|David Ebenbach is the author of seven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. He lives with his family in Washington, DC, where he teaches Creative Writing at Georgetown University. Find out more about him at www.davidebenbach.com, and on Twitter.|
Writers Aren't Who They Think They Are
Being a writer means being wrong a lot of the time. Especially when it comes to your ideas about yourself.
Back in 2012 I wrote a piece for Glimmer Train’s newsletter called "Turquoise Shoes: Short Stories Care About the Little Things"—and a lot of that piece still rings true for me. For example, short stories do care about the little things. And I still believe in my larger argument, which was this: "What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That's why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything: the characters; their problems and promise; the significance of the events; human nature, more generally; the past, the present, and the future."
That’s all true, as far as I can tell.
So, if I still believe all that stuff, where did I go wrong? Whenever I started talking about me. Specifically: "I seem to be a short-story guy rather than a novel guy."
I came to this conclusion (about being a short-story guy) through hard experience; in the twenty-two years before 2012 I had written seven novels, all of them unpublished, all of them bad. And in that same period I had written a bunch of short stories that I liked, that I felt were not bad. As it happened, 2012 was the year that my second short story collection came into print.
The fact is that I have gradually gotten sort of defensive about stories, because so many writers think of them as practice for "the real thing": novels. So I wrote this article for Glimmer Train talking about how novels weren’t any better than short stories, or worse, either; instead, novels and short stories were two different but equally good forms, and one form might be better suited to me than the other, and there was no shame in that. Who was I? A short-story guy, dammit.
Well, this year my novel Miss Portland (my eighth attempt at the form) was published. And not only do I like this book—I still think about the main character, Zoe, and wonder how she’s doing now—I also felt reasonably natural writing it, once I figured out that a novel was happening. I mean, Miss Portland surprised me—I thought I was writing a short story, but then, as I worked, I discovered that this particular narrative needed more space. In my own words, "you can only fully understand the climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it." Once I realized that, I knew it couldn’t be a short story. But I cared about the story, so I just went with it, and took the narrative where it needed to go.
So much for being a dyed-in-the-wool short-story guy.
This is not the first time I’ve been wrong about myself as a writer. In high school I was convinced I was a poet and couldn’t do fiction; five years later I thought just the opposite. As a (failed) novelist I thought of myself as a realist, and then as a magic realist, and then as an allegorical writer, and then I gave up on novels.
Here’s my point: Writers rarely know who they are as writers. Well, if you grab hold of one of the most insightful ones and ask them, they might be able to articulate who they are in that particular moment. At that moment they’re obsessed with coming-of-age stories, maybe, or they only believe in first-person narrators, or everything they do is stream-of-consciousness. But that’s only who that writer is for that one particular moment. That one fleeting moment. And only a fool would decide that that’s how things have to be forever.
Actually, each one of us can do anything. We are not limited to one defining thing. Playwrights can go on to write poetry; memoirists can move into fantasy and science-fiction; and short story writers can, when the time is right, write novels. Hardcore writers aren’t committed to an idea of who they are; they’re committed to the writing itself. Hardcore writers shed writing identities whenever they need to. We follow the writing wherever it goes.