Dispatches | September 25, 2012
DIY: How to Write a Short Story (maybe)
Back in the magical two years of my MFA, where the world seemed manageable and I was still allowed to attend class in sweat-pants, I applied for and received the incredibly sweet gig of being the Assistant to the Director of Creative Writing. I was so good at it that I won an award in administrative assistant-ing. This, of course, confuses anyone who has ever met me, but the key to administrative work, I’ve found, is learning how to say “Yes, I can do that” and then actually doing it. Not all administrative work includes as much drinking as my job, I suspect, though if it did I imagine there would be more award-winning going on.
My duties mostly included picking up and driving the visiting authors to and from the airport, and making sure they arrived safely at their hotel after the bar. The hardest part, besides constantly nagging the bookstore woman, was getting my fellow MFA’s to talk to the authors at the Q&A. I mostly accomplished this through planting questions with my friends and not letting it be known to the incoming first years that it wasn’t exactly mandatory that they had to show up. Not being honest is also a wonderful skill to have when administrative-assistant-ing.
Confession: I hated the Q&A’s. Not because talking to writers isn’t the coolest thing in the world (it is) but because of the timing. They were always held before the reading, before we heard the author’s spoken voice. Most of us sat around awkwardly like we were on a first date. Unless the writer happened to be particularly verbose, there were always those moments of squirming silence. Later, at the bar following their reading, we would all feel more comfortable asking the writer about their work because we’d be thoroughly mesmerized.
I hated those awkward silences, especially since I was the only one who had had a conversation with the author previously (mostly about how much Toledo sucks – hell, my GPS calls it “Tahl-Eh-DAH”, because it simply can’t be bothered with all its important GPS business) it fell on me to continue the discourse. I always wanted to ask the best questions about art and what it means to struggle at an unforgiving and rejection-friendly field, and why they kept at it? What is this need inside of us? Also, what’s up with metaphors? We still using those?
Yet, how do you ask that without sounding like a weepy freshman? So instead I always asked the worst, most pointless, ridiculous question I could think of: What’s your process like?
Honestly? Who cares what someone’s process is. It’s probably incredibly personal, involves a wide array of costumes or nudity, and some people probably spin on their heads for a few hours thinking about character struggle and word choice. Besides encouraging a bunch of uncoordinated MFA’s to try break-dancing, hearing about someone else’s process does little more than satisfy a voyeuristic curiosity.
So without and further ado, here is a totally navel gazing example of how to write a short story: The Process
*Note, this is not the guaranteed method of writing successfully, but it works for me. Sometimes. Maybe.
First, find a good writing outfit. This is a professional business, but since we’re probably writing alone in a basement with only one dramatic flickering lightbulb swinging over our heads ala the Dagger of Damocles, you may as well suffer in comfort.
Or at least in something that is versatile as both writing and evening wear.
Find a good writing space. This should be the closest you can get to the caffeine dispenser.
Remove all distractions.
This means you, children I accidentally birthed. As a cat.
If you don’t have any ideas, do something to spur your thought process. This could be anything from looking out the window to drawing on the wall with crayon.
Out of caffeine? Try alcohol! All the great modern writers were miserable drunks. Perhaps that was the secret to their power?
You know he’s on his way to the great American Novel. Or jail.
Did you write a sentence? You did? GOOD JOB! Reward yourself.
You deserve all the cakes now.
Check your phone. You could be missing a very important phone call from the president inviting you to the white house to read your story to his children while Hilary Clinton texts all her friends about how awesome you are – in fact maybe she’ll make you secretary of her state. Dream! Come! True!
Read that sentence you wrote an hour ago out loud. Oh, that sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Better delete.
Maybe you’re in the wrong field! Try poetry!
enjambment. I guess.
The hell does this white space mean? Never try poetry again.
Gosh, you’ve been working pretty hard today. Better take a break. What is this Honey Boo Boo thing everyone is talking about?
This is weirdly intoxicating.
BILLS BILLS BILLS – time to regret not going into law like your father suggested a bazillion times.
Read some work by that writer you admire. Oh gods they are so much better than you’ll ever be. Better give up now before you embarrass yourself.
I have no idea, bread cat. No idea.
Holy crap, where did all this time go? WRITE WRITE WRITE
Conflict is key to a tale, but it has to be honest. Better start a fight with your lover.
(Note: My lover refuses to let me take his picture or let me arbitrarily fight with him, so here’s my other boyfriend Tom Hiddleston taking over the world. Damnit Tom Hiddleston, I told you I get angry when you do that. Grrr I’m so mad.)
Now spend some time feeling bad that you arbitrarily started a fight with your fantasy lover. Your fantasy lover doesn’t need this. He or she is out there doing things with their life. That’s why they’re a fantasy, and you’re just a sad person.
Stop being so sexily proud of yourself and go make Thor 2.
It’s probably been like eight hours, so you have written a whole paragraph, maybe! Better let that sit for a few weeks to stew. When you come back to it because a deadline is approaching, you will regret everything you have done today.
Repeat these steps ad nauseum until you have a story. Then send it off to a publisher. Wait three months to over a year to get a rejection slip. You’re officially a writer, dawg.
Congrats! You have become clip-art.
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