Writing Advice: John Cheever on How To Write a Short Story

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Writer John Cheever, with a coffee mug in front of a train.

For years, I’ve started writing short stories only to stop after a paragraph or two and file them away in a folder titled, “Short Story Ideas.” 

I keep this folder at the very back of a large file drawer at the bottom left of my desk. The intention is, I suppose, to revisit this folder someday, when my ability to write fiction, to make things up, essentially, are fully formed and ready to be exercised in a lucrative fashion. I’d take them out, one half-filled sheet at a time and finish what I started so many years ago. The ideas are good – the characters fully formed in my head, because they are based off of real people – and the plot, or at least the character development is there…but the writing! The writing is all off.

I am slowly beginning to realize my inability to speak for anyone but myself. And maybe this is not a bad thing, because who else should I be speaking for? But as a writer, this is severely limiting. I’m limited to one voice: mine – and to go beyond that, to assume the mindset of another character, to empathize and bring another soul to life…well, that’s to risky. I inevitably feel, after a few paragraphs of writing fiction, that I’m making a list. This character does this, says this, sees this, thinks this… and is a cardboard cutout of the real life person I had intended to base them on. Why write about fictitious people I can’t bring to life when there are real bodies, real souls swarming all around me, their stories waiting to be told?

Because they’re still alive, that’s why.

Cheever (I’m going to keep on going back to this guy for a while – it was a thick biography and I feel I spent a long time with him) wrote about his family – wife, daughter, sons, in-laws and close friends – masquerading these characters under the mask of fiction. When these people read his stories, they recognized right away whom he was writing about, and exactly what he thought of them. More often than not, the portraits were unflattering and many of his subjects (his wife, especially) were incensed, but what could they do? It was only fiction.

And now, I am compelled to be even more honest – after all, I have no fiction to hide behind if personal essay is all I do – this type of writing, though not quite stream-of-consciousness-vomit-style, is easier for me (‘easier’ being a euphemism for ‘possible’). I know my thoughts. I can organize them in a heartbeat and not think twice about whether or not the plot will play out as neatly as I had hoped because there usually is no plot. Thoughts, opinions, observations and short character sketches of real people are not plot driven. The motivations behind their existence on the page is that I noticed them and chose to write about them. I don’t have to worry about character development because real people are developed (though some, arguably, are not – but again, that is not my problem) or continuity or morality or all the other stuff fiction writers have to worry about.

Rereading the above paragraph, I realize it sounds like I have a problem with plot and character development. But I don’t. Everything works in my head – it’s just those same things get jumbled up on the journey from mind to paper. When I write fiction, I feel like I’m writing about something I haven’t a clue about… the people, vivid in my head, are vivid because they’re real. Then I categorize them as fictional characters and they lose their third dimension and fall flat – bam, onto the page – and as hard as I try to keep them alive, to keep their chests heaving, their hearts pumping – they are stillborn, cold before they even attempt their first breath. I am left with dead characters, shadows of their originals.

So. How do you write a short story? Damned if I know. Those paragraphs may vie to see the light of day, but in my heart I know they’ll rest in that dark drawer for years to come until I move them, permanently, to the trash.

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One thought on “Writing Advice: John Cheever on How To Write a Short Story

  1. I know you're supposed to kill your darlings and all, but damn girl, you gotta give them a chance to breathe first!

    There's probably a whole conversation about the rest of this entry brewing in me (not to imply that I have any answers because, spoiler alert, I don't. But still, fun topic!). Incidentally, I'll be back in Cerritos in November. You gonna be around?

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