When I read I almost always pick up something longer. I subscribe to magazines and journals but rarely read them. I have read plenty of short stories and essays, but I read them here and there, one at a time. I re-read the ones I really love, because I tend to find a way to feed them to my students.
A dear writer-friend gifted me with a subscription to One Story a while back and though I wanted to read them, the pile just grew higher and higher over the past two years.
Nothing like spending twenty three days as the passenger in a car to encourage binge reading. And did I binge!
I didn’t read only short stories, but I did read a lot of them. I read the sixteen One Stories that had piled up and I read half of the Best American Short Stories of 2011.
I expected to pick up nuances of structure and style. That’s what I keep a pencil handy for when I read. It’s what I didn’t expect that I want to talk about here.
I read over twenty different stories in the span of a few weeks. You don’t get that scope of style and structure and voice when reading books. Especially if you read as slow and careful as I do. What happened from reading that range of stories? From seeing how many ways there are to approach any tale?
I feel empowered to write what I want to write. All those rules about showing versus telling and adverbs and scene versus summary are scaffolds put in place for novice writers, like the five paragraph essay, and the more I think about these rules and structures, the more I wonder if in the end teaching them does more harm than good.
There are no rules in writing fiction. There is only the story. You’ve got to tell it however you can and probably not everyone will love the way you tell it.
A short story is somewhere between a poem and a novel in density of language, often leaning more toward the poetic. So much has to be accomplished in so short a span of pages that every word truly does count. There were sentences in those stories that I wanted to eat slowly with a knife and fork, bite by bite, licking my lips in between.
I noticed them more than I do when I read longer works and have to worry about enduring hundreds of pages, tracking a longer sequence of events.
Binging on short stories reminded me how important slow writing and editing are, how patient we must be to produce our best work.
I love writing short stories and short pieces and responses to prompts and I am reminded through my binging how it feeds my writing overall. Even if they are never used. They are practice for the mind, like running is for the body.