In the 11th in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Gregory Spatz, author of Half as Happy (Engine Books), describes how a long story took a short amount of time to write and a short story took a long time.
The shortest amount of time I’ve taken on a story is about 10 days. Generally, I’m a slow, persistent writer and no matter how many hours a day I happen to have free for writing, the process requires the same stubborn amount of mulling and gestation and composition and tearing apart—in all, usually 3-4 months, start to finish. Almost without exception and regardless of circumstances, that’s how long a story takes me.
The story that came in 10 days is, oddly enough, one of the longest pieces in my new collection Half as Happy—an 11,000 word story titled “No Kind of Music.” There was an unusual atmospheric/ barometric thing going on the whole time I was writing it, so when I think back on those 10 days, that’s what I remember first: mid-January, a quick thaw that had melted away everything, and then a sudden icy stalled out cold front that began by dropping about 4 inches of snow before clearing up and turning absolutely still and frigid. Because of the wetness preceding the snowfall, the snow stuck everywhere like it had been glued—on fence posts and phone lines and the smallest of branches and literally on every frostable surface in town—and then turned instantly light and crystalline. And because of the windless, stalled out cold that followed, that exceedingly pretty and delicate coating of snow stayed put for much longer than it should have. Ten days, give or take. The same ten days I happened to be at home, free of obligations, nothing pulling me out of town or distracting me, no classes to teach (I was beginning a quarter of sabbatical leave) and nothing to do but work on a new story. So the whole time I was working, it felt like there was this enchanted parity between my concentration and the way the world seemed to have drawn in one icy breath and never let it out—an end-of-all-things stillness which I experienced as liberating and inspiring. Every night, my wife and I would go for a walk and admire the pattern of the snow coated tree branches around the streetlights, so delicate and perfect it seemed impossible that it could last…
Of course, it didn’t last. The wind and rain came, our snow globe neighborhood melted back to normal, I left town for other work, a new round of novel revisions took up all my spare time, and in every other way life intruded. But not before I’d written my way to the end of “No Kind of Music.”
I thought for sure that when I went back to the story to revise and re-think, I’d want to tear it open and take the usual 3-4 months more developing it and fooling around, but to my surprise, reviewing the story, it felt complete and of a piece. I didn’t know what else to do with it. So I left it more or less untouched. By that time it was early June and submissions at most magazines had closed for the summer months so I sent it off to the one journal where I was relatively sure it’d be read, despite the summer lull—Glimmer Train Stories. I almost forgot I’d sent it to them until they called in mid-July asking if it was available…
So, a fat, long story that should, by any rational calculation, have taken ages to write and ages more to place, defied the odds…in the same way that oddly beautiful and fortunate coating of light powdery snow stuck around.
Conversely, the story that took me the longest write, is one of the shortest I’ve ever written – an 1100 word thing called “Wake Up Call.” The initial scene came to me in a burst, over a few blistering days in an Iowa mid-summer heat wave, and seemed to promise a full length story. So I flogged away at it, wrote version after version of follow up scenes. Added characters. Took them out. Added more water and fire imagery. Took it all out. Stared at it. Decided, finally, that there were no subsequent scenes after all, despite the seeming promise of them, and that I had to find a way to make that one scene that had kicked it off feel more final and complete in and of itself: a guy and his best friend (whose wife the narrator once upon a time had an affair with) at the state fair watching the friend’s kids on an amusement park ride while the friend relates the latest stories of the wife’s infidelities, and off-stage (unbeknownst to the narrator) the narrator’s mother is accidentally burning her house down for the third time. 4-5 years more I kept returning to that one scene and looking for closure until finally I was able to figure out who was still in love with whom and who needed the “wake up call.” Once I’d figured that out, the last paragraph and few lines finally fell into place and the story felt done. A ridiculously long time for a slim little story. But that’s what it took.