11 February 2010

Short Stories, or I Have Found My Medium

I'm a terrible writer of fiction. I used to play at it a lot in high school and early college, but then I got a life and didn't need to live inside my fiction. I did a creative writing class in high school, which was quite a good experience, and made me feel very professional - revising, editing, workshopping, drafting, plotting. It was in that class that I discovered ee cummings, so it was definitely worthwhile, even though my writing remained (remains) pretty dreadful.

I have an amazing storehouse of words on hand, and have read a lot from a lot of the best writers in English (or translated in English - my dream is to learn enough Russian to read Dostoevsky in the original), so I can patch together sentences and paragraphs relatively well - and my academic writing is really not bad at all. I'm no Lee Edelman (oh, how I wish I could write theory like Lee Edelman!!), but I'm not too shabby.

But lately, fiction has been beckoning to me from a sneaky, unexpected quarter: short stories.

I have never been a fan of short fiction, especially. I read - and quite liked - Stephen King's collections of novellas and short stories (Nightmares and Dreamscapes in particular is one of my favorite collections), and of course I've read and loved Diana Wynne Jones's shorter fiction. But I've been largely unmoved by short stories for most of my life.

But early on in January, I picked up Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes, which is five novellas loosely linked by a common theme of music and/or performance. Ishiguro has become, in a few short weeks, one of my favorite contemporary writers; he's brilliant. Utterly, beautifully brilliant.

When I finished Nocturnes, I felt a little dazed and dazzled, and very much wished I'd written it myself. The daze and dazzle - the real surprise - was in the discovery that one could write those kinds of stories, the kinds of stories I'd always wanted to write. Quiet, dreamy, contained. Reflecting moments rather than plotting stories - but of course every moment is a story, or is part of one. It's rather silly of me - a person with rather extensive experience in literature - to not have realized that such writing was possible. I simply assumed there was no place for it, no outlet, no desire. Or that it somehow couldn't exist.

Ishiguro proved me wrong.
Reading a book I wish I'd written is a vexing experience. It hasn't happened to me in a very, very long time.

Ishiguro prompted me to think again about short stories - about reading them, certainly, but about how they work, what they can do, whether I could write them. I doubt I can - as I say, I'm a pretty awful fictioneer. It all comes out as memoir or autobiography or worse, some kind of diaristic blithering.

So last week, before the snow, I came across (and grabbed) a copy of the collected short stories of Katherine Mansfield, who I have never read, but who crops up from time to time in critical essays - especially, if I am remembering correctly, in some of the narrative theory I used to read. She's wonderful, absolutely wonderful, in a way not terribly unlike Ishiguro - the dreamy moment.  And she writes some shockingly gruesome things about children, which delights me to no end. I do not think Katherine Mansfield loved children.

But as I read, I keep thinking "I could do this!" Not as well as she does, not well at all, but I could actually do it. I could accomplish the writing of a short story.
Of course, I shouldn't be attempting any more projects, especially not any new oddball ones like short story writing. I should, if I write at all, be writing my dissertation.

It is comforting and intriguing and a tiny bit exciting, though, to think that I have figured out something as unexpected as this. To daydream a little bit of writing stories, of sitting in a window while the sun shines in, rattling away on my little computer, spinning little webs of words that actually do something.

I have found my medium.
Somehow, that's almost as good as actually creating something in it.

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