I’ve been putting less on this site in recent weeks. But I’ve still been writing; maybe more now than usual.
I made two big resolutions for this New Year, among a dozen small ones like keeping the kitchen clean meal to meal rather than letting it get messy and cleaning every two or three days.
I will not buy a new book until April 1, 2019. I often go on book buying binges, getting three or four or five used books in a tear. I have thirteen novels to read that I can name without even looking at my shelf (four Vonnegut, three Orwell, one Woolf, three Auster, two Didion) to say nothing of the nonfiction left unread. I read a lot but the buying outpaces the reading – often considerably.
I will publish fiction this year. Before the last week or two of December, I spent almost no time writing fiction. So I’ve spent most of the month of January working on short stories and submitting a couple (of the shortest) to various publications to see if they’ll turn up in print. I may try to find a place on this site to fit the others. Then again, “fitting” has never been much of a concern here.
The first thing I’ve noticed about writing fiction is that I utterly obliterate word counts that took months to reach when I was writing essays. For a year, I found fifteen hundred words to be something of a wall. I broke that one and then got better at editing, hacking out superfluous words and thoughts, and it became formidable again. Reading more of my favorite essayists allowed for the notion that some of the strictly superfluous ideas weren’t superfluous at all. I got better at loosening the string a bit and allowing a little more into the collection, tying it together less forcefully, leaving the circulation to flow more freely.
The essays got longer again.
I find it difficult now to write an essay of more than 2,500 words; a big improvement but also somewhat honest. Another two hundred, five hundred, a thousand words would be little trouble without a sense of what an essay should be and candor about what might drag it beyond that.
But the first short story I completed from beginning to end – without ferocious editing, mind you – topped out at over 5,000 words. The second – after the ferocious editing – just under 5,000 words. Neither is done, strictly speaking, but both will end up far far longer than any essay I’ve ever conceived of unless they’re chopped so thoroughly as to be unreconcilable with their current form.
The difference is so dramatic that I’ve spent considerable time wondering over it. Several simple reasons come to mind. The first is that my dad writes nonfiction: essays, columns, criticism, and that sort of thing. He’s ruthless about the length of his finished work. Length can vary depending on the audience but he determined that the ideal length of his weekly column in the local paper was 750 words. “I probably have a hundred and fifty documents on my computer that are exactly 750 words.” I write a (less frequent) column for the same paper now and my discipline isn’t remotely comparable. Still, they remain short. Never over 1,000 words. There are a thousand reasons – twenty years worth – why I might apply my father’s concept of what an essay should look like quite rigidly. I also take George Orwell as my patron saint of essaying. Joan Didion might be my favorite essayist but Orwell is my first love. He is brief if nothing else. But these reasons are both structural and specific. They apply only to the essays. They don’t explain why the short stories are so long and why they were so much longer and so immediately.
An essay often has an end and a trajectory it must follow, if only loosely, determined by the direction in which the thought is aimed. But there’s no action, per se. A story is compelled toward its conclusion and small decisions about the level of detail can multiply outward dramatically.
A man goes to the store and gets robbed.
A young man walks through Queens to the store and gets robbed at gunpoint.
John was new to the city, young though he looked much older with a couple days’ whisker on his cheeks. When he stepped onto the sidewalk, he hadn’t shaved in a week but that’s neither here nor there. He grew up in rural Virginia, his home separated from the grocery store, separated from the doctor, separated from the movie theater by miles and miles. He drove everywhere in Virginia so, when he moved to New York, he relished the way his feet felt when his shoes scuffed the concrete; the way his knees compressed hard under the force his body moving over a crosswalk.
A paragraph and the sonofabitch barely got out the door. That’s not a story. He has to go for the walk, go to the store, get robbed, interact with the robber. I either make a jarring change in the amount of detail I offer, skip many potential turns, or this is a long story.
Even more important is the source of that detail. John very likely thinks things as he walks to the store. John is important to the story so it’s important that the reader have some sense of him as a person. His thoughts, no matter how immediately irrelevant, are enormously important to that end. Those thoughts can be anything. I can make him think anything.
John passed under the trees at the corner and stopped for a moment. He stared straight up into the branches, backlit against icy sky. Veins and capillaries sprawled out over trails of plane exhaust. He’d seen something like this before in the hospital. Dye went into veins and lit them indigo against a gray, magnetic-looking backdrop on the monitor behind the doctor.
There’s enormous freedom: at once the part that kept me from fiction and the part of it I enjoy most now. What’s fascinating is that, with all that freedom, I insert my own thoughts into the minds of characters – things I never figured out how to fit into an essay. Putting them into someone else’s head offers distance that I wouldn’t have otherwise; the space to pretend they aren’t my thoughts at all, the space to extrapolate them far beyond what I would’ve thought in the first place. At bottom, that freedom to include the tangents is what lengthens the stories so dramatically.
I’ve always been comfortable – perhaps too comfortable – smearing over the hard edges of essays, blurring the lines between what happened exactly and what very likely may have happened. I’m entirely comfortable describing something I saw even if I don’t recall having noticed it at the time. The detail happens and it’s true even if not in the traditional sense. What’s odd is that there are still things I’ve never quite put into words in nonfiction. To put it bluntly: I’m sometimes more comfortable fudging the truth in an essay than I am telling it.
That’s a little harsh.
To be more generous: I’m as comfortable telling the unvarnished truth in the fiction as I am fudging it in the nonfiction.