The highlight of Wordstock for me so far was this afternoon's Why Write Short? panel with Aimee Bender, Anthony Doerr, and David Vann. All three writers were enthusiastic and seemed thrilled to be there; there was a great give and take in different approaches to writing, and the whole thing was expertly moderated by Tin House's Meg Storey.
Storey kicked things off by asking the obvious: Other than length, what's the difference between short stories, novellas, and novels?
Vann—whom I liked so much at this panel that I saw him read later that afternoon—jumped in first by talking about structural difference between short stories and novellas, how a novella can have two "crisis points" whereas a short story usually just has one. He used as an example Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine, about a character who kills someone else (crisis one) and then himself (crisis two).
Doerr noted that "anytime you try to make any rules about fiction writing, you’ll invariably find examples that break those rules.” The key difference between short stories and novels is ability to read it in one sitting vs. over a period of time—so many things can happen while one reads a novel, whereas a short story is a more compressed experience.
And Aimee Bender, god love her, says, basically, that length is the difference. "There has to be movement of some sort within your story, whatever the form." But Vann came right back at her: "I think there tends to be a higher cohesion of language and a smaller cast of characters in a short story or novella. In addition to length, I think formally they’re different."
This initial exchange set the tone of the rest of the conversation, a very friendly give and take in which the authors weighed different ideas, politely disagreed, and laughed a lot. It was fun. More after the jump!
[These are highlights; it's not a complete transcript of the conversation]
Question re: passage of time in stories
Doerr; "I grew up in that era of Raymond Carver, stories that happen over the course of a day or so, usually to a white person… and I was never really interested in those." Talks about how the collection The Story and Its Writer [nods here from both Bender and Vann] made him realize you don’t have to limit the scope of your story to 12 hours. "When David says short stories usually have less characters—that makes me want to try a story with 20 characters."
Bender: Transitions through time can be much more abrupt in a short story. You’re much more willing to take these leaps and trust that the end is going to sort it out for you. There’s something very exciting about the way stories can take these leaps in time and space... Rick Moody once said that the reason he likes writing short stories is because you can experiment more freely.
Vann: "One other difference that I find is that the short story really feels to me like a paranoid world, where nothing can be incidental, and everything is pointing toward the protagonist." Refers to the Nabokov story "Signs and Symbols," in which the main character has "referential mania"—"it’s a metafictional story that’s showing us what a character is, and that’s really what a short story is. [Every aspect] relates to the protagonist." "I think of the novel as the art of delay… it’s more expansive, characters can do weird things and go off on tangents that I didn’t feel was possible when I was writing a short story." “Obviously I’m totally confused about the whole process and how to make any value judgments one way or the other.”
Doerr: Google Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales. “That’s the type of thing that you give to your students, and they panic. If you put a pitcher on a dresser, you better use it.”
Bender: Sometimes you don't know if something is going to have meaning until you’re finished, and at that point, if it doesn’t, you cut it.
Q: Do you know when you start working if you're writing a short story or a novel?
Vann: "To me they feel entirely different. I’d have to be entirely insane not to know what I was working on, the way I work. In a short story you're taking most of the world, and excluding it... I feel like I’m the traditional nut with ideas from the past on this panel, but the reason I sound this way is, really the whole thing is chaos, and I’m just trying to find something to hold onto. This kind of structural [and linguistic] analysis is helpful to me. And so many of my favorite books don’t follow these rules. [Talks about how his favorite book is Blood Meridian, how it breaks all the rules.] I'm a lesser writer, I need to cling to something. If I’m going to sit there every day, I need to feel like I have some sense of what’s going on.
Bender: "I feel much the same way. The cell is the scene in the novel; the cell is the sentence in the short story, maybe…" "I haven’t had a story that feels like it could turn in to something more"—usually it's the opposite. "I’ll be at the gym, I’ll be like, 'hey I’ve got a great idea for a novel!' And I’ll run home and start writing and I’ll end up with two pages, so not only is it a short story, it’s very short story.” "I've learned to not trust my instincts about what would make a good novel."
Uh oh, coffeeshop is closing. Maybe I'll update this one tomorrow; I've got a few more choice quotes from this panel.