I have a friend who is a great writer working on a novel that is just brilliant. I have heard her say multiple times that she cannot write a short story. Because she is not the kind to fish for compliments, I accept that she believes she cannot write a short story. Her competence in the long (novel) format coupled with her hesitance with short story writing makes me wonder about the relationship between the two formats.
Is writing a short story like running a 500 yard dash, and a novel like running a marathon? Are there any athletes that can do both? I don’t know of any, do you? Does the short story utilize different “writing muscles” than a novel? There have got to be similarities–plenty of writers write both great short stories and novels (e.g., J.D. Salinger, Isaac Babel, Haruki Murakami, and James Baldwin, for starters) …but then there are novelists like John Irving who admit to not writing short stories. (I read once, and I’m sorry I cannot remember where, that he thinks he writes much better novels than short stories. Having read a collection of his short stories as well as almost all his novels, I concur).
If there is a distinct relationship between the short and long formats, it’s interesting to note that MFA programs use short stories as a basis for teaching fiction. MFA programs breed short story writing. From personal experience, I’ll tell you that it’s much easier to workshop a short story than a novel, even if you are taking a workshop focused on novel writing. From the basis of short stories, students are supposed to pick up the principles of novel writing (if that is one’s goal). But is it the only way to teach the longer forms? Is short story writing the best way to teach a novel?
Both formats contain the basic craft elements of fiction: character, plot, language, setting, point of view, etc. It’s clear that examining these elements through short story writing is probably a lot less wieldy. Also, there seem to be a great deal of debut writers publishing short story collections first, and then a novel second–showing that this leap is often made. But I wonder where the gaps might be. For one, I know my gap is in the pure endurance level of writing a novel. I get distracted.
In interviews, Haruki Murakami often speaks of getting into physical shape to write his novels. He needs the fortification he says, to deal with much of what he confronts as he writes the long format. I wonder if he needs the same kind of conditioning and preparation to write his short stories?
Likewise, I wonder about writers who do write both formats. Murakami does not write short stories while he writes his novels. In doing so, I wonder if that’s an acknowledgement of how different short stories are from novels. But then there are writers who can do both concurrently.
While at a writer’s colony, I wanted to focus solely on my novel. I ended up writing a short story while there. I felt guilty about taking my attention away from the novel, but my friend and fellow resident commented, “Your novel will thank you for writing short stories.” She herself had written many short stories while writing her first novel and said it was a blessing.
As always, there seems to be no black and white rules to writing. This holds true for the relationship between short and long writing forms. Who can do one or the other? Who can do both? Can one focus on both at the same time? Just curious.