The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
I’ve made some things for you, Constant Reader; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, let’s talk about them for a bit, shall we? It won’t take long. Here, sit down beside me. And do come a little closer. I don’t bite.
Except . . . we’ve known each other for a very long time, and I suspect you know that’s not entirely true.
You’d be surprised—at least, I think you would be—at how many people ask me why I still write short stories. The reason is pretty simple: writing them makes me happy, because I was built to entertain. I can’t play the guitar very well, and I can’t tap-dance at all, but I can do this. So I do.
I’m a novelist by nature, I will grant you that, and I have a particular liking for the long ones that create an immersive experience for writer and reader, where the fiction has a chance to become a world that’s almost real. When a long book succeeds, the writer and reader are not just having an affair; they are married. When I get a letter from a reader who says he or she was sorry when The Stand or 11/22/63 came to an end, I feel that book has been a success.
But there’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a
stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar. And, yes, when my stories are collected, I always feel like a street vendor, one who sells only at midnight. I spread my assortment out, inviting the reader—that’s you—to come and take your pick. But I always add the proper caveat: be careful, my dear, because some of these items are dangerous. They are the ones with bad dreams hidden inside, the ones you can’t stop thinking about when sleep is slow to come and you wonder why the closet door is open, when you know perfectly well that you shut it.
If I said I always enjoyed the strict discipline shorter works of fiction impose, I’d be lying. Short stories require a kind of acrobatic skill that takes a lot of tiresome practice. Easy reading is the product of hard writing, some teachers say, and it’s true. Miscues that can be overlooked in a novel become glaringly obvious in a short story. Strict discipline is necessary. The writer has to rein in his impulse to follow certain entrancing side paths and stick to the main route.
I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction. I have struggled with feelings of inadequacy, a soul-deep fear that I will be unable to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realization of that idea’s potential. What that comes down to, in plain English, is that the finished product never seems quite as good as the splendid idea that rose from the subconscious one day, along with the excited thought, Ah man! I gotta write this right away!
Sometimes the result is pretty good, though. And every once in awhile, the result is even better than the original concept. I love it when that happens. The real challenge is getting into the damned thing, and I believe that’s why so many would-be writers with great ideas never actually pick up the pen or start tapping away at the keys. All too often, it’s like trying to start a car on a cold day. At first the motor doesn’t even crank, it only groans. But if you keep at it (and if the battery doesn’t die), the engine starts . . . runs rough . . . and then smooths out.
There are stories here that came in a flash of inspiration (“Summer Thunder”
was one of those), and had to be written at once, even if it meant interrupting work on a novel. There are others, like “Mile 81,” that have waited their turn patiently for decades. Yet the strict focus needed to create a good short story is always the same. Writing novels is a little like playing baseball, where the game goes on for as long as it needs to, even if that means twenty innings. Writing short stories is more like playing basketball or football: you’re competing against the clock as well as the other team.
When it comes to writing fiction, long or short, the learning curve never ends. I may be a Professional Writer to the IRS when I file my tax return, but in creative terms, I’m still an amateur, still learning my craft. We all are. Every day spent writing is a learning experience, and a battle to do something new. Phoning it in is not allowed. One cannot increase one’s talent—that comes with the package—but it is possible to keep talent from shrinking. At least, I like to think so.
And hey! I still love it.
So here are the goods, my dear Constant Reader. Tonight I’m selling a bit of everything—a monster that looks like a car (shades of Christine), a man who can kill you by writing your obituary, an e-reader that accesses parallel worlds, and that all-time favorite, the end of the human race. I like to sell this stuff when the rest of the vendors have long since gone home, when the streets are deserted and a cold rind of moon floats over the canyons of the city. That’s when I like to spread my blanket and lay out my goods.
That’s enough talk. Perhaps you’d like to buy something, now, yes? Everything you see is handcrafted, and while I love each and every item, I’m happy to sell them, because I made them especially for you. Feel free to examine them, but please be careful.
The best of them have teeth.
August 6, 2014