A note to subscribers and other readers: This is a post from April 8, 2009 that’s since gone offline. I’m reactivating it in online archive today, January 24, 2011. I do this from time to time, depending on what I’m working on or what I sort of just find in the archive. If you’re a subscriber to this blog, you’ll probably get a notification that I’ve posted something new, but I’m really posting something old. I’m not sure that I’d agree with everything I said in this post now. One big difference is that my gut is with short stories and novels alike. And memoir. So, in addition to commenting on the original questions on this post, feel free to comment on the whole phenomenon of learning as you go. best, Chris. ps – It’s good to read good things? Brilliant comment, Christopher. But still true.
When I was young and so was Brevity (or “In 2006”), Dinty W. Moore was the first web editor to accept my work for publication. I’d been published in print before but the web journals were new to me. Cooper Renner of elimae published what became my first web story (“Evensong”) in January of 2007 and the following month “Last Stand in the Closing Country” was featured in Brevity 23. Around that time, I began blogging here sporadically about these and other early triumphs.
In the last two years, Brevity has grown in reputation and exposure. The excellently maintained Brevity blog is one reason for this. There’s an interesting post there today adapted from a presentation by John Bresland about memoir as confession and the need for confession to be shared and received in spoken rather than written/read form.
This past Friday, I read Darcey Steinke’s memoir Easter Everywhere in one sitting. The last time I read an entire book without stopping was 1990 and the book was Superfudge. I found Steinke’s recounting of her childhood and the tense nuances in her familiar relationships tender, anxious, and compelling, and my experience as a reader following her comings of age was cathartic, empathetic…good. I really like this book and am recommending it widely.
I don’t know that all memoirists (or writers of personal, creative nonfiction) understand the craft in confessional terms. Maybe so. I don’t know that confession is the germ of Steinke’s project the way it is for Bresland’s, but it could be that confession lies at the heart of everything any of us write: confessions that there’s one undertaking, at least, that hasn’t lost all meaning, that there are human reasons to share these parts of ourselves, to tell our stories, the true ones and the ones we make true in our prose and by our choices. Confessions that we hope for something (because why else would we share?) and that we can understand something about each other against so much noise.
I confess that I’m grateful to Dinty and Coop and Robin from Boston Literary Magazine and Will at Geez for running my first pieces, to Darcey Steinke for Easter Everywhere, to each of you for reading this blog and the pieces I run here and elsewhere. I confess that one of the problems I’m having in my longer fiction is this mannish, moody distance I insist on putting between the narrators and the reader. I think reading more memoirs will help my fictive voice and tone. These people should sound real even if they’re not. And, of course, they are. Not like in a memoir exactly, but still like the way our memories work. My fictive pocket universe with its confessors and confessing and the lot they have to learn from the flesh and blood types they’d love to be.
I don’t meant to say these characters are flat or unbelievable. They’re not. But they’re fighting for incarnation and I suppose that’s what I’m resisting on one side of the equation. Attachments. Confession. Narration is so much easier. Telling doesn’t hurt but it’s hardly ever honest. On the other side is the overwrought bullshit that looks like me at 2 AM when everything is beautiful. That’s not honest, either.
Short writing doesn’t have the same existential needs. Its characters are born fully grown and armored and for very specific missions. Joe from Bookish Us and I were talking last week about the ways long and short forms might appeal to men for different reasons. Short stories for their barbarous terseness, their long-shadow effect, the damage they can do or the presumptions they can upend in brief attacks. Their left hook jab hook combo. Novels, as Joe pointed out, for their space, for all the places we have in them to run and hide from definition. For our meanderings. For the growth (or not) you’re supposed to enter into. Short story characters make lousy novel heroes. They’re too all-growed up.
The novel is balancing act for me. My gut is with brevity. My gut is with detachment and people that don’t change and the idea that the feeling you get when you’re done with the raid is precisely the point of reading or writing. My gut is not with learning or teaching but with observing and reacting. My gut is with the combo.
A.O. Scott has an interesting recent piece at the New York Times about some of this that I came across today. He proposes, for reasons not unfamiliar to readers of Brevity or Six Sentences:
The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?
I don’t quote this to denigrate the longer forms of our craft. I’m convinced that Scott and others who take the death of the novel for granted are wrong. Great novels and memoirs are still being written and they matter, and no short story, no matter how great, renders them superflous. (Another confession: I also don’t believe the album is dead or that video killed the radio star. Maybe SoundScan did.) That said, there’s something about all of this brevity that seems very natural. I hope he’s right that our culture is ripe for the rebirth of short fiction, not because it’s better, but because it’s good and important and (confession) rather particularly American. Not like the Statue of Liberty. More like Graceland. (Confession: I stole that, in a way, from Easter Everywhere). There’s something mysterious about the short story, not quite poem, not quite long-form prose. There’s something subversive about its purpose, something audacious about its claims. Something kind of haunting. Ballsy.
What do you think? Is all memoir confession? Is all writing?
Are short stories poised for a return to prominence as Scott suggests?
How do you intepreret the differences between short and long form writing? As a reader and a writer, do you have a preference?