My first love was journalism: the kind of writing you get paid to do, usually. With a side of travel writing: also fairly marketable.
My second love was novel-length fiction: hard to sell, but I managed to do it. (Will lightning strike twice? Still hoping!)
In 2008/2009 I took a little detour into screenland and since then I’ve earned just a bit of money doing modestly scaled film-related work, most of it local. Where I originally imagined writing features I’ve quickly turned to writing small scripts about things like climate change. (Instead of Titanic, only melting icebergs — why can’t I stay fixed on the more lucrative track?)
But for the most part, screenwriting was just a detour, and in the last year I’ve been reading lots of short stories: Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, older classics, the latest young geniuses anointed by the New Yorker, and this week, Tobias Wolff (Our Story Begins). Wolff will be visiting Antioch in LA, where I attend a low-residency MFA. I love Wolff’s novel, Old School, and enjoyed his presentations at Kachemak Bay some time ago, but I hadn’t read many of his stories.
I used to say — almost brag — that short stories, for the most part, just weren’t my cup of tea. It was almost a relief to finish certain notable collections and realize I didn’t care for them. Why a relief? Because short stories are even harder to sell than novels. And a really great short story is no easier to write than a novel. It feels good not to pine for something beyond reach. Just as I’m glad I don’t like beer (yet another source of calories; I drink plenty of wine already) or good whiskey (expensive!) I was glad I didn’t have a burning passion to enter the downwardly mobile, intensely competitive world of the short story writer, a world only slightly more financially rewarding than the world of the poet.
Problem is, I kept reading, finding more and more examples of really good stories. They grow on you. You start finding flashes of brilliant characterization and humor and great dialogue and cleverly compressed plot and before you know it, you’re leaving the latest novel unread and cracking open a previously-ignored anthology. You’re reading a story like Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” and realizing you like it even better now than when you read it or heard it read a few years ago. You’re wondering if that plot living in your head, which you originally thought was better served by the novel or screenplay form, could be condensed into something smaller and more gem-like, and all the more artistically satisfying for its brevity — and most likely, at least coming from a late-bloomer’s ambivalent pen, unsaleable.
Groan. (Resist! Resist!)
I leave you with this link from the New Yorker, featuring author TC Boyle discussing Tobias Wolff’s work and reading from “Bullet in the Brain.“
Your turn: The best short story or story collection you’ve read lately?