It's just past 10 in the morning, and I'm sitting on a tiny chair at the international preschool where I occasionally help out. A four-year-old blond boy approaches and takes my arm. He leans in to tell me something. I lower my ear. "I love America," he wipers.
It's often said that if you want to be a better writer you need to do two things: read and write—a lot. This is both true and obvious. But it doesn't mean a little help won't go a long way. On the writing side, this help comes in many forms, the most common being the writing classes offered by universities across the country. And if you take a few of these classes you'll no doubt find yourself writing a bunch of short stories.
This is no accident. Short stories are, well, short, meaning the aspiring writer can put in a bunch of reps before tackling something more substantial.
On the reading side, the same holds true. Volume is important, but volume with guidance is better. Unfortunately, that guidance is harder to come by. Even if you take a class, there might not be much structure to the reading outside of the professor's taste in literature. So you might be writing short stories while reading novels. You're also likely to find some how-to books, not all of which are bad. (The two I'll recommend are Stephen King's On Writing and Jon Franklin's Writing for Story.) And when the assigned reading consists of short stories, they tend to be anthologies, like the Best American series, rather than collections from a single author.
This is misguided. There is one kind of book that will teach you more about writing than any other, and it's not a novel or a how-to; it's the humble short story collection.
This doesn't mean I don't read novels, or that I think anthologies are crap. I tend not to trust book reviews, so anthologies are the primary way I find new authors—and their novels. More importantly, to read an anthology with your writer hat on is to expose yourself to repeated examples of how authors tackle different technical problems: introducing characters, handling flashbacks, using metaphor, dialogue, etc. Single-author collections do all of this as well, but they have one advantage. In single-author collections, technical tricks and story themes that you might not have even noticed when reading a one-off story begin to jump out at you.
It's the difference between asking yourself, How does this story work? and asking yourself, What is this writer up to?
Take Shirley Jackson. I recently finished her collection The Lottery and other stories, named after her most famous and influential piece. And while "The Lottery" is a dope story, what I found myself thinking about as I put the book down was a pattern I'd noticed in which she organized many of her stories ("The Lottery" not included) so they arrived at a kind of weird climatic twist.
Jackson follows this pattern in at least four of the book's stories: "Like Mother used to Make," "Trial by Combat," "Seven types of Ambiguity," and "Come Dance with Me in Ireland." The stories, which are all quite different in terms of setting and plot, establish a kind of hero who the reader roots for. The hero must deal with a another character, who is a little bit off, socially. And in every story something happens at the end that negates much of the hero's actions, revealing the situation to be more complicated than the reader had realized.
In "Seven Types of Ambiguity" for example, a student in a bookstore is hoping to save enough money to buy a special edition book kept behind the counter. When a rich couple comes in looking for books to fill the shelves in their new home (the couple is clearly ignorant of literature), the student helps them. He then leaves the store as the couple pays the shop owner. When paying, the couple ask the shop owner to throw in the special edition book that they know the student wants. This is the climax. The reader hopes the couple will give the book to the student, but they don't. He's gone. Instead, the book will sit on their shelf at home, unread.
Maybe that doesn't sound like a great short story to you. It doesn't really matter. The important part is spotting the pattern. Now, I can try to deconstruct it, looking at pacing, how Jackson uses tension, and how she builds in a surprise that is not out of character. A good writing exercise might be to write my own story to fit Jackson's pattern.
In a sense, the great Shirley Jackson has become my teacher.
For some reason I've been thinking about this a lot lately, so here goes. I'm no particular order, these are my favorites:
- Water Liars, by Barry Hannah
- What you Pawn I Shall Redeem, by Sherman Alexie
- I Can see Right Through You, by Kelly Link
- After you, my dear Alphonse, by Shirley Jackson
- Down Through the Valley, by Wells Tower
- Ysrael, by Junot Díaz
- Refresh Refresh, by Benjamin Percy
- A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor
- The Star, by Arthur C Clark
- The Littoral Zone, by Andrea Barrett
2017 has been, for me, the year of the short story. So far, I've read seven books of short stories (eight, if you include December), in addition to many of the stories published in The New Yorker. I haven't counted them up individually, but this year's total is already well over 100. And while seven books isn't a large number, it still represents a pretty big shift in my reading habits. Prior to 2017, I read mostly novels, with a few books of nonfiction thrown in.
Why the change? As an undergraduate, I majored in writing. The curriculum was quite broad—I took a bunch of lit classes, classes on non-fiction, classes on English history, etc—but my emphasis was on fiction, which meant I wrote a bunch of short stories. From the first day, I hoped to write something publishable.
In the 11 years (!) since graduating, I've carved out a decent career publishing journalism and short nonfiction, but my goal of publishing a short story has still not come true. I haven't always pursued this goal with diligence, but still, over those 11 years I've produced dozens of stories and been rejected easily 50 times.
It sounds like a lot, but 50 rejections is nothing compared to some other writers. Getting rejected is sort of a rite of passage. Everyone's got a story about rejection. The novelist Donald Westlake, to choose one example from the deep well of rejection lore, famously papered his wall with the 204 rejections he got before selling his first short story.
Anyway, I realized placing a short story in a literary journal is one of my life's longest-standing unaccomplished goals. Rather than feel sorry for myself, I figured I'd do something about it, and that meant basically taking it more seriously. So, in addition to making time to write fiction every morning, I've been reading a book of stories every month.
I take notes. I've learned a lot. I've written a lot. I've made progress, and, while I've been wrong before—more than 50 times, to be exact—I think, finally, I have some material that is worthy of publication.
I know there are a lot of folks out there with similar goals and frustrations. I also know writing is a lonely gig. But it doesn't have to be. So in that spirit, I'll be blogging here about what I've read and learned, how I've tried to apply those lessons to my own writing, and my (hopefully successful) publishing journey.
People are always asking me what I do. I tell them I'm a writer and I work from home and they typically respond by saying something like, "That must be great!" or "I wish I could set my own hours!"
I get it. Most people work in an office and their time is not theirs. I, on the other hand, can work whenever I want.
When I worked full-time from home for VICE, I don't think my schedule was too different from your average office employee's. I worked a task until it was done, taking breaks as needed. Now though, things are different. I'm working on a book proposal and some other long-term projects, with an occasional freelance assignment thrown in. If I'm not on assignment, I don't have a boss or a deadline. There's no word count I'm trying to hit. The projects are simply done when there done.
I can work on my projects in my pajamas and take breaks at my leisure. During those breaks, I can shop for dinner or run other errands. I can come back from those errands whenever I want. If I'm having trouble with my work I can drink coffee on the balcony and consider the problem or maybe take a little walk. I can have two cups of coffee. I can have five cups and extend my break for an hour. Two hours. I can decide what I really need to do is take my mind off the problem, and I can play video games at 10:30 am, you know, to take my mind off the problem. But oh shit, it's suddenly 2 pm! "Oh no," I can say to myself. "There are only really like three hours left in the work day. That's not really enough time to get anything accomplished. I might as well just stop now."
The distractions, in other words, are endless. And the upside of going into an office is that it's easier to be productive.
Feeling productive is important, not just for a person's bottom line but for his or her mental health. When I have an unproductive day, I feel bad, like I've let myself (and, more importantly, my super supportive wife) down. String a couple days of low productivity together and I'm in a funk. After a week, I'm in a kind of deep gloom where I start wondering why my career isn't going the way I want it to. IT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT WORKING ON ANYTHING, YOU IDIOT.
So, feeling good about myself is dependent, in part, on the recent progress I've made creating things. Over the last two months, I've been trying to create a system for keeping myself honest, and I think I'm finally onto something.
Here's what I do:
1) I keep a running to-do list in a notebook. I use a Leuchtturm1917 hard cover, but it doesn't really matter. You could use stapled together cocktail napkins if you wanted to. I no longer follow all the conventions of a bullet journal, but my system is close. It's a good way to stay organized and quantify progress.
2) I keep a monthly task tracker. I turn the notebook sideways and list every day in the month along one axis and, on the other, all the tasks (or habits) I hope to keep track of. When I complete one a task, I put a check mark in the corresponding box. Again, it's about quantifying progress.
3) I set aside half-hour blocks for focused, distraction-free work. This is huge. I find I'm far less productive when I'm distracted, and I'm almost always distracted.
I use the tomato timer system, where I work for 25 minutes followed by a five minute break. During these 25 minutes, I put my phone on airplane mode and, if I'm writing at the computer, close all tabs except for a thesaurus. My goal is to complete at least five hours of focused work every day: two hours writing and three researching/reading. Five hours might not sound like much, but you'll be surprised how much you can get done without distractions. And it's not like just pack it in during a work-day's remining three hours. I'm doing something then too, it's just not as, well, focused.
4) On a chart much like the one in step 2, I have a page where I put a check mark down after each tomato timer spent on research or writing.
5) I don't beat myself up when I miss my marks. As you can see, this month I've missed them more often than not. Yeah, being productive helps me feel good about myself, but agonizing over a missed tomato timer adds a level of stress I don't need. Often I miss my marks for a good reason. For example, I skipped working out for a week after a slight injury. And as I mentioned, just because I may have missed my mark one day on "focused work" doesn't mean I didn't accomplish anything that day. It probably just means I spent a lot of time working online.
It's important to recognize when I've failed to hit my marks and consider why and try and avoid that in the future. But it's also important to be flexible and to capitalize on the advantages that do come with home office. If, say, shopping for dinner during the day means I spend an extra hour with my wife on a night she gets home early, that's a trade I'm willing to make.
It's been a weird few months. I left VICE Sports in April and then almost moved back to the United States. (Oakland, CA. It would have been dope.) Instead, we opted to stay in Germany, meaning my often bewildering life as an expat continues. I've all but stopped posting to Facebook these days, but friends and family have been encouraging me to write about my experiences, and to be honest I miss publishing things all the time, as I did at VICE, so here goes: The blog is back! Let's pretend like it's 2008 again together.
I've blogged before, but I'm going to do it right this time. I'm going to keep it casual and stay consistent while not worrying too much about what "consistent" means. I am going to write some things that are long and other things that are short. I am going to write medium length posts, sometimes. I am going to try and have fun. I will write about the various projects I'm working on. (More on those later.) I will write about the goofy things that happen around the internet and the surreal things that seem to happen all the time in meatspace. I will make spelling errors. I will be me.
And you? You will probably not read this. But if you do, I hope it turns into something as fun and cathartic as I believe it can be.