Owning Yourself

I recently read a personal essay on race in America that was breath-taking. The voice was raw and real, each sentence thought out with painstaking care, the point clarified through keen storytelling as well as good lingual instincts that knew when and how to be evocative and when to tell it to you straight.

When I finished, I heard myself wishing in my head that I could write like that.

I’ve been a novel-writer most of my writing life. Every time I’ve tackled short stories, sometimes they end up not-so-short (my favorites usually cross over 10k words) and other times I realize that they really want more than a short story format will give them. My mind tends to think in terms of sweeping plots and twists and character growth, most of which seems to want more space and time than a short story. (I’ll tell you the story of the fairy tale remix I finished a few weeks ago sometime.)

A short story needs to be tight, every phrase and sentence considered, the pacing just right so that it doesn’t feel too short or too long for what it is. You include only what is necessary and nothing more. A lot of these are rules for novel-writing as well, but there’s a lot more flexibility and a lot more room, the difference between singing in a cabaret lounge and singing at the Radio City Music Hall. What is necessary in a novel may be unnecessary fluff in a short story, something to fall from the cutting board.

I remember reading a novel for my fiction writing class – although I can’t for the life of me remember the title or the author, and it’s not in my bookshelves at the moment – in which the author was a short-story writer who wrote this novel. I could tell. The way this author handled his space was very different from the way chronic novel writers use their space and as obvious to me as when I read novel writers’ short stories. There’s a density to short story writers’ novels that runs the risk of taking too much out of a reader, distracting them with language. Of course, this is true of some novel writers as well. I find I can only take Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible in bursts, so significant is every word. Don’t get me wrong, I love that book. But I’m a marathon reader, so pack a novel with too much weight on every page, and I’m going to tire out much more quickly.

This post has become something a little different than it started out, so let me get back on track.

The point is that writers used to a tighter, denser medium … when they’re good, they are true masters of language, and it’s awesome to read. But I need to remind myself that just because that’s not the way my writerbrain works doesn’t mean that I’m a bad writer. It simply means that when I write, I have a different motivation. I love language, and I play with it now and again, but my focus is almost always story and characters, and if language gets in the way, I’ll make the language less conspicuous and obtrusive. If language enhances these things, I’ll play with it, but never at the expense of story.

In that way, maybe I’m less of a writer’s writer than I sometimes want to be and more of a storyteller. There’s honor in that profession as well, because who hasn’t got a story to tell in some form or fashion? Storytellers are keepers of memory; they pass on wisdom; they relieve burdens; they provide escape. I think that last one is the biggest sign of a storyteller. If I’m too conscious of beautiful language, I’m not immersed in a story. It stimulates my mind in a very different way than the writing of a storyteller. When a storyteller is good at his or her craft, I find myself lost, navigating hundreds of pages almost before I realize that time has passed and I haven’t really gone anywhere at all.

This is not, I emphasize, a dig on literary writers, the keepers and guardians of poetry. There is a place for all of us in these hallowed halls. It’s a reminder to myself that I can be my own kind of writer without being less of a writer for it. Just because I’m not this kind or that kind of a writer doesn’t mean that I have to hand in my credentials. I need to remind myself that I can enjoy the moving, inspiring, profound works of others without feeling pressured to be that kind of writer, since I fail miserably at it.

I am a writer. I am a storyteller. I enjoy being these things, and they are what I am constantly inspired to be. That is enough.

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