Long Live the Short Story

By Midge Raymond,

As tonight’s 78th Annual Academy Awards ceremony celebrates “Brokeback Mountain” for its many accomplishments — most of which have an Oscar nomination attached — I’ll be continuing to celebrate the fact that this beautiful film originated as a beautiful short story. While turning novels into films is nothing new, there’s been a wonderful new trend over the past several years in which short stories are making their way to the big screen — with great success.

In her 1999 interview with The Missouri Review, Annie Proulx called Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s adaptation of her 1997 story “Brokeback Mountain” an “exceptionally fine screenplay.” Those familiar with Proulx’s story will note the script’s faithfulness to Proulx’s original; whereas adapting a novel to film requires a certain degree of reductionism, adapting a short story, on the other hand, usually requires fleshing out, if anything — and remaining faithful to the original work is far easier for screenwriters to achieve. (This is good news for both writers and readers.)

In addition to Oscar nominations for actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and for director Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain” was, of course, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (not to mention Best Music (Score), Best Cinematography, and Best Picture). But this isn’t the first time in recent years that short stories have been successfully adapted. Previously nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay was Rob Festinger and Todd Field’s 2001 script “In the Bedroom,” based on Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” (the film also scored nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress categories). (More of Dubus’ short stories — “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery” — were adapted to the screen in the 2004 film “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause.) And let’s not forget “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand By Me,” just two of many films based on the short works of Stephen King.

And the short story is being celebrated in myriad other ways — The Los Angeles Times recently named Amy Tan as literary editor for its weekly magazine, West, which last month replaced the Los Angeles Times magazine and now publishes short fiction. Small presses such as Hourglass Books are devoted to publishing collections of short stories; anthologies such as the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories publish selections from literary magazines; and perhaps best of all is The Story Prize, an annual book award honoring a collection of short fiction with a $20,000 cash award. The prize was created in 2004 by Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark to support short story collections and help abate the difficulties authors face in trying to publish them.

A lot of writers believe that they must write a novel in order to have a career as a writer. Being a short-story writer can indeed be frustrating — with a few exceptions, story collections don’t sell as well as novels and aren’t nearly as high profile. Yet a short story remains the perfect medium for today’s busy readers: it can offer all the elements of a novel in a trim, accessible format. And seeing both the film and publishing industries embrace it means the short story will be around for a long while.



Truth and Memory

By Midge Raymond,

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.” — Oscar Wilde

“Most writers regard truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.” — Mark Twain

One of the big questions when it comes to memoir writing has always been how much of a story is actually true — and it’s now an even bigger question since author James Frey has admitted to embellishing and fabricating much of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and its sequel, My Friend Leonard. Yet when it comes to personal writing, truth has never been particularly easy to define, and this is confusing (and perhaps appealing) for writers who may be tempted to sacrifice truth for what they think makes a better story.

Merriam-Webster defines truth as “the state of being the case: fact”; yet its listing also includes an archaic definition — “fidelity, constancy; sincerity in action, character, and utterance” — which is much more in line with the way memoirs are written. The psychotherapist Alice Miller, in the preface to her newest book, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, writes, “I never use the word ‘truth’ in a metaphysical sense. The meaning I give it is invariably that of a subjective entity, related to the actual life of the individual concerned.” In other words, when it comes to remembering your past, especially if it was a dramatic or traumatic one, the only truth that exists is the truth that you experienced, the truth that you remember.

Yet this does not — and should not — give writers license to embellish or fabricate events; it’s one thing to remember an incident differently than your sister remembers it, and it’s another to recreate it for dramatic effect, thus misleading your readers.

I found myself applauding Riverhead’s decision last week to cancel its contract with Frey (not that it’s any of my business). But I was pleased to know that despite the controversy and the questions, the accusations and confessions, in the end, the truth does matter — at least to this publisher. The desicion shows respect for its readers, an acknowledgment that they deserve to be treated honestly, something that I think should be on every writer’s mind, every time he or she sits down to write.



A Few Words on Revision

By Midge Raymond,

My friend Sean, who’s working on a novel, recently asked me how I go about rewriting (and he knows how painstakingly I rewrite everything). I’ve found that revision is probably the most important stage of the writing process, and yet it’s often the most overlooked. Why? Because it can be really horrible to read over something you’ve written and realize it’s not that great. Also, revision is hard — it takes a lot of time, a great deal of focus, and a willingness to sacrifice a few things you might love about your story (usually things you’ve spent hours and hours working on).

So why must we do it? Because it makes the difference between poor work and good work, good work and great work, or great work and brilliant work. Revision always helps.

Here are few revision rules to live by:

Take one step at a time. Look at the big picture first — character, story, theme — before tackling your work scene-by-scene, or before worrying about comma splices. Once the overall story is flowing, then you can sweat the small stuff.
Don’t be afraid to trim. It may be hard to cut sentences or paragraphs you love, but be ruthless and see what happens. You might discover wonderful results — and if you don’t, you can always revert to your original. But you won’t know unless you try.
Revise when you’re ready. If you’ve got good momentum on a piece, don’t stop to reread it; just keep writing. Then give it a little space. Then go back and have a look with fresh eyes. This is the best time to start a rewrite, when you’ve got enough distance to ask yourself, What am I trying to say? and Am I actually saying it?
Engage a friend, writer, editor — someone who will be honest with you and offer you constructive feedback. These people can be hard to find but are well worth having in your writing life.



Finding Quality Writing Time (Prison Time Excluded)

By Midge Raymond,

“I’ll never have it as good as prison again,” said author Dewitt Gilmore in yesterday’s New York Times. “For writing, anyway.”

This New York Times article, “Street Lit With Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal,” is proof that writers do need rooms of their own: Gilmore (whose pen name is Relentless Aaron) began writing his street-lit novels in 1996 during a stint in a federal prison in New Jersey; now, the Times reports, he has a six-figure book deal with publisher St. Martin’s Press. He’s written thirty manuscripts, has printed ten of them himself, and will publish his next four with St. Martin’s.

As Gilmore told the Times, referring to the time he spent in the solitary confinment of an eight-by-four cell, “Nothing could match solitary for writing.” As a writer and writing instructor, I couldn’t agree more. What I recommend for my students, however, is not a trip to prison but finding ways to create their own solitary confinement — on the outside.

Full-time writers — those who are fortunate enough to live and write without holding another day job — don’t have quite the same challenges in carving out time for writing. For them, it’s their work day. For the rest of us — those who work, teach, parent — finding even an hour or two of writing time can be next to impossible.

Here are a couple of the tips I find useful in making time to write:

Think of yourself as a writer. As Miles told Joel in the film Risky Business, “If you can’t say it, you can’t do it.” If you don’t see yourself as a writer, how will you allow yourself the time to write? First, tell yourself that your work is important. Remind yourself that you have things to say. Be adamant about setting aside time to say them.

Remind your friends and family that you are a writer. When you create time in your schedule to write — especially when it takes time away from them — make it known that you are working. Because you are working — no matter what pleasure writing brings you, it’s also hard work.

Create your own writing space. Even if it’s just a tiny desk in the smallest corner of your home, make it your own. Get rid of anything that might distract you, and keep near you the things that inspire you: books, candles, artwork.

What’s probably most inspiring about Gilmore’s story is that of all the excuses I’ve heard (and come up with myself) for procrastinating a writing project, “going to prison” has got to be one of the best. But for Gilmore, it’s not an excuse but an invitation.

Consider yourself invited — to your own writing space, starting today.