Joan Didion’s and Barbara Kingsolver’s thoughts on short stories

It’s funny — aspiring writers are often encouraged to write short stories as a way of developing their writing skills, beefing up their portfolio, and making a name for themselves.

What I’ve begun to learn, though, is that short stories actually have a higher level of difficulty than longer works. I always had trouble staying under the recommended word count when I wrote stories for college classes. It makes sense when you think about it: the fewer number of words you can use, the more skilled you have to be to introduce characters and a scenario that produces as much impact as a longer work.

I’ve only read one book by Joan Didion — The Year of Magical Thinking — which probably isn’t the book to read to fall in love with her. It did give me some respect for her, though, and I understand her career is impressive.

I came across a quote from this article, with some excerpts from Telling Stories that discuss her work writing copy for Vogue early in her career, how that taught her word economy and the carefullest selection. (There’s also some pretty great mid-century photographs.)

She reached this epiphany:

Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.

I remember that Barbara Kingsolver described something similar in Small Wonder, in her essay about editing her volume of Best American Short Stories. She tried a few different strategies for rating submissions, but ended up eliminating all candidates that didn’t capture some essential truth about life. As she put it:

With a pile of stories on my lap I sat with this question, early on, and tried to divine for myself why was it that I loved a piece of fiction when I did, and the answer came to me quite clearly; I love it for what it tells me about life. I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had socked me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read.

…Probably the greatest challenge of the short-story form is to get a story launched and landed efficiently with a whole, worthwhile journey in between. …It should pull off the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.

Of course, that’s an impossibly high bar for anyone out of practice with short stories. For me, it’s best I put all that out of mind and just write, get back in the habit of creating those quick little stories with new characters and scenes and a moment of decision or clarity accomplished. Maybe after fifteen or fifty of them, I can start thinking again about awareness of my intentions and whether I’ve executed a large truth in a tight space.

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