Sunday, October 28, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper

My story collection, “Margins of Tolerance” came out in May, and for pretty much the entire year preceding its release I was consumed with the seemingly endless list of things one has to do when one has a book coming out with a small, independent press—revising the stories, begging for blurbs, obsessing over the book cover and lay out, securing the perfect author photo, creating a website, joining Twitter, etc—not to mention the endless amount of publicity one has to generate, a full time job in and of itself. Translation: pretty much no new writing done, at all.

By June, after several readings and parties, things had settled down a bit and I was excited to get back to writing. Specifically, novel writing. I had two completely different novels that I’d started the year before I found out about the book deal, and was lucky enough to have two residencies ahead of me to work on them. Two seemed like a safer bet—I wasn’t sure which one would captivate me, but surely if one didn’t speak to me the other would. I saw myself finishing fifty, maybe even a hundred pages over the summer and being well on my way towards a first draft.

What I didn’t plan on was how hard it would be to transition from story-writing mode back to novel writing mode.  Novels are entirely different beasts, and they require a great deal more patience, a willingness to sit and stew in your thoughts, to think about your characters lives and how to gradually unfold these lives across the span of a book.

I’m not sure who made this analogy about the difference between short stories and novels, but it goes something like this. Imagine as a writer you’re a real estate broker taking people on a tour. Novelists take people on a tour of the entire house: Here is the bedroom. Here is the living room. Here is the kitchen, isn’t it lovely? They take their time, and let people get a full appreciation of every nook and cranny. The short story writer, on the other hand, takes readers to a single room and asks them to linger there. Let’s really get to know this room, he says. The doors to the other rooms are open, and you can catch a glimpse, but we’re not going to go inside of them. Let’s stay here and let this room tell us all we need to know about the house.

It’s hard, when you get into the habit of lingering in one room and offering only glimpses of others, to allow yourself to explore so many other rooms. I found myself getting impatient and frustrated with the pacing of the pages I was writing. Nothing exciting is happening, I’d tell myself. This is all so slow and boring. I was seeking immediate gratification, something that’s a whole lot easier to achieve in a short story, where the conflict must be immediate and visceral and there is little time for build-up.

Several of my novelist friends have told me that at the beginning stages, a novelist has to get used to writing pages and pages of crap. That you have to “write your way through” a lot of material that will not end up in the book, because this process is the only way you get to really know your characters and story well enough to understand what the novel is about. But after a couple of years of writing short stories, my brain was hard-wired against writing twenty five pages of “useless” material. Twenty five pages! That’s longer than my average story. Even though I knew that the material wasn’t exactly useless, that it was exactly what I needed to do to make headway, I was still resisting and feeling dejected and paranoid.

After days of what I thought were false starts, I gave up briefly and returned to story writing. And for a while I felt better, more in control. Yet this is precisely what the dilemma boils down to: for a long while, especially at the beginning, you are NOT in control as a novelist. You have to be okay with that, with plunging into the unknown and failing.

So have I learned my lesson? I’m not sure. I’ve put aside those two other novels for now, but something inspired me at my last residency and it looks like I’ve started another. The interesting this is, this potential novel started out as a short story. As I began outlining it, though, I realized it was going to be a very long story. Maybe even a novella. The longer I thought about it, I realized it could almost certainly be long enough for a novel. Here, then, was my “solution” to this problem, one that may just work for other short story writers turned novelists as well: You may just have to trick your brain into thinking you’re just writing a story. A 250 page story, but still a story. And maybe once you do, all those doubts about whether you can write a novel will start to diminish.

Eric Sasson is an MFA graduate of NYU and has taught fiction writing at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop in Brooklyn. His short story collection, “Margins of Tolerance,” was the 2011 Tartt Award runner-up and was published by Livingston Press in May. This summer he was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar to the Sewanee Writers Conference, and was granted residency fellowships to Ragdale and The Hambidge Center. His story “Floating” was named a finalist for the Robert Olen Butler prize. Other credits include pieces forthcoming in Explosion Proof as well as recently published in The Wall Street Journal Online, BLOOM,  Nashville ReviewConnotation Press,The Puritan, Liquid Imagination, The Ledge, MARY magazine and THE2NDHAND, among others.

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