Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Going Short

I blame Ben Affleck.   I heard him on the radio last week talking to Terri Gross about his movie, Argo, and the conversation turned to doing impersonations.   Affleck does a mean Denzel Washington, a decent Morgan Freeman.  Terri asked him how he does it, if it requires practice.  Affleck said, sure, doing impersonations takes practice, but it’s also a gift.  It comes easy.  Because of that, he said, he doesn’t like to do it too much.   He compared it to playing speed chess, where every move is timed and the game moves super-fast.  Back in the day, he and Matt Damon played a lot until a friend intervened to say this:

“Don’t play speed chess.  It will ruin your game.”

That line stuck in my head.  It will not go away. 

Here’s why:  I write a lot of short essays.   I write them because I’m asked to or because I’m paid to or because I have something I want to say that doesn’t merit twenty pages … and I write them because they’re easy.   

I’m afraid it’s ruining my game. 

It’s near sacrilege to say so.   Short nonfiction, like flash fiction, has been all the rage for a long while now, especially in MFA programs where honing stories down to their essence is seen as excellent practice, maybe even cutting edge.   I’ve encouraged it myself plenty.  (I also daresay, from a teaching perspective it’s a lot easier to critique 1000 words than 5K … but no need to be cynical here.)  I adore Brevity as much as the next person.  

(If you don't know Brevity, definitely check it out -- essays <750 words that amaze.  Here's one of mine they published last year: 

I still think it might be ruining my game.

When I sit down to work on my book project, I struggle.  Part of it is pure endurance.   Writing a book is like training for a marathon.  You need patience and pacing.  You need to think really hard.  The answer is simple, I know: Sit longer.  Just like a long slow run.  And, still, no long distance runner will tell you sprint workouts are useless.  They work different muscles.  They’re part of the package.

I just don’t want to ruin my game.

Here’s what Ben Affleck said:  When you do an impersonation, you use the techniques of acting but don’t get at the heart; you do the external work but not the deep internal work.  The same can be true of writing short pieces.  I want to be vigilant about that.  I need to be.  I will be.  

But I don't suppose I'll give up Going Short any time soon.  I have a new collection of short essays, in fact, The Hole in the Snow, which is very close to finding a home. 

“Don’t be afraid to do what comes easy,” says picture book author and Whidbey colleague Bonny Becker.  “It probably means you’re good at it.”

I hope that’s true.  I sincerely do.