process.Watching you develop as a writer is a wonderful thing. Nothing happens by
    accident, you were meant to write ! I love that you are willing to experiment with all of it and
    fully blossom into the written word. I love that you read so much ( a novel tucked into your bag)–there’s nothing like turning pages. You were always a good reader and a talented writer !
    Here’s to the next book, I know it will happen, enjoy the process.

    Marilyn Stolzman

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      1. Hi Rachel – yes, please do. I don’t know how far away from each other you live, but her comment is like a big, warm hug of words.

        If I can feel that, as a total stranger, her words must burn even more brightly for you. 🙂

        Like

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