Last week (just in time for the new year) I finished the revisions of the novel I’ve been working on for about two years. Now, two years isn’t really all that much time, as far as a novel is concerned, but for me it felt like a significant chunk of my life – not only because I’m only a baby of thirty, so small percentages loom large to me, but also because during that time I worked very little, if at all, on short fiction.
I know there are other people who are excellent at toggling back and forth between the two forms, but it’s never been a simple affair for me. Like most people who experienced any kind of formal creative writing education, I learned how to write short stories first. Whether or not this is the best way of teaching fiction writing is an argument for another time – what matters to me is that I approached short stories with the eye of student; each one was a kind of experiment, a chance to test out certain ideas about narrative, theme, POV, and so on. Want to measure your ability to write looooong sentences? Try it in a short story. Want to push the limits of intertextuality? Use a short essay/narrative to see if the idea works or not.
Frankly, very little of my attitude towards short stories has changed. I still view them as tiny experiments, and I think that’s actually a fairly fertile way to approach the practice of short fiction. The relatively small size allows for a great deal of tinkering, and if your experiment veers wildly off course you can always restart it without much trouble. Five thousand words here or there isn’t going to make or break your writing life, and if you do fail it’s easy to convince yourself that it was a productive failure. After all, without the possibility of small failures, you never approach the risk necessary to produce interesting art.
Unfortunately, this logic breaks down significantly when I embark on a novel. I’ve pushed this process through to a final draft twice now, and on both occasions the hurtling snowball-like momentum of the project made it impossible to achieve the sort of scientific observation which I so enjoy when writing stories. In a strange way, a novel writes you. Once a project achieves the necessary propulsion to lift off of the ground, it attains its own logic. You make a decision – even a major one – and you find yourself asking, does this fit what I have here already? Is this consistent with the book as it stands? You can’t change course every five thousand words anymore, and start afresh. You’ve committed.
More than that, even – you’ve started living in the world of the novel. The experience is far more immersive. The characters you create aren’t experiments; they begin to feel real to you, to the point where real-life occurrences remind you of them, to the point where something happens to you in real life and you wonder what one of them would think of it.
When I work on a short story, I can work in long chunks without feeling at all tired, and when I get up from my desk I do so with the sense of having worked at a task at which I am at least somewhat competent. When I work on a novel, I either fidget disgracefully and distract myself with idle thoughts as I hover over the surface of the manuscript, or else I go into a kind of trance, in which I enter the world of the novel completely, adjusting what seem to me to be real facial expressions, real landscapes, real words spoken between real people. And when I get up from writing a novel I often need several hours to unwind before returning to the real world.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but the last few years’ experience has made me more eager than ever to write novels. They’re significantly less pleasant to write, but they also provide a kind of deep, sustained pleasure (maybe even a guilty one) that no short story can really provide. (This helps me to understand why most readers prefer them, even if I have no such preference.) It seems to me like I do more interesting, stranger work when I attend to a novel – although ask me in six months, and we’ll see how I feel about it.
In the meantime, I’m excited to start the beginning of a new novel and work on a few new short stories. Because it’s only in the very early stages, when a novel is just winding up its momentum to raise itself into the air, that the two are able to coexist, when everything is embryonic, and the experiment is just getting started.