Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Writer's Life: The Little Art Matters Too (Mary)

 I don’t remember exactly when I stopped writing short stories, just that it was several years ago. It isn’t as if I made a conscious decision to abandon short fiction in favor of longer works, it just...sort of faded away.

Ever since I can remember, as a tiny child I would make up stories in my head and then act them out in my play (with my Yorkie Terrier, Ezmerelda, as my co-star and trusty sidekick). When I learned to read and write, I wrote and illustrated picture books. When things scared or upset me, I processed them through story. (I can recall one particularly traumatizing event, when a coyote snatched one of our geese from the yard in broad daylight and ended up killing her—that got a multi-page spread in my art and writing notebook.)

Image Source: Pixabay.com


Somewhere around age eleven or so I separated my drawing and writing from each other. Drawing went into a sketchbook, and writing suddenly took on more life as I began writing a collection of short stories that I called “legends” (I don’t know if I actually knew the technical term “short story” at that time or not). I discovered poetry around the same time, and very few nights went by when I wasn’t using my little sister’s night light to scribble late into the night.

I was incredibly prolific during that time, churning out at least one or two new stories and/or poems every week, plus countless journal entries.

Oddly enough, I had no clue at that point that I was a writer. I unconsciously assumed that everyone had stories constantly growing and developing in their heads, that everyone mentally narrated their day-to-day lives in third person, that everyone filled life’s little delays and in-between times with planning out new plots and characters and descriptions. I was utterly unaware that what I was doing was unusual in any way.

I was fourteen when I had what was, for me, a world-shaking revelation: My newest story idea was too big to be a short story—it was a book. And I was going to write it, which meant...that I was a writer!

That was a major turning point in my creative journey. From that moment forward I began calling myself a writer—something I had never done before—and threw myself with wild abandon into my new book-sized project.

One book quickly grew into a slew of ideas. Now that I was writing books-length stories, the ideas came faster than I could finish them, and I started developing a backlog.

Finishing my first book brought with it the most incredible high I think I’ve ever experienced in my entire life—far beyond anything I got from finishing any of my short works—and I was hard at work on the sequel within six hours.

As one would expect of the work of a fourteen-year-old, those first books were utter garbage. But I was learning, growing, developing my craft, and loving it, and that was what mattered.

I still wrote short stories and poetry on occasion—in fact the first work I ever published, at age nineteen, was a poem—and I published quite a few of them over the next few years. But gradually, I thought of myself more and more as a “novelist,” rather than just a “writer” or “author.” I began assuming that more and more of the story ideas that came to me were destined to be novels one day, which meant that of course I couldn’t write them just yet, I would have to wait until I worked my way through the ever-growing list of story ideas that came before it. The list of unwritten ideas got bigger and bigger, and the percentage of ideas that were actually getting written got smaller and smaller.

Then late last year, I was invited to contribute to a Christmas anthology that I was incredibly excited about. When I sat down to figure out what to write, I had a sudden realization: I hadn’t written a short story in years.

Somewhere along the way, I had stopped thinking of short stories as mattering or being valuable. I had developed the mindset that writing an idea as a short story was somehow “wasting” it, or not giving it everything it deserved—that novels were somehow more valuable in terms of artistic merit than short stories. That novels were serious literature, written by serious authors, while short stories were...something less.

Of course, at an intellectual level I absolutely knew this to be untrue. Who would make the argument that a tiny scrap of vellum bearing a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci is worthless simply because it isn’t Mona Lisa? Or that Michelangelo’s David is less important than the tomb of Pope Julius II, just because it’s smaller? Or that Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories or the Sherlock Holmes collection don’t matter because the stories aren’t novel-length?

No one with a grain of sense would argue that, and I knew that.

But somehow, somewhere along the journey, in my desperate pursuit of becoming a “serious” writer, I had let myself internalize the idea that shorter = less valuable, less serious.

So as I planned and wrote my story for the Christmas anthology, I decided to change that.

Since the beginning of 2021, I’ve published one short story and written two more, both of which have been submitted for consideration to different magazines, as of this writing. My main writing project is still a novel, but I’m slowly retraining my brain to allow for the possibilities of short stories, not just novels, whenever a new idea pops up. Those ideas don’t have to languish on a back burner for years until I can make them into novels—they can go out into the world as short stories and still matter.

I long ago made my peace with the fact that I will be leaving many, many ideas behind me, unfinished, when I die. But maybe now that I’m letting go of my weird subconscious need to turn everything into a novel, now that I’m remembering that small works are important too, maybe that number can be a little smaller.

And if you are a writer who maybe doesn’t feel like you deserve to taken seriously as such, because you’ve only written or published short works, rather than a novel so far—remember that the little art matters too.

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