5 Things Learned While Writing a Short Story

Yesterday, I broke a years-long drought writing creative prose; I published a 5,000-word short story to my Tumblr. The last time I wrote anything similar, I did so in Microsoft Works, in 1999, when I completed the third and final part of a series of novellas I wrote for a middle school contest. I fell out of the habit once I entered high school and never came back to it, sticking largely to abstract poetry all the way through college and beyond.

Why did I come back? Because I realized that my avoidance of creative prose was due to a wall I had erected in my head, between “writing” and “creative writing.” Even as churned out tons of words for papers, blogs, and client websites, there as always some part of me telling me that that writing didn’t count and could not intersect with or influence my more artistic ambitions.

I was developing skills in producing writing that was done but not perfect, under deadlines, but whenever I sat down to write fiction, I immediately froze up, feeling like I had to write Ulysses or Madame Bovary. It was as if I was flipping off the writing switch whenever I wasn’t writing nonsense about gendering, cloud computing, or video games. It was maddening, plus the specter of the perfectionist Flaubert didn’t help.

Ultimately, I got over the hump by reading about programming. Paul Graham’s essay “The Power of the Marginal” helped me become much less self-conscious, dispelling a lot of the illusions I had about how “insiders” assess work from “outsiders.” It finally felt ok to write for whomever I wanted, rather than some mythical academy. Here’s what I learned along the way.

Reading is pre-gaming for writing
I mean that in two ways. Certainly, writing is like a plant that grows from the seeds of what the writer reads. More immediately, though, I find it hard to just to sit down and write without having a stack of books at my side to read before, during, and after I write.

Reading something – anything – before trying to type is not just helpful, but necessary in my experience. Even if it is comedic play read as I try to write taut Hemingway-style prose, digesting someone else’s great writing before trying to make your own is like feeling around in a toolbox while trying to build something. For example, I read lots of Aristophanes – Wealth, Birds – before writing my story. I don’t see the direct influence, but the reading helped on another level.

It can take hours to get “in the zone,” and sometimes you have to take a break
Very rarely can I just bang out prose that I’m comfortable with after immediately switching to it from some other task. I can’t just unfurl a good paragraph or poem right after exercising, and it’s a struggle to do so after playing a video game. This seamless multitasking seems mythical.

Instead, getting into a good zone requires one or both of the following:

  1. Spending minutes or hours writing seemingly false starts: writing whatever is on my mind is a good way to clear the system and sometimes those ideas can be woven back into the eventual piece
  2. Writing, encountering resistance, stepping away, and coming back: In another of Graham’s essay, he talks about how problems are often solved by returning to them later. Having time to walk (“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” – Nietzsche) and think is important, but your brain is also doing unconscious work for you, working out the kinks.

It’s fine – even preferable – to start in the middle
One of the most destructive tendencies in writing is trying to hammer out an epic introduction before even knowing what you’re writing about. This habit leads to overly broad introductory sentences (“Since the dawn of time, humankind has always liked ideas” or some such), plus it’s incredibly, incredibly constraining – it’s like you’re tying weights to your ankles before you even start the race!

Many aspects of the story I wrote only came into my mind in the act of writing – I did not, perhaps could not, conceive of them beforehand in the abstract. Starting in the middle or anywhere, using stream-of-consciousness if you have to, can be so much more productive than taking a strictly algorithmic approach to writing. On that note…

It’s hard not to be influenced by James Joyce
I once loathed Joyce, and I would never mention him as a favorite author. Yet, it is humbling to consider his influence. Almost any seemingly unstructured, free-form writing, chock-full of poetic sensibilities rather than just linear storytelling, owes a debt to Joyce. Reading Ulysses helped me chisel my way out of my years-long writer’s block, not because I liked it but because it refocused my mind on what tools were available to me as a writer, and showed me what could be done with them.

A Chromebook can help you stay focused
The Internet is terrible for focus. I mostly agree with this guy who can’t stay off IMDb when trying to write from his computer. While I haven’t faced this constant temptation while writing blog posts or technical writing, I can really feel it when attempting anything creative, perhaps since creative projects can be open-ended and make me feel like I can never read enough to prepare myself (when in fact my “reading” is just dicking around on Hacker News). So why/how did I write my story on a computer with an OS that is useless without an Internet connection?

Chromebooks, especially the Samsung ARM model from late 2012, are limited machines. Their limitations are part of their power and appeal, though. When using my Chromebook, I don’t have to deal with the vast, tangled mess of files on my MacBook, nor its ability to load webpages much more quickly than this ARM-powered laptop. I don’t keep as may tabs open and I don’t multitask (multitasking is bad for you overall, and a real killer for writers). I plan to write as much as I can from Chrome OS.

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