Saturday, June 2, 2007

Wind Sprints

I was not much of a joiner as a kid. I attended thirteen schools between kindergarten and my high school graduation, so I never felt quite confident enough to get involved. When I was a sophomore, I decided to try out for the track team. My friend Stacey had gone out for track freshman year and I was feeling a little abandoned after school. I had never played sports, but thought perhaps staying between two white lines on an oval was something I had the finesse to handle. Girls’ track was pretty popular and the team was big. Even though we had sixty girls, the coach had to cut a number of people every fall when tryouts were held. Our school had been #1 in our league for several years in a row. I was not quick, but I was in pretty good shape, so I was tagged a middle distance/distance runner. That made me a primary candidate for the mile and the two mile and a back up if all else went wrong and we needed someone to run the half mile.

Our coach, who also coached distance runners at Boston College, was fantastic. We had workouts that I still marvel at. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we’d run about five miles on the road and go back to the gym to lift weights. Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d run ten miles. The coach always had some other drill mixed in between our warm-up and road work. Sometimes we’d jog to the Endicott Estate, a nineteenth century mansion on 15 acres of lush, open grass that had been willed to the town by a multi-millionaire shoe tycoon in the 1960’s and we’d do wind sprints. He’d line us up, long distance runners next to discus throwers, long jumpers and sprinters and we’d sprint for maybe 100 yards and jog back to the start. He’d vary the length of the sprint and in the beginning; the stars of our team – the sprinters – would leave all of us behind. After a while, shot putters and fifty yard dash runners would fall to the side, complaining of pulled muscles and side aches. The distance runners would plod on until we were released from the unpleasant drill.

During the actual track meets, it was a little tough sometimes to wait the entire meet until the last event, the two mile. I ran the two mile a lot. Friends, fellow athletes and parents loudly cheered on the shorter, more exciting events early in the day, but even the most dedicated of grandparents had a hard time maintaining any kind of excitement when watching a group of girls run around a track eight times. In those days, it usually took the front runners twelve minutes or more to finish – my personal best was 12:10. It was much more a psychological than a physical challenge to run the two mile. I used to sing the lyrics to Don McLean’s American Pie in my head to keep distracted.

I moved again before my junior year, so that was my one high school experience in varsity sports. I’m still a little proud to say that I lettered that year – won and placed in enough races to earn the big wooly grey “D” to sew on the crimson (it was really maroon) jacket with my name embroidered on it.

Writing a novel is a little like being a two mile runner – more like training for the marathon really. People are vaguely aware you’re doing it, it’s not especially glamorous and it’s a little painful to watch. There are no cheers as you complete each lap – at best maybe a “you’re doing great, keep going!” now and then, but it’s truly a solitary accomplishment and even if you finish, there’s no guarantee you’ll win or even place.

As I study and begin to learn more about craft I’ve begun to think I need to do some wind sprints. I need little bursts of accomplishment to bolster the long process I’ve undertaken so I’ve decided to pen some short stories while I continue to hammer out my manuscript. By starting out with so ambitious an endeavor, I’ve denied myself the time to experiment and writing some short stories seems the logical outlet for trying different things. I’ve also put myself in the awkward position of starting a huge undertaking with absolutely no real validation or feedback about my writing and too much insecurity to look for it yet. I’d never dream of showing my work in progress to anyone at this point, but perhaps the short story will give me the opportunity to share a piece of myself the next time someone asks what I’m working on. It feels less threatening.

Lots of well known authors either wrote short stories prior to writing novels or do both. Some novelists don’t write them at all. Did you write short stories prior to embarking on your first novel? Do you still? Do you consider short stories a training ground for embarking onto that much more formidable form – the novel -- or do you find them too different? Do you see a downside to working on both forms simultaneously? Do you ever write something apart from your novel (if you're writing one) so you can feel like you've finished something? So you can write something completely different?

9 comments:

Therese said...

Ah, short fiction...

I wrote my first novel largely ignorant about short fiction, so when I got into grad school and began being "trained" with short stories, I was a bit perplexed: what should they look like? What should they do? What's the value for me, an aspiring novelist, to train this way?

Eager to spread my writing wings, I started a short story (my second ever) and found I really enjoyed the tight parameters of telling a whole tale in 20 pages (give or take). That story went on to place highly in two competitions, which gave me much needed confidence in my abilities.

In your shoes, I believe I'd do as you're contemplating. You should be able to do both short and long fiction simultaneously, and the lessons gained from crafting short work will likely inform your novel in favorable ways.

I like a 3000-5000 word parameter, because at that length I can be expansive, but only in critical ways. Give it a try, see what you think. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

I spent a year writing short stories--one a month--as training before I started writing a novel. I experimented with different styles and voices, first person vs. third person, male POV vs. female POV, adult POV vs. child POV, contemporary vs. far-future settings, different types of characters, and a variety of lengths (300 to 11,000 words). Doing so was quite worthwhile, for several reasons.

One, some of those stories sold, so I had financial validation early. That bolstered my confidence for the long haul of writing a novel.

Two, I could experiment with difficult techniques and take chances without having to keep it up for a whole novel and without having wasted the time if my experimentation flopped.

Three, by purposely varying my voice, I found out what I could do (how wide afield I could and couldn't go) and what I was most comfortable doing (what I should probably try to stay close to in longer pieces). This exercise also honed my natural voice and made me more aware of it.

Four, I started building name awareness for when I finally have a novel out.

I haven't written short stories since I started writing novels, but I set new writing goals in April, and one of them is to intersperse writing short stories with working on my current novel. I expect doing so will jumpstart my creativity and allow me to be productive at times when my novel needs some subconscious marinating.

Larramie said...

Here's my "untrained" but logical thought for your short writings, Lisa. Why not try creating some of them to be potential chapters in your novel? After all, most chapters average twenty pages and you might come up with unique twists while not focusing entirely on the novel.

In other words, trick your brain. ;o)

Lisa said...

Therese,

It doesn't surprise me that you were very successful writing in an unfamiliar form almost immediately. I'd written a couple over the last couple of years and after writing this post on Friday night, I started a new short story and finished the first draft on Saturday. I wrote it in a different POV from my draft novel and from a young man's perspective. I have to say, I loved doing it and I loved that I was able to have that sense of completing an entire tale that quickly. It's just shy of 3,000 words, but I suspect it may expand a little in the revision process. The main thing is, it's given me a bit of a creative shot in the arm. I like your advice -- of course we all like advice that validates what we want to do anyway, don't we? ;)

Shauna,

Your story reinforces many of the same ideas I had. I'd also like to experiment with varying POVs, settings, time periods and also issues that don't fit into the context of the draft novel I'm also working on. I also have to admit to a secondary goal of writing some good ones and seeking publication, possibly in ezines and literary magazines. It definitely doesn't seem to hurt. Your last reason is an important one for me too. I find that it's always helped me in other areas of my life to have some smaller projects to work on when the big ones seem to bog down a little. It keeps me from stopping altogether and can help kickstart and even help send the big project onto the next level. Great reasons and great ideas.

Larramie,

You've really got me excited with your suggestion. My novel takes place in several places, with encounters with a number of people and I may well try writing one of the future pieces as a stand alone short story, just to see what happens. I can think of two parts to the story I haven't drafted yet that would also lend themselves perfectly to this experiment. Great idea!

reality said...

Beautiful post and the analogy is great.
As a lover of sports [I ran the 800 and the 1500 yards for college,] I see where you are coming from.
I started by writing shorts. I have had them beta read and put up for crits on writing forums and received good reviews. One from an editor suggested that I should enter in a competition.
So far I have not gone for publication. My problem is I need to finish what I start.

I do think the grounds you mention for writing shorts are all good ones. The best lesson you learn from short writing is how to write tight. Something we conveniently put aside in the novel.
Experimentation is another benefit. How many novelists write in second present. See the number of short stories in this POV.
I think it is a wonderful idea. And I'll offer myself as a beta reader if you want one for a short story. I can see you write a great one.

Lisa said...

Reality,

Wow! I was just at Eastern Reality and apparently you were here...

Great point about short stories being tight -- and the challenges of trying to carry that through to novel form. I am definitely excited about trying some new things. Thank you for the generous offer -- be careful because I might just take you up on it!

reality said...

Lisa,
As you mentioned we are kindred spirits of sorts.
Heres another one for you, I am also into government sales.
As to the Beta offer, sure you're welcome. I guess it's an easy way to earn my name on the list of your friends, on page one of your bestseller. :)

Lisa said...

Reality,

Check you blog...wow, we have to talk!

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Eudaemonia, the good life, which is what Aristotle meant by the pursuit of happiness. He did not mean smiling a lot and giggling. Aristotle talks about the pleasures of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation. Aristotle is not talking about raw feeling, about thrills, about orgasms. Aristotle is talking about, when one has a good conversation, when one contemplates well. When one is in eudaemonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness is blocked. You're one with the music.
The good life consists of the roots that lead to flow. It consists of first knowing what your signature strengths are and then recrafting your life to use them more — recrafting your work, your romance, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to deploy the things you're best at. What you get out of that is not the propensity to giggle a lot; what you get is flow, and the more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life.

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Espanol - eudaemonia - un estado contento de ser feliz y sano y próspero.

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Eudaimonia
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Eudaimonia (Greek: ευδαιμονία) is a classical Greek word commonly translated as 'happiness'. Etymologically, it consists of the word "eu" ("good" or "well being") and "daimōn" ("spirit" or "minor deity", used by extension to mean one's lot or fortune). Although popular usage of the term happiness refers to a state of mind, related to joy or pleasure, eudaimonia rarely has such connotations, and the less subjective "human flourishing" is often preferred as a translation.
Greek philosophy
Socrates' philosophy, as it is represented in Plato's early dialogues, contains two related claims about eudaimonia. The first is the strong inter-dependence of eudaimonia, virtue (aretē), and knowledge (epistemē): virtue is a sort of knowledge, perhaps 'knowledge of good and evil', and it is this knowledge that is required to reach the ultimate good, with eudaimonia being the prime candidate for this ultimate good. The second, sometimes called "psychological eudaimonism" or "Socratic intellectualism", is the claim that the ultimate good, eudaimonia, is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve.
Plato's middle dialogues present a somewhat different position. In the Republic, we find a moral psychology more complex than psychological eudaimonism: we do not only desire our ultimate good, rather the soul, or mind, has three motivating parts - a rational, spirited (approximately, emotional), and appetitive part - and each of these parts have their own desired ends. Eudaimonia, then, is not simply acquired through knowledge, it requires the correct psychic ordering of this tripartite soul: the rational part must govern the spirited and appetitive part, thereby correctly leading all desires and actions to eudaimonia and the principal constituent of eudaimonia, virtue.
According to Aristotle, the hierarchy of human purposes aim at eudaimonia as the highest, most inclusive end. This is the end that everyone in fact aims at, and it is the only end towards which it is worth undertaking means. Eudaimonia is constituted, according to Aristotle, not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. Such activity manifests the virtues of character, including courage, honesty, pride, friendliness, and wittiness; the intellectual virtues, such as rationality in judgment; and non-sacrificial (i.e. mutually beneficial) friendships and scientific knowledge (knowledge of things that are fundamental and/or unchanging is the best).
Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness (eudaimonia) is the highest good. However, unlike Aristotle, he identifies happiness with pleasure. Epicurus presents two main arguments. The first defends the claim that pleasure is the only thing that people do, as a matter of fact, value for its own sake. The second, which fits in well with Epicurus' empiricism, supposedly lies in one's introspective experience: one immediately perceives that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, in the same way that one immediately perceives that fire is hot. Thus, as something immediately apparent, no further argument is needed to show the goodness of pleasure or the badness of pain. Although all pleasures are good and all pains evil, Epicurus does not believe that all pleasures are choiceworthy or all pains unchoiceworthy. Instead, one should calculate what is in one's long-term self-interest, and forgo what will bring pleasure in the short-term if doing so will ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term.

==============================

eudaemonia from http://www.wordreference.com/definition/eudaemoniaAdapted From: WordNet 2.0 Copyright 2003 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.
noun
wellbeing, well-being, welfare, upbeat, eudaemonia, eudaimonia
a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous; "the town was finally on the upbeat after our recent troubles"
Category Tree: state condition fortune; destiny; fate; luck; lot; circumstances; portion good fortune; good luck prosperity; successfulness wellbeing, well-being, welfare, upbeat, eudaemonia, eudaimonia health; wellness fool's paradise

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf