My Year of the Short Story (aka, Reading What I Write)

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been reading a lot of books on writing. Of course, every writing book you read tells you to read. It tells you to read and study what you’re reading so that you can emulate the writing that you read (still with me?). I’ve even read some writing advice that tells you to find a passage or story that you really admire, something similar to what you hope to write, and to type it out. Repeatedly. The theory is that the typing the words, the cadence and style and rhythm, will seep into your subconscious while you’re typing, teaching you how to structure and pace your writing in a similar way.

While I’ve not attempted that particular strategy, I have tried to be more of a “writer-reader” when I’m reading. Normally, I’m more of a “get lost in what I’m reading” reader. If it’s something I enjoy reading (and I try to avoid reading things that I don’t… obviously), then I end up losing myself and I don’t often think of what I’m reading as “writing.” I forget to pay attention to structure and character development and imagery. I don’t observe ideas about how to integrate similar patterns in my own writing. I just don’t read that way. But I’m trying to change that a bit.

My first step in trying to read more like a writer has been shifting a bit in what I read sometimes. My reading interests over the past couple years had shifted toward a lot of YA literature and a smattering of dystopian/science fiction works. When I started thinking of how to be a “writer-reader,” I realized that I probably needed to start reading what I want to write. And the truth of the matter is, I have zero interest in writing YA literature or dystopian/science fiction lit. I just don’t. I don’t know if I’ll always feel that way, but right now, that’s not what I write. Even more, I haven’t had any interest in writing a novel. Not at all. I used to think there was something wrong with that. That I couldn’t be a “writer” if I didn’t aspire to write a novel—to write the Great American Novel. But I’ve started to be okay with not having that desire. In fact, the summer workshop instructor last year said he was in the same boat. He’s simply a short story writer. That’s what he is, and he’s okay with that. He said that he tried to write a novel once and his agent smiled and laughed and said, “Oh, dear. This isn’t a novel.” (in a completely loving way). So, he’s a short story writer. And that is totally okay. (Case in point: Alice Munro. Period.)

I used to read short stories like crazy. I used to seek out new short story collections and the “Best of” compilations every year. I scoped out anthologies on Amazon or in Barnes and Noble like a madwoman. I loved the form so much. But then, during graduate school, I became immersed in so much novel reading that I lost touch with my short story love. Then, I taught a course on the American short story and it became so much (grueling) work teaching the form that I pulled away from it entirely. In recent years, my reading trend has leaned in the direction of “escape” (hence, the sci-fi, YA interest). I was reading to explore worlds as far removed from my own as possible, which is fun and enjoyable.

But not very helpful to my writing.

After all, I write what I know. I should also be reading what I know. Or at least reading what I want to write.

So, I vowed to start reading more short stories in 2014. Initially, I was going to pledge to read only short stories in 2014, but that felt a little too obligatory and forced. Instead, I just approached the year with the goal of reading more short stories, getting back to what I used to love. My tentative goal was to just make sure I’m reading more short stories than non-short stories for the year overall. And I’m doing it! At this point, I’ve read twelve books (yes! 12!) so far this year, and of them, seven have been short story collections. Go me!

I’ve discovered that I fly right through short story collection. Without chapters to give me a stopping point, I tend to want to finish an entire story in one sitting. Sometimes this is easily done (some short stories are short, after all), and other times, it doesn’t work out (some short stories are long, and really should be called novellas, but I digress). But, overall, the collections have only been taking me a handful of days to read, and I’m starting to enjoy a compulsion for them again. I have a stack of “to be read” books on my nightstand, and of them, I’m picking up the collections over the novels every time.

The only concern I have with this speed of reading is that I’m not going to be able to remember the collections, or individual stories, well. Which, historically, has driven me nuts. There have been times where I can vaguely recollect the plot line of a short story I read at some point in time, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember what it was called, where I read it, or who wrote it. Do you know how virtually impossible it is to locate a single short story with little-to-no information? So, I know that I’m going to have some of those struggles in the future, which is why I’m planning to try to review (in even a limited capacity) and document each collection I read. I’m hopeful that I stick with this, but we’ll see.

Here’s to my “Year of the Short Story”!

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