In the introduction to Theodora Goss’s short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, Terri Windling quotes Goss’s discussion of literature as a series of countries and border crossings:
As a student studying literature, I was told there were borders indeed: national (English, American, colonial), temporal (Romantic, Victorian, Modern), generic (fantastic, realistic). Some countries (the novel) you could travel to readily. The drinking water was safe, no immunizations were required. For some countries (the gothic), there was a travel advisory. The hotels were not up to standard; the trains would not run on time. Some countries (the romance) one did not visit except as an anthropologist, to observe the strange behavior of its inhabitants. And there were border guards (although they were called professors), to examine your travel papers as carefully as a man in an olive uniform with a red star on the cap. They could not stop you from crossing the border, but they would tell you what had been left out of your luggage, what was superfluous. Why the journey was a terrible idea in the first place. (Goss XII-XIII)
BTW I’m only partway through In the Forest of Forgetting but so far it’s shaping up to be excellent.
I was struck by this quote not only because it is beautiful, inciteful, and witty, but also because this past week I was packing my luggage for a year abroad and at the same time having some literary border-crossing troubles of my own.
I recently wrote a short story that I worked really hard on and loved to pieces. (Note: Loving your own first drafts to pieces is usually not such a good idea. I do not recommend.) So, having completed this story, I asked some friends for critiques, and I was told that this was not a short story. This story was a novel, trying—and failing—to be a short story. Now, had I listened to the people I’d originally discussed this idea with—they thought it would work better as a novel too—I wouldn’t have landed myself in this predicament. But I’ve had too many short stories turn into novels that I still haven’t written yet, and I loved this idea. I wanted to write a short story, too, so I did, and now I had feedback I didn’t want to hear.
But of course, I did hear it, and since it jived with feedback I’d already received, I thought that I better at least consider it. And the more I considered it, the happier I became with the idea of this story as a novel. I could really explore the world, the characters and their motivations, the plot. I could dive into it in a way I really couldn’t do successfully in a short story. In a novel, I could keep all the intertwined plot lines I already had, whereas if I insisted on writing a short story, in order for it to really work I would have to dissect the plot lines and only focus on one, maybe one and a half. All of this seemed like strong reasons to make this short story a novel, so I set the draft I had aside and added it to my beist of unwritten novel ideas with only a little regret. The only problem was, I also had all these ideas for related short stories, and before I knew it, they had turned into novels too, and I was out of short story ideas.
Clearly, there is a lesson here that I understand in principle but still haven’t really learned: Short stories are not simply shorter novels. Short stories and novels are very different beasts.
Which brings me back to my thoughts on literature as countries and my struggles with packing. As I was packing this weekend—deciding what to bring and what to leave behind, what was necessary, what I would like to have, and what I could do without—I realized that in a way, planning a project is similar to packing for a trip. If you’re going away for a weekend or an overnight, you’re going to pack less than if you’re going away for a week or a month or a year. Similarly, if you’re writing a piece of flash fiction or a short story, you don’t need—and shouldn’t have—as much plot, as many characters, and as much information in general as you would include if you were writing a novel. When you’re packing for a year abroad, you’re not just bringing clothes and a swim suit and a few toiletries. You’re bringing clothes, some toiletries to start you out (but you’re planning to get more when you’re over there), your electronic devices like a computer or an iPod (though maybe you’ve left your phone behind), lots of books, and anything that is personally important to you (though not necessarily of much use). When you’re planning a novel, you need characters and plot and lots of room for those characters to develop, and don’t forget all that backstory that has gotten your characters to this point. A novel can have multiple plot lines and subplots and character arcs, but a short story can really only have a few characters, one plot and one character arc, and limited backstory. You can’t pack a novel into a short story, just like you can’t pack for a year when you’re really only going away for a week.
It sounds ridiculously obvious when I say it like that, but as I said, it’s a lesson that I feel I understand in principle but am only just beginning to really learn in that way that will make my writing better. I started out writing novels (bad ones, it’s true, but novels nonetheless). So I naturally think big, and it’s an effort for me to pare something down to the size of a short story, but effort or not, I still love it. And if packing for Italy has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that some suitcases just aren’t built to hold certain things, and you can’t always fit everything you want into the bag, and you can’t force it. You can sacrifice the thing you want to bring, or you can pay the price of bringing a larger bag, but whatever choice you make, if the story is important enough for you to write it, you’ll find the bag that fits best so you can have the trip of a lifetime.
Now, back to packing! Next stop Italy!