Writerly Conundrums

If you’re an [aspiring] writer, you will undoubtedly receive two particular pieces of advice more than any others:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Read what you want to write (i.e. If you want to write a novel, read novels).

Depending on my mood that day, these pieces of advice are either truly inspiring, completely disheartening, or totally unhelpful. To everyone who may have given me this advice in the past – or will do so in the future – don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s the advice.

Photo Courtesy of Death to Stock

People are fickle creatures. There are days where I’ll feel completely uninspired by a blank Word Document, but have over 1,000 things to say on an older story that I’d left to percolate over two months ago. Other days, I’ll have 500 new things to say on a blank page. And then there are those days where I’ll open Word Documents – both new and old – after Word Documents, WordPress, Tumblr, Typetrigger, OmmWriter… And somehow, I’ll have absolutely nothing to say in any medium, even after browsing through an entire dashboard of Tumblr’s hipster inspirational quote photos.

(Writer’s block is the worst.)

In regards to the reading half of the advice, I will admit that I’m often not the best at juggling my time so I will have a half hour every day just to sit down and read. (The summer internship commutes have, on the other hand, turned me into a modern day Lizzie Bennett, what with my standing around at bus stops and Bart platforms with my nose stuck in a book that was ironically Jane Austen for about four weeks.)

My main struggle with reading what you want to write, however, is that I have the hardest time truly enjoying short story collections. Most recently, I read Alice Munro’s short story collection-novel, Lives of Girls and Women, which was originally published in 1971.

Photo Courtesy of blog.hrc.texas.edu
Photo Courtesy of blog.hrc.texas.edu

This particular collection stands out from Munro’s others because all the stories are actually about the same protagonist, located in the same setting, and feature the same cast of characters. While each story can stand alone as its own individual short story, this collection has a far clearer development and arc than others because of this foundation.

I’ve read Munro’s work before, but I picked this book out because I’d been advised by my creative writing professor this past semester to read more of Munro’s work. I, apparently, share Munro’s tendency to write “slice of life” short stories. Munro likes to focus on the subtle nuances in her characters and explore small but profound emotional changes in people as they age, grow, and mature — something that I also enjoy doing, though perhaps with far less success than her.

I found Munro’s writing to be – as always – subtle, and precise. Each character, their emotions and intentions, are all so carefully and clearly crafted. And yet, Munro manages to do so without ever being too heavy-handed or overemphatic because the ways she describes and illustrates each character focuses so greatly on their relevant unique ticks and neuroses.

While I enjoyed reading Munro’s writing, as I mentioned before, I had a hard time really enjoying the stories — which is the almost the same exact experience I’ve had with every single other short story collection I’ve ever read.

Photo Courtesy of Death to the Stock
Photo Courtesy of Death to the Stock

I love reading short stories. I love reading slice of life tidbits of a character’s life. But there’s something about the format and structure of well-known, published short stories that I can’t wrap my mind around.

There seems to be a universal trend that a short story must be ambiguous. The traditional conflict-crisis-resolution structure can be hazy, and the protagonist’s intentions can be vague.

I understand why authors may enjoy writing that way (I know I’d write that way if I could pull it off successfully), but what confuses me most is that the traits I seem to find in short stories are completely contrary to what I’ve been taught ever since I began to take my creative writing more seriously.

This then brings up an inevitable question for myself: Will my short stories then, not be considered “good” if ambiguity is what is expected and desired in a short story?

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