I need to look in the mirror and make a confession: I don’t write short stories.
When I got back onto Twitch, live-streaming writing sessions was one of my goals. And it’s a goal I have yet to deliver on. Part of it is because I haven’t found a pool of prompts that really satisfied me, and I can’t just come up with a story idea on the spot. Another part of it is that the form really fills me with anxiety. It was something I was never good at. The only reason I wrote any short stories so far is because I was kind of expected to in grad school for our workshop sessions; it’s easier to workshop a complete ten-page story than a fifteen-page section of a larger novel your classmates haven’t read. I also think it looks more substantive on the CV to have a handful of short stories published over several years instead of one novel in the same amount of time.
But what if you can’t write short stories?
It’s not a lack of desire. It’s just not how my mind works. If you give me a topic like the first Martian colony, I will ask questions about the lives of the crew, the details of the mission, the technicalities of the base, the environment they’re living in, etc. And if there are aliens, I’m going to ask questions about those life forms, their psychology and society, their culture and way of doing things, and how they interact with human characters. These are questions I cannot answer in ten or twenty pages.
It’s a problem that’s haunted me since grad school almost a decade ago. Literally, haunted; I’ve had nights spent wondering what I’m doing wrong. And I periodically look back on a Facebook exchange I had with fellow Antioch graduate Karimah Tennyson, an amazing writer you should check out.
This was back in winter 2017, and she had the following to say:
I struggle badly with writing short stories and always come up with long novel ideas unintentionally. I’ve accepted that maybe short story telling just isn’t in my forte. It hurt because I believed that the only way I could get noticed was through short stories (as MFA programs tend to push). I was actually hurting myself as a writer by trying to fit a mold, instead of allowing myself the freedom to just write. Why push myself to fit into a mold that I know I can’t fit into? Once I accepted that I felt better about myself and my writing. I do write “shorts” but it’s usually to find a character or just responding to writing prompts. So, if you feel like you’re a novel writer, embrace it! There is nothing wrong with writing longer works as we are most likely exploring a number of ideas and we just take a longer time to get through them.
It’s hard accepting you’re not like everyone. Even with so many people telling you to trust your instinct and follow your intuition, you still want to be part of the group. I had a similar struggle when I had to accept I was a science fiction writer among dozens of nonfiction writers. But at the end of the day, if I’m kicking myself in the ass because I haven’t written a short story in a few years – and perhaps you’re in the same boat – that’s a lot of time and energy wasted only to end up back where you started, and you’ll only feel more discouraged with it than if you had spent that time doing something you really enjoyed.