On Short Form and Long Form

I have always been partial to anything short form, which I don’t want to attribute to my short attention span. Maybe I have to, but it feels negative. But why should a short attention span be negative? There are a number of poems and short stories that have held me in rapture and have deeply inspired my creative life. Maybe I like writers who write for writers. Combinations of words in poems by Rimbaud and Eluard have opened me up and stimulated important realizations. I am comforted by these words like a big fuzzy blanket. I remember when, living in Portland, Oregon in the midst of an intense relationship, I found a very old copy of 19th century French poetry, which, very much like Andre Breton’s spoon with the little shoe, carried something emotionally weighty before I even opened the book. I read every poem in that book in one sitting and (after feeling enveloped by melancholy romanticism like you do when you are young) realized that I had found the words that I had felt somewhere inside but had never been able to express.  This brought with it a new sense of awareness, confidence, and purpose.

Novels don’t do this for me. For me, novels are an entirely different experience of being engaged with characters that feels more like a collective human experience than an individual one.

For me, writing something short takes a different kind of skill than writing something long, like a novel. I can imagine that writing a novel commands an enormous amount of time and mental energy, and most of all, a novelist needs the courage to let go of individual words and phrases and sentences the way a poet or an essayist cannot.  The longest piece I’ve ever written was about 120 pages, and while I have always wanted to push myself to write something longer, it doesn’t feel natural. I’ve always felt too weighed down by the poetics of individual words to ever finish anything longer than that.  I think Paul Valéry said that poems are never finished, only abandoned, which seems true. On the other hand, I think novels are finished.  While I think the romanticism of the novel often leaves poetry and other short works in the dust, I think it’s more about the individuality of human experience and the difference in how every writer “works.” My stubbornness has always given me a hard time in “abandoning” anything.

That being said, I think it’s safe to assume that the novel is often given greater commercial attention than poetry or short stories. Writing poetry or short stories forces the author to say in one page or twenty pages, what they could have danced around and fleshed out for 200. Every so often, a short story collection will find its way to the New York Times list.  Jumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies comes to mind, as does Tobias Wolf’s short story collection from a few years back. It’s interesting to me because it seems like, with the popularity of short form with the advent of technology, that more people would be buying short stories and poetry, but the novel pervades. Is this because people like to feel something collective? Maybe short form is more isolating. In writing this after reading Breton, I feel as if poetry, in not trying to replicate life, is a pure expression of the human experience. Where the novel tries to replicate human experience and commonalities, the poem, the essay, the short story, often nudges us toward something more individual. I don’t think one is better or worse than the other.

(October 2014)


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