who the heck knows anything, anyway

Monday, January 23, 2012


Back in middle and high school, I was on swim teams. I was never Year Round Good*, but I was a top performer in my dinky high school and on my summer swim team. I started as a long distance swimmer when I was little, and then some of my coaches groomed me for sprinting. I loved the shit out of sprinting, and I was pretty great at it. Then, the summer before my senior year of high school, my coach (who is probably undeserving of most of the flaming hatred I sustained against him for years) decided to make me do both long distance and sprinting. This was a terrible idea. Sprinting and long distance swimming demand very different things from muscles, and I gained three seconds** in my sprint times because my body didn't know how to do both. Furious, my seventeen-year-old self got into an exceptionally loud fight with my coach (made worse because he found my anger amusing) and quit swimming. It was not my proudest moment, but the fight is not particularly relevant.

Don't you love an extended anecdotal metaphor?

Writing is similar to swimming. Literary fiction is split into two camps***: the Short Story and the Novel. They require the use of very different muscles. The first demands brevity, quick action, and particular revelations of character that throw you into a life (or set of lives) that is quickly familiar without simply being a mass of lists. The latter allows for the slow-reveal, lets you fall in love (or hate) with characters, does not require a climactic BANG to occur within a few short pages.

I'm the kind of girl who likes to write (and read) looooong stuff. My grad school applications all distinctly said that my goal in pursuing a degree is to be a novelist--not a short story writer, not a teacher, not a playwright or poet, not even a "writer" in general: a novelist. I like to take some time describing the world, put meat on my characters' bones, embark, myself, on an adventure that'll last a while and make me sad to say goodbye. It was only about a year and a half ago that I learned to appreciate the short story. Before then, I found them to be dull, rushed, and emotionally alienating.

The first few I read that year and a half ago were terrifying, bleak (seriously, so much murder and cancer), aloof, yet written with poise and undeniable rhythm, and I was finally able to appreciate how they worked. I wrote my first true short story, and it was not terrible. I read more short stories, and then I wrote a second, which was jarringly better--I sat staring at my computer, amazed by what I was suddenly capable of completing.**** (Hilariously, I couldn't even keep it under twenty pages--I had been aiming, at the outset, for three).

Now here we are, most grad school applications turned in over a month ago, and I haven't started a new story yet. I had a few ideas, ones that sounded pretty promising, but I couldn't find the spark they needed for life. Then, today, I got my first graduate school rejection (from the Michener Center), and I felt like writing. Not sure what I feel like writing, but it's there; my brain is buzzing with it.

Now for the payoff of all this rambling:

Though the roles in my swimming and writing life are inverted--swim short, write long--they possess oh-so-obvious parallels: practice of one form disturbs the advance of the other. Perhaps once I'm a wizened old pro I can kick out short stories between novels, but I'm beginning to worry that my long-writing muscles have been neglected in favor of the style most preferred (and taught) by MFA programs. I read a great piece in Poets & Writers ("A Novel Approach" by John Stazinski, P&W Jan/Feb 2012) on this very issue, and it helped convince me I made the right choice in telling grad schools up front in my personal statement that I intend to pursue novels. What I need to do is practice my long-distance writing, and if I get into grad school, I can't let any amount of rotating-member workshops discourage me. Short stories are great, but they aren't what I want to do; my working on them is akin to a doctor who wants to specialize in otolaryngology spending years trying to hone her mastery of anteater obstetrics. Anteater obstetrics is probably super fascinating, and anteaters definitely have ears, noses, and throats, but they are not humans and have an entirely different anatomy and also you don't have babies through the nose, so that is just entirely irrelevant.

My stupidly long point is this: It's intimidating to just sit down, think to yourself "I feel like writing today," and then realize that you probably should just frickin' start on a novel already. The ideas have been there for years, sitting in drawers and old computer hard drives, waiting. But can you do that? In this awful, competitive economy that demands constant submission*****, is it a smart decision to turn away from short stories (and therefore, ahem, any prospect of money-making) and run in the opposite direction?

And once I figure that out, I can decide if I even have an idea worth novel amounts of time. HA. ISN'T IT GREAT? Also, the whole Michener thing was kind of a bummer, but it's a bit like having a story rejected by the New Yorker at this point in my career--it would have been amazing, perhaps downright astonishing, but I can't say I'm all that surprised. Plus, I'm bummed enough about potentially having to leave the Pacific NW--the whole not-having-to-move-to-Austin thing is [not-so] secretly a bit of a relief.

Ooh! Ooh! And I got some new books. I'm currently reading West of Here by Jonathan Evison. It was a bit of an impulse buy based on the plot description, and I'm only a few chapters into it, but it's great so far! Granted, I've been burned before, but I'm gonna go ahead and get my hopes up that it might continue to be good.

Glass half full, guys. Bam.

*I probably could have been, but joining year round swim team was widely known amongst the Summer Swim Team crowd as total betrayal. They were "the enemy," and whenever one of their ranks doubled up and did summer swim team, too, everyone judged them really unfairly. 
**an INFINITE number when you're sprinting 50 yards of freestyle.
***Novellas are not included. This is not to say that the stories considered to be novellas are inconsequential, rather I think those stories could be either short stories or novels and are missing something that would push them in either direction. Call it a long short story or a very short novel. Pedro Paramo is hella short for a novel, but I don't think anyone in their right mind would refer to it as a novella. Ugh, writing politics!
**** I'm shopping that story around, now. It's still only my sophomore effort, so I still have quite a ways to improve, but I'm still allowing myself to feel proud of it. 
*****You like what I did there? You get it? It's, like, submitting stories and submitting to the man at the same time. I know, I know: I'm a genius.