ray bradbury never said that
or, should you write a short story every week?
Before we get to the essay, just a bit of housekeeping:
People do not seem interested in the old Studio Ghibli essays, so I’ll just quietly post the rest of them on the site without sending out the emails. I’ll make a Table of Contents for people to find them easily, if they’re so inclined.
We’ve moved into our new house!
I’ve also, finally, made it through all the prewritten essays I had coming into this project. With the craziness of the last two months, I haven’t gotten much new writing, so I may temporarily slow down to one essay per week.
The wee baby J hit his due date on Tuesday. He hit seven weeks on Monday. It’s odd, but good, I guess. He’s doing well. Sort of waking up to the world, which comes with both good and bad aspects. He loves to sleep all day. He does not love to sleep all night.
Lots of house projects, which I’ll maybe talk about at more length later.
Rejoice! a disaster
The very first story I sent out for publication got accepted. The first time I sent a novel manuscript to a publisher, it also got accepted.
My first published short story came out when I was 20. My first published novel came out when I was 23. Because of that, I came to have certain expectations. I had two more novels come out shortly after, along with dozens of essays, reviews, short stories, and interviews. It all came so simply and without any effort that I simply never bothered to try.
If I got a single rejection for a short story, I just tossed the story away and wrote a new one. So even though I gathered rejections by the handful, I never really took an important lesson to heart.
Laziness. I was and remain very lazy in all kinds of pursuits, from the personal to the professional. I never tried very hard to publish things. I am tremendously lazy with the business side of writing. Submitting, marketing yourself, etc. I hate it. Or, not even hate it. I simply don’t do it.
This is something that school taught me, unintentionally. I was one of those special kinds of idiots who just stumbled into the top of my classes. I never learned how to study. Never learned how to try. Never learned anything I was meant to. Even when I was getting my very impressive sounding degree, I never learned how to study. When Finals came, I just reread the textbook the day before the test1.
And so when I ran into disappointment—and disappointment came crashing down upon me after my third novel was published—I mostly receded from the publishing world.
Rejection and humiliation are part of being a writer. Harry Potter was famously rejected dozens of times before turning JK Rowling into a billionaire. There are many other such examples. The difference between success and failure obviously comes down to some level of skill, but much of it, I think, comes down to an unwillingness to give up. Beat your head against the wall endlessly until the plaster and drywall cracks and breaks and you carve that into a door.
Rodney Dangerfield was an immense failure until he was one of the most successful comedians in the world. Milan Kundera published his first novel in his fifties. Paul Giamatti wasn’t a name people associated with acting until he was in his forties. Ursula K Le Guin, too, didn’t have much publishing success into she was toeing against forty.
We fetishize prodigies. Even still, we put more weight into a debut novel than we do into someone’s fifth or thirtieth. And so there are people like me who rushed to publish as quickly as possible with whoever was willing to put my name in print.
Maybe someday I’ll talk more about this, but I think this experience was largely bad for me. Or, it delayed the learning of lessons I should have internalized long ago.
I didn’t stop to learn those lessons until after I had three novels in print. I even got blurbed by my absolute favorite writer, and his words were so generous that I’m still slightly astounded by them:
Rathke is the best kind of possessed writer—the kind who has the courage of his possession, whose exorcised words exist in defiance of their author.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been spoiled my whole dumb life by the kindness of strangers. Call it ego, but I believed in my own hype. More than that, I believed that I deserved success.
Which is, I think, why it hurt so much when it all led to so little.
I don’t know exactly how to say what I’ve learned in the last seven years of quietly writing my little novels that I share with no one. Mostly, I’ve unlearned quite a lot. Most importantly, I found the joy in amusing myself with my own words and worlds. And now I’m taking all this private work and slowly making it public.
So if there’s a lesson for anyone else, I suppose it’s that talent is sometimes a barrier if you never learn how to do the work.
a hollow tree
I’ve written hundreds of short stories. I know this because I’ve counted them because I document a lot of stupid stuff. I have them all put into a single Word document that no one will ever be allowed to look at.
The bulk of these were written before I ever wrote a novel at the end of 2010. Since writing my first novel, I’ve written many novel(la)s but only about twenty short stories. That may sound like a lot, but most of these have been written in the last four months.
Many of these short stories were published around the internet, but, as far as I can tell, only one of those publications still exists. Most of my writing career just fading into the ether that is the internet. The foggy constellation of sites and publishers that called themselves both affectionately and pejoratively Indie Lit that I believed in so hard has largely dissipated. And all those millions of words I wrote as a columnist, as a critic, as an interviewer, and even as a short story writer have disappeared with them.
All those words that meant so much to me. All that time spent in service of so little. All forgotten. All gone. And so it really didn’t bother me so much when I deleted myself from the internet.
A slow-motion forgetting was already underway. I just hit the accelerator a bit.
In doing so, I got better. As a writer, yes, but also as a person.
Rejoice! a womb
Ray Bradbury famously said that if you write a short story every week, you’ll eventually write a good one. Many, many, many writers have taken this as advice. I even did it in public at my old website3!
I don’t think he meant this as advice or even as a real recommendation. It was more just a simple statement that the more you write the better you’ll get at writing. Partly, it was a joke.
Because, really, how bad do you have to be to write 52 bad stories in a row?
I mention all this for two reasons:
because, somewhat randomly, I decided to take a crack at writing a short story (on average) every week of this year;
and because I am terrible at writing short stories.
Of the hundreds of short stories I’ve written, probably only a handful of them are worth reading, and almost all of them have been written since January. It took me a long time to really understand and accept this fact, but it’s true: I am very bad at writing short fiction.
This is, in part, why I don’t mind that the internet forgot me and all my stories. They probably weren’t worth reading anyway.
Due to various responsibilities related to changing circumstances in my life, I’m a bit behind at the moment on this project (though I did just write two last night), but it should be easy enough to catch up.
Along with this, I’ve decided to finally start submitting short fiction more seriously than I ever have before. I have a few short stories already sold this year, including my first professional market sale. I’ll share the news once the news is sharable.
Having a history of being quite bad at writing short stories while also having that history expunged has given me a lot of freedom, in a funny way. The fact that there are so many themed magazines with monthly prompts also makes coming up with new stories quite a bit easier. And I’ve been having a lot of fun! Without any expectations for quality, I’ve just been having the time of my dumb life writing these stories.
Because, yes, I am submitting them all over (though only to paying markets—one of those lessons I wish I had learned when I was younger!—because you may as well get paid if you’re going to waste your time writing stories) in a way I never have before.
Science fiction, fantasy, crime, surrealism, romance, realism—I’ve just been taking a crack at all of it.
And let me tell you, you get a lot of rejections!
But the sales do come. It has more to do with persistence than with any real increase in my abilities, though it would be pretty embarrassing if I hadn’t improved at least a bit in the last decade.
And so that’s what I’ve been doing. Which is kind of funny. I mean, I know I’m a bad short story writer. These rejections can’t even hurt my feelings anymore! But it’s also a pleasant experience. Receiving the kindly worded rejections from some editors who are probably annoyed by the stories I keep sending their way, and, of course, the occasional sale.
But really, I’m just rediscovering a joy in a type of writing I never thought I’d try again.
It’s like meeting myself again. That sad boy with wide open eyes who believed so much in his own words that he turned them into an identity. And while communing with that sad, desperate, lonely version of myself, I come to know so much more about who I am now and who I want to one day be.
I cannot heal the person I once was. But, I mean, life is pretty dang good these days. And sometimes the only way to become happy, to understand yourself, is to have much of what you love collapse all around you.
I encourage you to someday attempt to bruteforce your way through a neuroanatomy textbook
Someday I plan on writing about his books. Maybe when I’m brave enough.
Also long dead, long gone, permanently removed along with so much of who I was on the internet