Confessions of a Reluctant Short Story Writer
I have a wretched fear of writing short stories. This isn’t one of those inexplicable fears, either (like, say, the fear of clowns – which, by the way, are freakish and scary). It all started during my first semester of college. Or maybe it was the second semester.
I wrote what turned out to be a ridiculously bad short story. So bad that, after the fact, I deleted from my hard drive and shredded all available paper copies. If it were possible, I would’ve burned it and danced around the embers.
I had a favorite English professor who (whom?) I trusted. I valued his opinion. Since I wanted to start writing more seriously, I asked him to look at my short story. (Prior to that, I was mostly a poet. And still learning. A lot.) The Damned Story (as it shall henceforth be known) was meant to be a symbolic masterpiece. (Feel free to snarf your coffee while laughing at that.) I thought about the unique meanings found in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I thought, Hey! I’m going to write a short story with a lot of sketchy symbolism.
I still cringe whenever I think about it, even though it’s been about ten years. The whole ordeal left me feeling embarrassed, as if I’d just walked into gym class, buck naked.
Why? I mean, aside from the obvious feeble attempt at something I’d never tried? The reaction of my professor was pretty jarring. Not in a constructive way, but in the way that made me feel wretched and a little ashamed.
I emailed him my story. He had agreed to read it prior. Then…a week went by. Nothing. No response. No “I got your story.” We had class, and he said nothing. So, I mustered up my courage and went down to his office to ask him about it. He told me that he hadn’t gotten it. It was a lie. A bad one. He babbled something about how he didn’t have time, anyway (so, resending it wasn’t an option). By the end of the conversation, I was ready to go cry in my Shakespeare. (Honestly, he wasn’t a bad guy or a bad professor – but this was a flaming mistake of hideous proportions.)
The next semester, I wrote another short story. It had taken me months. I didn’t want to fail again, as I had. I didn’t want the embarrassment that comes with that kind of learning, especially if there was no chance of a cushioned landing. For whatever masochistic reason, I asked that same professor to read it. He agreed.
A few days later, he informed me that it was “much better” than my last story. The story he’d claimed to never have gotten or read. And I looked at him, and said, “Yeah, you said that you never read it.” And he proceeded to turn the color of a very ripe tomato. Once again, I had that I Need to Flee feeling, but I didn’t.
The problem was this: that was the wrong way for him to handle the situation. I didn’t learn anything from it, except that my short stories were so terrible that my professor had to lie about them in order to save face. (His or mine? Who knows.) All I learned from it was that I should probably NEVER write a short story again. Ever. Upon penalty of DEATH. Or the Pain.
I didn’t for many, many years. I’m not kidding. I shunned them so spectacularly that Dwight Schrute would be proud.
Until a few years ago. I wrote one. It didn’t fill me with an all-consuming sense of shame. Sure, I knew it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but the wording in a certain paragraph wasn’t bad. And I liked a small bit of dialogue. Since then, I’ve written a lot more. Some were hopeful little duds. Some I’ve shared here. I sent one or two out as submissions.
Every time I write something, I learn something new. (I also learn by reading, but that’s another story.). No one taught me how to write a short story. Learning the basics is one thing, but mostly you learn by doing. By writing. From there, you have a basis on which to improve. A starting point.
My short stories no long make me feel panicky, sick to my stomach, or like I should be flogged by French monkeys. (What? All monkeys are French. Didn’t you know that? Also, mad props to the person who tells me what tv show that’s from. Plus, see the Eddie Izzard sketch. Le singe est sur la branche.)
The lesson here is this: be careful who you share your work with – and take criticism as it’s given. The very grave error my professor committed was failing to teach. Ironic, I know. But if he had sat me down and given me feedback – even just to point out the myriad of ways The Damned Story didn’t work, I would’ve been better off. I would’ve been enlightened. I would’ve had a starting point besides complete abject terror.
You only improve by doing. People can give you helpful feedback, but it might be wise to choose carefully. I thought I did, because I respected my professor. He wasn’t a creative writing teacher. And, as it turned out, he was a terrible liar.
Don’t be afraid of bumbling your way through things. Do what scares you. That’s good advice for life and writing. Write a character a life. Give the madwoman in the attic a voice. Remember that And sometimes, a kiss might kill you – but you don’t know, until you try.