If you could watch anyone who considers themself a writer at work, you would likely wonder what they were doing. Writing stuff for others to read — from books to poems to stories to online articles to technical papers to freakin’ product brochures — tends to be an extended, measured and prudent process that involves looking out the window, organizing your email, watching porn (usually actively), reading back issues of People magazine pilfered from your dermatologist’s office, working on a blog post started six months before, checking on your fantasy sports team, thinking about lunch (or dinner), napping, scrawling something “deep” in a notebook, eating cookies, going to the grocery store, wondering why you just read the latest New Yorker short story, and making lists of stuff you need to get done when you finally have time.
Somewhere in the middle of all that comes, hopefully, a bit of sustained inspiration. Maybe not. What can also happen, somehow, is an hour or two (occasionally more) of focused professional effort. Maybe work on a new piece; maybe another thousand words for that book-in-progress; maybe extended notes for an upcoming project; and occasionally quality time with a manuscript that keeps seeming almost done, just not quite. All of this, actually, is how you know you may be on to something if you keep wanting to call yourself a writer.
My favorite New Yorker cartoon shows two somewhat schlubby, balding middle-aged men at a party with one saying to the other: “A writer? Fantastic! I wish I had time to write.”
Coming to terms with time is the most important lesson every writer needs to learn. For most of us that lesson is one we experience over and over again. Writers tend to be stubborn, egotistical, and mulish. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever truly learned a meaningful lesson about this chosen calling.
No matter what, taking your time and screwing around is definitely part of the creative process. It’s a lot like surfing — at least first draft writing. You have to tread weird liquid something maybe twenty or thirty yards off-shore waiting for the right build up of energy. Sometimes you have the patience (or stupidity) to wait a very long fucking time. Sometimes you just have to take what shows up.
Also, writers are gluttons for moderate levels of self-immolation. It’s very easy to trick yourself into thinking you’ve completed something. However, when you feel like you’re done, you’ve only just begun. The key to success with any writing project is understanding the need to wait a bit. Sometimes it’s necessary to actually put those pages in a drawer or box to come back to in a few weeks, or months, or even years. I have a special desk-side tray for projects in waiting. I also have a special drawer to my right for stuff that needs to collect dust and become virtually forgotten.
More important than having time to “write” is making time to edit. That’s generally true not just for the written word but for all the arts — music, painting, film, sculpture, dance, etc. No one can perfect everything they create, but if you aren’t aware that you need to try “until your fingers bleed,” then you probably aren’t going to get very far in the arts — or any other sphere where creativity and invention are required.
After decades writing professionally on pretty much every level you can imagine (from books and magazine articles to poetry and stories to brochures and pamphlets), I continue to learn and re-learn the need for patience and prudence with what I want to post, publish, or sell — except, maybe, Twitter. Editing is never simply about changing what’s on the page, it’s also about having patience and waiting for both the page and your mind to cure properly.
Writing is one of the few professions where no matter how much you think you’ve learned, you always feel like you’re just starting out as a novice on pretty much every new project.
I’ve been working on a number of extremely short flash fiction pieces this year. I wanted to see how much time it would take to come up with, say, ten different very, very short stories. For a standard six to nine thousand word short-story, I usually require 18 to 24 months to go from first draft to a finished product ready to submit to magazines and journals. Would it take just as much time to produce ten super short pieces totaling roughly the same length? Or could I just knock them puppies out and have ’em ready to rip and roar in a matter of a few weeks?
I also wanted to see if I could write anything worthwhile and non-masturbatory that felt good enough to send to any of the 14.5 million flash fiction websites out there for possible publication.
What’s more desirable if you’re a “real” writer here in 2020 – the Year of the Microbe: completing and even publishing a 300-page novel that a few people may buy and perhaps read; or publishing a single super-short story about something nutty but poignant that can be read on the toilet on anyone’s smart phone?
Before I started trying to write flash fiction, I wanted to do my best to understand the form. However, no matter what, for over a year now I’ve hardly had any good idea about what I’m doing. My shorty-short efforts have been to essentially perform an organic experiment on myself.
I began where I always begin: reading everything that seemed meaningful at all regarding the topic at hand (flash fiction). I originally intended this research for about two weeks straight — taking copious notes and occasionally firing off the beginning of something that might or might not become a worthwhile story later down the road. But the original plan of two weeks for research turned into months. I’m still researching, to be honest, although I’ve produced quite a lot of product as well. I’ve learned a shitload. But as noted, I’ve also learned how little I really know.
And yet, here’s what I’m pretty confident of so far: Diane Williams and Lydia Davis are the Great Queens of the truncated but oddly poignant world of super short fiction moments (I want to coin the term “Stub Fiction” but I don’t know if I’m quite competent yet to do that and I do indeed recognize the denigratory nature of that term).
There are numerous other guiding lights at the stub fiction conference table: Amy Hempel, Christine Schutt, Kathryn Scanlon, and Kim Chinquee come to mind immediately. Other writers have produced amazing brief work. My favorite David Foster Wallace story, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” is only 1,124 words long (not even three pages), but packs as huge an emotional wallop as his 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Gary Lutz is also able to be extraordinarily poetic and intelligently entertaining in most of his short work (often not quite flash fiction, but almost).
And Joy Williams’ wonderful little book, Ninety-nine Stories of God, has to be the sweetest reading treat I’ve had in the past year. She usually doesn’t publish flash fiction, but boy does she show how awesome staying small can be when you have talent. Here is her story # 27 (all the titles in this book come after the text):
“You don’t get older during the time spent in church,” he told us.
He pushed a shopping cart with a few rags and a bottle of Windex in it.
We gave him a dollar
A GOOD REASON
In my humble opinion (and please note I am one of those people who finds religions of all kinds silly and painful to watch) Ninety-nine Stories of God should be in the top drawer of every hotel and motel in America.
Maybe the most intriguing stub writer I discovered in my research is Eliot Weinberger, a poet, translator, and essayist whose numerous non-fiction books of brief exegesia tend to be bursts of astoundingly esoteric information that only a genius could turn into a simple toilet read.
Another 2019 finding for me was the Nocilla Trilogy by Spanish writer Augustín Fernández Mallo, just published in English by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I am finishing up the second book now, Nocilla Experience, and generally can’t stop shaking my head in wonder. Mallo’s jump-cut totemic string of story pieces is like zipping in and out of traffic on the Internet knowing you are not so much heading towards some apocalyptic endgame as you are viewing the apocalypse attempting to propagate itself in each of the dozen or more stories Mallo presents, not the least of which is the touchstone Tree of Shoes (see the featured image for this essay) in the middle of the Nevada desert on highway 50, “the loneliest highway in America.”
My 2019 into 2020 flash fiction research and education leads me to a number of conclusions. The best of this work mixes a suspended dream state with the edge of anything meaningful, imprinting a highly liquid version of collage on the reader’s mind. The most notable stub fiction has a dangerous scrappy feel to it, like you’ve just lit up a perfect cigarette butt you found on the sidewalk. As you read you sense you are drifting towards a miniature dream world torn away from something larger. You also feel a special personal sense of having found a story that is clearly rolling with the wind down some empty asphalt pavement on the far reaches of a neighborhood in the summer and you are the only person outside.
I now have nearly one hundred flash stories in various states of undress sitting in a pile on my project table. I consider maybe a dozen of those stories “complete.” That’s what I want to bring up here. More than anything, what I’ve learned with these stubby little appendages is that, done properly, even the ones that I whipped off in a thirty minute first draft fever (and there were more than a few) require anywhere from ten to twenty full edits over an extended period of time.
The first piece I wrote was nearly 900 words long and originally titled “Silver-Whites.” It was about a husband and wife where the wife begins to pull out strands of gray hair as she finds them, dropping them wherever she’s sitting.
I was pretty happy with that story back in late January 2019 and probably went through four or five drafts over the course of a few weeks then finally showed it to a few people who also liked it. I entered it into a couple flash fiction contests that spring and it didn’t win squat. By May I’d let it slip to the bottom of the pile as I kept cranking away on little vignettes and brief melodramas, etc. When I finally came back to “Silver-Whites” in late summer, I was struck dumb at how much more work the dang thing needed. Over the course of the next several months, the same dumb-struckedness would occur four or five more times: every time I read through “Silver-Whites” I realized the need for numerous edits. This same problem also began to happen with other pieces.
By Thanksgiving I’d learned so much! That 890-word story was down to 770 words and much better than what I thought was a lock after five edits in the first few months of 2019. It is soon to be published by Bull magazine along with another piece called “Air Conditions” that took equally as much effort.
This should not be momentous learning for anyone in the now archaic field of literary fiction. And yet, I don’t think I ever really understood how important it is to feel like I’ve edited my way closer to perfection, only to stumble through an extra nine yards over the course of 6 to 8 months, by letting a simple two- or three-page whippet thing sit and sit and sit so that it can be re-worked a dozen times or more and then to sit and sit again for who knows how long.
There is something quite interesting about editing then that no writer should overlook. It’s a process for approaching perfection that is very much like the solution to an extended calculus equation approaching the number ‘1’ but never quite getting there — a strange form of infinity, like art, back when it seemed like everything mattered.