As the sun recedes over the horizon, a boy and a girl stand on the Brooklyn Bridge. They aren't really sure what they're looking for -- love, connection, a happy ending? Their subsequent walk doesn't help them discover whatever it is. At the end, neither finds what they're looking for. The girl leaves forever. The boy realizes that the trauma of death has destroyed his life.
There had been several projects that took up my attention and energy last winter, but none so significant as the storyline that made up this one ten-page story. The two main characters Noah and Arden came together over an infinity of moments, even before I knew their names. They were born in a Shakespeare class I took last summer. I jotted my memories of them in coffeeshops and libraries, living room tables and park benches. I thought about them while walking, while listening to “Cigarette Daydreams.” Their trauma filled and emptied me at the same time.
Yet Noah and Arden also eluded me. I wasn’t sure if they were supposed to be together or if their one moment of meeting wasn’t really the point of the story at all. In the writing process, I faced so much conflict with myself. Personal issues had interfered with my ability to write. I’d never felt mental anguish like this.
The questions kept haunting me. Will my work ever be good enough? Is it “literary”? Does it matter at all? The first time you ever have someone really question your writing, it may tear you up. Every time you try to write, this person is in your head reminding you how small you are. It took me months to realize that these questions only had two answers: yes or no. By asking myself these close-minded questions, I’d closed off the possibility for hope to seep in beyond the doubt.
Despite this realization, I was still haunted by what I thought my writing should be. Literary? What did that mean?
Yet I found assurance in several things. First of all the thousands of writers out there sharing my concerns. When I was younger, I didn’t like the idea of so many writers being in the world. I thought that if I didn’t meet any of them then I could always feel special and important while writing. But meeting fellow writers actually empowers us more, showing us we’re not alone. Reminding us that the labels we place on our work can sometimes be damaging and that we’re all a little afraid sometimes.
“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
― Lorrie Moore
I also found hope in the fact that I don’t have to be the most “literary” writer out there. I don’t even know if that’s a thing. If that’s anyone’s goal, don’t you think that could be a problem? When you have the goal of trying to be “literary” or the best, it’s damaging. It takes over your happiness and takes away from the purpose we find in writing.
Too often, when we start writing short stories, we think we have to make something somewhat resembling “The Dead” or “Hills Like White Elephants” or some other dead writer’s work that we had to read in school. While it’s great to have models to look at, we’re setting ourselves up for failure if we try too hard to directly emulate them or erase our voices as we try to become more like the authors we so admire.
Here’s the thing: there are proven ways to write brilliant short stories and some of the most beloved stories of all time endure because they so brilliantly evoke emotion, the mind, or the human experience. There are ways to get better, too. Workshops, writer friends, editors, books, and the world itself can help us in this quest.
Yet we have to keep in mind the bare and simple fact that we aren’t the writers we admire. You may have read before that we are the sum of all our reading– that the writing we do is ultimately influenced by the books we digested and committed to our hearts. But ultimately, your only competition should be you.
When we try to place the term “literary” onto our short stories, it can cause us pain and frustration. Either we try to squeeze our writing into the narrow tube we perceive as literature or we simply feel like we’ll never be up to the challenge so we give up.
Both of these are the wrong approaches. What we really need to do is write beyond the cliches, the stereotypes, the commonalities. Write the best way you know. Rediscover the meanings of metaphors. Then edit. When you feel like you’ve done everything you can, get someone else to read it too even if this means hiring an editor. Spend time away from it. Work on other things. Come back to it later.
When you’re finally ready, send it along and take that chance.
After completing six drafts on my short story and working with an editor to get my work in top shape, I took a chance. When I submitted my short story to Writer’s Edit this January, I never actually thought I’d get an email from the editors just two months later saying that I’d been shortlisted for publication in their third and final Kindling Anthology. I couldn’t believe it. After undergoing the editing process, they approved my story for publication. The anthology releases this November.
Although I had doubts, I submitted to a publication that I had sincere interest in. While we may not always hear the response we wish for in response to our writing, sometimes we do get that gratifying response that tells us that all the work was worth it. The terminology you place on that final product? Inconsequential, as long as you keep writing.