Although it must be a thousand years
ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember
the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained
and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short
stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very
quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told,
is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it
be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form,
as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short
stories there are in the world.
The basic rule given us was simple
and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something
from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was
the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules.
A story could be about anything and could use any means and any
technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to
this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what
he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise
we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence,
for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three-
or six- or ten-thousand words.
So there went the magic formula, the
secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate,
lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally
bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom
of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned
me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors
for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The
low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips,
in the hundreds of rejection slips.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine
story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then
do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories
dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories
and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and
take my chances.
If there is a magic in story writing,
and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce
it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The
formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to
convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer
has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the
way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good
story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story
is only an ineffective story.
It is not so very hard to judge a story
after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still
scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer
who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing
majesty of the medium.
I remember one last piece of advice
given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic
'20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.
I was told, "It's going to take a long
time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if
you could go to Europe."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune,
but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can
stand the shame of being poor."
It wasn't too long afterward that the
depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore.
And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it.
But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long
time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never
She told me it wouldn't.