For the Love of Writing Long by Philip F. Deaver
Novellas are in my personal journey as a writer, so this is as much about the journey as that “intermediate” literary form. A few years ago I spent 10 years writing my Skidmore novel, and the design was a novel in five novellas, with an introductory chapter and a capstone that were normal “chapter” length, whatever that is. Each of the five novellas, though in third person limited, was in a different character’s voice and point of view. They were written to stand alone. But they were written so that, taken together, they formed a continuous narrative, a novel of some length. In it, Mr. Skidmore went on a journey to catch up to many of his old friends to apologize and make amends for things he’d done to them in the past (see my story collection Silent Retreats). Only one of the novella-length chapters is from his point of view, the first one, as he embarks on the journey. The other novellas join the “injured parties” from Skidmore’s past in their semi-settled later lives so that we get to know where they’ve gone after their tumultuous twenties and how things have turned out. In each novella, after we settle in to its story, Skidmore shoots through that world on his supposed mission, like Kahoutek, large and looming, but also neurotic and still mean. As we’d expect from him, his motives for going on the journey aren’t quite as pure as seeking reconciliation. In fact, someone is chasing him.
By the time I wrote this book, titled Past Tense (unpublished), the theme I was interested in had changed from the days of Silent Retreats. I always articulated my theme in the old days as: What happened to men after what happened to women (very 1970s-‘80s). While I don’t think that theme ever made its point, now I’m writing something more akin to: What men do to themselves and each other. It’s quite timely. I’ve come to believe that somewhere in the chemical and genetic scripts of testosterone is written the end of the world.
Bill Clinton is a great example. When he found himself in the White House in the early ‘90s, rumors, theories, and investigations began and chased him his whole presidency. His activities in Arkansas, in elected office, in business and shall we say ‘social,’ were grist for big expensive ruthless investigations by his enemies, and, as time went on, his life in Washington got pretty interesting, too. Republicans (his enemies), still bristling from the humiliation of the humiliation of Richard Nixon, were looking to even the score, and the Clinton presidency seemed to be their opportunity because Clinton was the first Democratic president since the Nixon crater had cooled. Millions of dollars of investigations of both Bill and Hillary, all while the President and First Lady themselves were quite popular in the country, surfaced not much of anything but successfully interfered as much as possible with Clinton’s effective governing. The opposition wanted him to go down even if it was to the detriment of the whole nation. Perhaps this will sound familiar. Anyway, he shouldered all of it. And then the Monica scandal erupted. Bill in effect, because of his own flaws, handed his opposition the hammer to hammer him with, and they were delighted to oblige. The last couple of years of his administration were a near fatal nightmare for him and were pretty wild for a lot of people. His most ardent attacker, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, went down in a similar scandal right while pressing the case against Clinton, and Larry Flynt, of Hustler magazine, came out from under a big flat rock and broke it to Washington that he had a list of the sexual adventures of our Washington public servants, clandestine involvements of many nationally elected politicians, and he’d be happy to make it public if that’s the kind of game Washington wanted to play. This settled things down, but not before Henry Hyde, leading the House of Representatives in the impeachment case, was suddenly soiled by an old secret that came to light. Congressman Livingston, about to succeed the deposed Gingrich as Speaker of the House, waved his own white flag, and stepped away from the appointment because of fear, pure fear, that something in his own past would be revealed, and thus the fear revealed it. For a while it seemed that we might not ever find a ‘clean’ Speaker of the House. It was getting crazy in D.C. It would take an American Tolstoy to write this one in fiction. People across that nation followed the new “cable” news, laughed and enjoyed all this Washington humiliation, secretly haunted by their own adventures and secrets in their own little and big towns (there’s a novella). The leading edge of the baby boom was in its fifties, the economy was rocking, for the first time in history both men and women were coming to fruition in their professions and pursuits, turning the wheel in the economy. It was a large generation, the first one that economically doubled itself with educated men and women hitting their stride in their careers, shoulder to shoulder, a lot of independence, ego, achievement, a lot of travel, time in hotels in the cities, a heady era indeed, a giant social churn, divorce everywhere. It was epic.
So, but what is a novella? you ask The best discussion on the topic that I know of, or at least one certainly worth reading, is Richard Ford’s intro to his edited volume, The Granta Book of the American Long Story (London: Granta Books, 1998). In about ten pages of scholarly inquiry into the history of the word ‘novella’ and the genre itself, Ford moves us from broad historical curiosity to “Okay, in the end it really is about size.” At least on the American side of the ocean, nobody had any interest in stipulating what makes a novella as one might put a stake in the ground around the design of a villanelle. No. The short story is of a length that fits in magazines. The novel is of a length that would support a book spine wide enough to print the name of the novel and the author on it and put it on a bookshelf. How quaint, these working definitions, as magazines became fewer, more desperate, and swamped in story submissions coming out of the first generation with inborn keyboard skills to reach the age in which they have stories to tell; how quaint, to dream of books, hard backs with beautiful covers, the advance, the royalties, the book tour and reviews, the readings and signings, the whole imagined romantic life of an author, even as the industry goes bust even as more people than ever are writing.
Well it turns out the media in which stories and novels were historically displayed determined the length of the forms—production, available space in an “issue,” the cost of paper for hard copy (before there was “soft” copy, a digital world). All of that hard copy stuff wasn’t gone, but it was under pressure.
But I love to write and am a writer. And if the game is changing in its very fundamentals right under my feet so that quite often my work goes nowhere (competition in even the small pond is getting fiercer, and the pond is drying up), does that mean I’ll stop? I can’t do that. Furthermore, does it mean I can be moved by the argument that the novella is a form of intermediate length that fits nowhere? No, I write what I want to write, always have. Writing has been my place of freedom, the only one. As the stakes get lower, the freedom grows.
So I began writing novellas about men, the novel Past Tense being my first (ten year) toe dip into an unmarketable topic (men) in an awkward medium (novella). It wasn’t/isn’t that I don’t like writing about women, I do, and one can’t write about men without writing about women, and it’s not that I put women in secondary roles—if you know about men you know women aren’t secondary with men except in the competitive way in which men are also secondary to other men—anyway so it isn’t that old stuff and don’t say it is. It’s that I know more now, including realizing, if not understanding, the near infinite complexity. My definition of a novella is “longer than most stories, shorter than most novels.” But is the novella a short novel, or is it a long story, in design? Am I worried about that? Please. There’s not enough time to worry about that. Sometimes it’s a short novel, sometimes it’s a long story. Sometimes it’s a hybrid. Writers are free. And because we’re free, we’re free to write work in whatever length it turns out to be when we’re done. There’s the matter of how the work morphs as it grows. Writers know about this. The work becomes something as you work, often not exactly what you envisioned, and as you continue to work it transforms and deepens further, renders the writer a surprise or three, becomes something else again. If you keep going, one more thing happens, maybe two, after what might have been the ending. What might have been the climax turns out to have been a plot point enroute to something deliciously more complex and resonating, something you didn’t see coming that instead sprouted organically from the ground of the story you thought you were writing. You look back on your older stories, and wonder why you didn’t pull them through but instead left the protagonist on what you insisted at the time was a self-explanatory sand bar only half-way across the river—after all, you claimed, it wasn’t about getting across the river. Well, it wasn’t for me then, but maybe it is for me now.
I recently completed a novella that took me a couple of years. The title of it is “Healing,” and it’s about men. (I can hear the channels changing already.) It takes place in Bali. One of the men, derivative of a character I created long ago, an old painter named Slater (see “Geneseo” in Silent Retreats) talks about how long it takes him to do a painting, and how layer by layer the painting becomes itself and after a while it’s his responsibility to stay with it and pull it through even if he could quit and it would be good enough. He used to paint from photographs, but that was limiting because the only challenge might be to make the painting look like the photograph, thus inhibiting the work from being what it might have been had it not been confined to the model. Older, and not in a hurry anymore, and more interested in making something good than in getting it finished fairly quick, he keeps going with his painting. He’s in Bali visiting a lifelong friend, an old college pal, and he has frequently visited his friend in Bali before and found Ubud, the compound, the Bali life, friendly to getting work done. Where’s the conflict. Is it just the Sisyphean pushing of the artist rock up the artist hill? He’s staying alone at his friend’s place, the friend elsewhere because he’s not retired and is working, gone a few weeks, one reason he wanted Slater to visit and occupy the place—in effect, to house-sit. A woman shows up at the compound. Slater concludes she’s a girl friend of his friend. Why is she there if the friend isn’t? Slater surmises she’s wondering the same thing. There is a flirtation, nothing happens. I kept wondering why nothing happened. I kept going, 30 pages, 40, working in the dark, following the strands of story and braiding them. Finally the story had a current of its own. I saw what the issue was. It ended, months worth of drafts later, 55 pages, 17,000 words. What if I hadn’t continued? I wouldn’t have learned what I learned by staying with it, this story wouldn’t exist.
In defining a novella, convention does little more than stipulate length, and even length is defined broadly. 15,000 words to 50,000, that’s what I’ve been seeing in the literature. I didn’t monitor the length of “Healing,” I just kept braiding the story, folding strand over strand. Baron Wormser, the fine poet, speaks of giving a poem time. When writing a poem, “dwell, linger, stay,” he advised, because we don’t see everything that’s present or certainly that’s possible if we just want to get it written and in the mail. The novella is a beautiful form, and I predict as the storm of writers we see now coming out of the programs steeps in the art and learns to stop, or slow down at least, and smell the roses, the novella will grow in popularity for both writers and readers, and the internet, with its different issues around “space,” will give this work a fitting medium with its new audience (perhaps owners of iPads, Kindles, and Nooks, on the relatively quick ride on the Diplomat [Amtrak] from D.C. to Philly, or a flight from Chicago Midway down to Tampa), allow the writers of novellas to sit tight and discover their evolving themes without worrying that they’re stretching their story to nowhere—to treat the themes seriously in their complexity rather than coyly in the friendly confines of 15 pages, and to do so in a work that has the economy and compression of a short story and the potential for discovery of a novel.
Philip F. Deaver is a writer from Illinois, currently living and writing in Florida. He's permanent writer in residence and Professor of English at Rollins College and teaches fiction and poetry in the brief residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, KY. In 1986, he became the 13th winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, resulting in the publication of his collection Silent Retreats, re-released in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in the spring of 2008. He is the author of a collection of poetry, How Men Pray, Anhinga Press, 2005. He co-edited an anthology of writing from central Florida entitled Orlando Group and Friends (Arbiter, 1998) and was the editor of an anthology of creative nonfiction essays on baseball, Scoring From Second: Writers on Baseball.