The path to a successful writing career is not always clearly marked. I think of Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot, and his surprise and despair at its eventual success. Over the years, this unprecedented play would eventually astound and confound audiences worldwide, making the author’s name. Yet Beckett had been writing fiction for years, and his foray into playwriting was initially out of frustration with how his fiction was being received. After Godot, he continued to write plays and fiction, and in his fiction, perhaps in reaction to the success, he went inward, creating even more obscure and consciously inaccessible work. Ultimately, his playwriting defines his body of work as frequently as his fiction does.
The road my writing career has taken is ultimately not the one I had envisioned. If anything the way I imagined it was to be more traditional (read: with more financial rewards). But somehow, without a clear path to having my novels published, I have tried to adapt to the market. I could as easily say I have adapted my writing practice to the limits on my time to write. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Though I’ve not lost any of the ambition I have for the novel, the restrictions on my time have led me to writing quite a bit of shorter fiction. As I have adapted, I’ve begun to feel the trend away from the traditional route is inevitable, but also another potential path.
In terms of the online writing market, there are far more outlets for what could be considered esoteric and experimental short work, which seem to dominate the online journals. This may be because there are more people writing, and there is an accommodating rise in a need of outlets for this work.
Starting out as a writer of fiction, I was hungry to publish. This then became a desire not merely to publish, but to publish more. Naturally, this led me to writing and submitting shorter work. Yet I was already writing this type of material in school--informed by my reading--before I knew there was a market for it. Essentially, this type of writing has fallen under the rubric of traditional flash fiction, though it goes by many other names: short fiction, short experimental fiction, hybrid writing, etcetera. In fact, much of this type of writing is similar to what Beckett was producing in his Texts for Nothing, and fizzles. What I’m not talking about are short stories per se, but the work that predominates online venues such as Decomp, Spork Press, Word Riot, and many others.
I’m sure there is some correlation between the length of a piece and its likelihood of getting published. There’s probably also a correlation between the intensity and effect of short fiction, versus that of longer work. The intensity can’t be maintained for 70,000 words. In fact, most people wouldn’t want to read it. (It’s called Finnegan’s Wake.) Yet often enough, with short experimental work, I believe I’m writing at my best. I don’t have to adapt to any style or form. There are no expectations, frankly, and fewer rules, for what this short fiction can be. In it, I find I can thrive.
Much of the time, I try to carve chunks of time to finish a traditional novel, an ever present grail project, because the reward for that can be multiples of what one receives from publishing a piece of short fiction. Still, that kick from getting my work published is always rewarding. And it’s much more expedient to write a 500 word piece than it is a 70,000 word novel.
Where does this place me as a writer among thousands of other writers? I still aspire to a traditional career, but over time I am adjusting my original expectations and goals. I am ten years into my writing career, and I’m accumulating a body of work that has been vetted by many editors I’m grateful to. I consider this short fiction some of my most exciting work. Is it because I don’t rely on writing to support me financially, that I’ve been able to pursue a career in this way? This notion, though in some ways merely convenient (I would have made money on it if I could have figured out how), validates the idea I have for myself of being an outsider. The trade-off with a traditional career is that I can write whatever I want--whatever comes to me in the odd hours and can’t be shaken. This might actually force me to experiment, if not simply to compete, then because I’ve made it a point to subvert my own expectations for my work.
Yet there is a paradox here. I’ve spent many hours on novels--years, really--and exponentially less time on most of the work that has gotten published. This could imply that I’m better off to keep pursuing the online fiction writing markets. The success I’ve had publishing has me often wondering if I am trying to hard to peg myself, and my writing. (This happens in my reading also, as I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find books to read, and am often as disappointed as those people who feel duped into reading the next big thing. My gut inclination often, thankfully, gets me to veer from this reading.)
A novel can become an all consuming project; Henry James’s “loose, baggy monster” is a reminder to keep perspective and not overthink the work. Yet a novel is a rationally plotted compendium; though it might be made up of those pieces that could resemble the short fiction, the end must conform to the larger project. A novel is much less open ended than a piece of short fiction. I’m ambivalent about this.
In my writing practice, I teeter between the unearthing of my subconsciousness, those visions tapped in dreams, and the material where I try hard to attain clarity and project a plausible story. If I have any frustration, it might be the limits of this way of traditional storytelling. With short fiction, I break the rules all the time. Inevitably, this is what grabs an editor.
I rarely let this work inform my novel writing. I might do this because I don’t see any writers as models for this approach. In a sense, a writer can be ghettoized by their success; it might be difficult to convince oneself that it’s worthwhile to venture into a different form. If only this was my problem.