The Problem of the Story
Claire published a short story in The Walrus. Her first ever! At age 50! Never too late for firsts, my friends. To publish your first anything.
The publication of something new often stimulates reflection in a writer. What we learned from writing it, at the very least. I love to chat with Claire about writing (or really anything) so I tracked her down this morning, to congratulate her and see if she had any lessons to share.
I sat on the back porch and texted with her. The dog was waiting for his walk. There’s been wildfires here for weeks and the air has been thick with smoke and this kind of plastic scent, too. My clothes smell of it, and the dog’s fur, too. There have been wildfires in Canada, too, where Claire lives. But we didn’t talk about that. We talked about writing instead.
I told her I liked it so much that she had published her first short story at the age of 50. Claire said lately she was focusing on getting better as a writer, rather than thinking about where she’s at in her career. “It’s been the best thing,” she said. “It means I’m loving sitting down to write every day.”
She spends a lot of time in the book-length milieu, so how had it felt to write something so short? “I had no idea what to do with less length,” she said. This intrigued me.
Obviously books are about being precise, of course. If we want to keep people turning the pages, we have to be precise with our structure and our plot points. But we have so much room to go on and on—it’s really luxurious, writing a book. Almost self-indulgent. We’ve got hundreds of pages to just whinge on about whatever we like. In a way, if you can write appealing prose, you only have to make a point every so often. (I do mean really appealing prose, however.)
These shorter pieces, though, you’ve really got to nail it, or the piece simply won’t work. You have to land the plane so quickly there’s barely anytime for ascent let alone loop-the-loops — compared to a long-form project, anyway. They exist, in part, to solve a particular problem, even if the problem is just the form itself.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I like writing these letters to all of you. They really scratch that itch of wanting the challenge of a shorter form piece as I work on my longer works of fiction quietly, over the span of years. I think about what I want to say in the letter, who I want to say it to, perhaps what questions I might want the reader of the letter to ask themselves after they’re done reading it. Like any piece of writing, the way the letter is received is not in our control. But I try to land this plane as best I can. Each time I reach out to say hello.
Anyway, Claire’s piece is lovely. She sent it this morning and I read it after I walked the dog. Even in this polluted air, it’s good to walk the dog. It’s cooled off finally. He’s really energetic and a little bit of a rascal. Keeps breaking into the neighbor’s yard and I have to lure him home through the fence with a treat. I try and walk him till he’s tired. And today I got to come home afterward and put up my feet and read Claire’s very first published short story.
The story made me cry. I was thinking it would from the first paragraph and that it was just a question of when it would happen. That was the problem of the story waiting to be solved. At least for this reader.
Sending you all love,
p.s. This week’s donation went to Off the Grid.