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.  


Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

a great, twitchy and not altogether reassuring essay. I guess this means I have to back to work on my NaNoWriMo novel manuscript... happily it's filled with super-short chapters...

N2 said...

I think both long and short pieces serve their purpose, from both the writer's and reader's sides. Like you said, sprints work different muscles. And sometimes you feel like doing sprints, not a long, cross-country run. I've loved everything you've written that I've read so far, long or short. x0 N2

Ana Maria said...

Super-short chapters! Why didn't I think of that, Stephanie? I'm usually pretty good at tricking myself that way.

Actually I've been telling myself: one paragraph at a time. Just write this one good graf. Maybe today it will be one good sentence. Then what? Yikes.

Thanks for the kind words, N2. Write on.

Iris said...

It's that balance thing again, isn't it? Gotta have both - the long and the short. And for my money, Ana Maria, you do both without ruining your game. You ALWAYS get to the heart in your short pieces (and the long ones, too).

Michelle Hansen said...

I just came to see Ben. He looks great BTW.

No, I'm kidding. I am trying to figure out how to embrace short fiction. I've been at the novel so long, I have a hard time seeing the short story and then keeping it short.

Ana Maria said...

He does look fabulous, doesn't he? Here's a deal, Michelle. I'll trade you Ben, a couple dozen short essays, and my right arm for your novel-writing chops.

Seriously, thanks for the reminder that it works both ways. Hard to get past what comes easy. said...

Thanks for this, Ana Maria. Good insight.

I suppose what rattles me is when I don't realize the goal behind a particular effort -- a short or long essay, for instance, or whether or not I'm actually writing a book now that my MFA is behind me. I struggle to write without an audience in mind, or a purpose. I struggle to "just write" or "write like a MF," as Strayed might say.

Your blogpost helps, though: Go short. Go long. Just go!


Ana Maria said...

Great to hear from you Jeff. I know what you mean about the struggle. I never know if I'm really writing a book. I have to tell myself that, for today, I'm just writing about XYZ. I don't know why or for whom, I'm just going to try to do a real good job writing about XYZ.

Looking forward to reading more of your good words in print soon.