I have done my beloved short forms an injustice. And I’ve led you, my readers, to believe that poems, short stories, and novellas are simply stops on the way to the writing world’s holy grail: novels.
This column, Writing Small, is an exploration into this near-mystical thing called writing. My aim is to plumb others’ short form work for keys to create our own. Always with an eye on expanding our writing range. But I fear I’ve stumbled into a well-known briar patch of literature: the idea that all short forms (should) lead to a novel.
Short forms are no strangers to “shoulds”—literary or popular. Brandon Taylor, associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, tackles a popular short forms “should” myth in his LitHub article, Against the Attention Economy: Short Stories are Not Quick Literary Fixes: In Praise of Slow Reading.
While Taylor’s article revolves around the (false) idea that short stories and short attention spans go together, he also touches on the take of the novel as the top literary goal:
“Short stories can hold tones that would be unsustainable in a novel. Short stories can hover in the extremes of life, revealing by virtue of the intensities that lurk there, strange and curious truths. A story is not a novel in miniature, but a different form altogether, with its own range of interests and concerns.”
Taylor’s piece made me pause and rethink how I, a lover of short forms, viewed them. Did I think of them only in comparison to longer forms? And in comparison to longer forms, do I find them lacking?
I look at my own writing practice. I explore different forms through reading. I imitate others writing styles. I try on form after form to find which allows me to tell my story in my own voice. I joyfully discover the freedom shorter forms give to convey nuances, intensities and strange, curious truths.
Form Follows Function
Freedom within form seems vaguely zen. But there is an aptness to it. Like certain forms lend themselves to better expressing a specific effect or emotion, short forms embody the principle that form follows function. Poetry vocalizes emotion and wonder. Flash forms—fiction or nonfiction—work well introducing startlement, mystery, or profundity to a reader. Plays excel in distilling and rendering human interaction for better scrutiny. Essay literally means to weigh or test; essays are tools for self-explication and acquiring knowledge. Short stories allow for the creation of a world or a person through the lens of a single aspect. Each of these allows the writer and reader to see a world in a grain of sand.
But I don’t mean to straight-jacket short forms with the above examples. Think of it all as merely a starting point into their expansive world.
Another iteration of their form/function specificity is their versatility. Short forms work so well with each other; making hybridization a given. This ability to marry different short forms makes possible choreopoems, verse novels, epics, verse biographies, and the like. If those forms sound foreign to you, maybe the following titles will be more familiar:
- For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (choreopoem) [I think of this as a verse play.]
- Carver: A Life in Poems, by Marilyn Nelson (verse biography)
- Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by Seamus Heaney (epic)
- Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (verse novel)
Enough of extolling the virtues of short forms, I urge you to dive right into them. Try out new ways to express yourself. November is the perfect time to rebel and dive into something short and something new.
Focusing on short forms during National Novel Writing Month!? Yes. November and NaNoWriMo are flexible enough to make way for your short forms writing rebellion. NaNoWriMo welcomes the idea and calls it being a NaNo Rebel.
If you’re not quite brave enough to be that visible nationally, try a smaller venue. Local writing groups offer an easy way to meet other writers and learn about new techniques. However, there’s no shame in being hesitant to join a formal writing group. You can always create your own community or go it alone for awhile. After all, creating the writing curriculum that works for you is DIY MFA’s founding principle. Whatever short form(s) or writing path you choose will make you the writer you want to be.
Finally, consider this article a partial retraction of the sentiment in my article, How to Use Small Forms as Steps to a Novel. Small or short forms are so much more than a path to writing novels. They are literature’s mild-mannered superheroes. Brandon Taylor said it best—with a little help from me:
“But see, a [short form] works its way inside of you. You don’t walk out of it. You don’t get to leave. You carry it inside you. It’s beating there all the time like a second heart. A [short form] isn’t quick. It takes time.”
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.