Short Story, Long Revision

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a short story takes less time to write than a novel. With apologies to Jane Austen, it’s true that certain stories take a long time to write. The short story is about brevity, compression, the tight frame—as V.S. Pritchett says, “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”

This economy usually results in swift composition. Ray Bradbury famously wrote a story each week, beginning on Monday with a first draft and finishing by Saturday. Michael Chabon described writing the elegiac “Along the Frontage Road” in one sitting after listening to “The Carpet Crawlers” by Genesis. Alice Munro has said she came to story writing when, as a mother of young children, she needed a form that could be tackled in the space of one or two months. And yet, there are instances where theory and practice diverge and the writer is faced with something else, a rogue version that requires more than the customary weeks or months.

Currently, I’m back at work on a story I began writing just before the start of the millennium. The original file predates my current laptop, as well as the one before it, and is likely buried in the hard drive of a much beloved IBM 5150 now in storage. Recounting this story’s history is like recounting a version of my own—it was there when I first began writing, at workshops and conferences. It was there when I got married and when we had our daughter. It has been with me in innumerable drafts with perhaps a dozen titles in which its character inhabits different eras and is endowed with different habits, problems and goals. The story has remained in progress while others were drafted, revised and finished. It went with me to graduate school where it was introduced to my advisers and met further development, and I’ve been at work on it since.

I’d like to say the story’s nearly done, but I know better. It’s been a long haul, dreaming this character into existence, and the closer I get to the emotional center, the more careful I’ve become about unequivocal statements. Why don’t I give up, you might ask? Why not move on, and let this story to live out eternity in the hard drive alongside others that didn’t make it? That is, after all, the occupational hazard of writing stories. Some just don’t work out. Except somewhere in the course of this long revision, and without fully knowing why, I became committed to my character, and the idea of dropping his story into a folder labeled Unfinished was unthinkable.

Some revisions are more difficult than others. Characters can throw up barriers. Situations once thought promising reveal serious pitfalls. The story’s form can raise questions that only questions of form can answer. Moreover, the author must devise the solutions to these problems, and each is unique. Here’s Charles D’Ambrosio, on revising “The High Divide” (from his 2006 collection, The Dead Fish Museum):

I worked on it off and on for ten years, taking it out, fooling with it, putting it away. Originally I didn’t use quotation marks. All the dialogue was reported by the narrator, in big blocks of prose. Then I broke the dialogue out and put quotes around it but it sounded wrong –because it was written to sound like a kid’s memory of what he heard, not actual dialogue.

Those kinds of technical problems involve a certain trial and error approach, and the testing can take time. Stuart Dybek once said he spent six weeks figuring out how to work a ghost into a story only to abandon the idea after it proved unsatisfactory.

ZZ Packer, author of the collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2004), notes that short story revision often entails technical matters, but a more difficult hurdle is the realization of character:

I’m trying to find my way into the story, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. . . it really becomes a challenge for me because I’m dealing so much with mystery. . . when you’re a kid, you ask all these questions all the time, What is God, is He a woman, what does this mean, what is life about, or whatever — and at some point, we all tend to stop asking those questions. But as a writer, you’re kind of asking yourself questions similar to that all the time. . .Why is this character great, what does her life mean, and why does she continue to make me think? It’s a very existential question. It is very harrowing to deal with revision on that level.

The fact is, knowing a character at this depth takes time. Just as in real life relationships, where a deep understanding is achieved through conversations, shared intimacies and lived experience, an author’s relationship with her character is formed over time, through the writing that exposes that character’s thoughts and feelings.

Story writer and novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, has described her writing process as primarily one of revision: “It seems as if everything I’ve ever written has gone through literally hundreds of drafts.” The stories in her 2008 collection, Unaccustomed Earth, were revised over several years. Yet for Lahiri, how the stories take shape is not always clear:

I think about what’s going to happen, and how it’s going to happen, and the pace. But I think if I stop to think about it in an abstract sense, I feel very daunted. I just try to enter into the story and feel my way through it. It’s a very murky, intuitive way of going about it.

Writing stories may be one of the few endeavors in which murkiness is a tool. Not knowing is both necessary and arduous, yet crucial to the process of discovery. This requires a certain faith—the writer’s belief that with time, the vague sensations that triggered the story will develop into a character and situation. Tobias Wolff has said that the difficulty of the short story is its own reward—its achievement akin to “working a miracle, making life where there was none.”

This process of long revision has had no straightforward route. Twelve years into this story, I think of other stories that emerged with relative ease, and these seem all the more miraculous now. In the case of this long revision, I know better than to wish it otherwise, since its writing has taught me things the other stories didn’t—patience, an open mind, the ability to cultivate a healthy dose of detachment. Still, I can’t help but look forward to the day all the questions are  resolved, and I drop the file into that bright yellow folder labeled Finished.



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