Sisters; or, The Danger Of Boxes

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I am the baby of the family. Kind of. It’s complicated. Somewhere, there is a flow chart that explains it.

Point is, I’m extremely close in age to one sister. Her birthday was yesterday, in fact. She has a genius IQ. (Seriously — I’m intelligent to the point that my favorite part of college was the feeling of not being the smartest person in the room, but she can make me look like the village idiot.) If that weren’t bad enough, she is amazingly creative and brilliantly artistic.

My only consolations are that I have better people/social sense.

Because, as every younger sibling ever knows, it’s all a competition. (It took me years to figure out that she never saw it that way, and longer still to come to terms with the fact.)

She started sewing at two, and all anyone could talk about was how talented she was. So when our grandmother began teaching me and my work resulted in little more than a pat on the head, I gave up. Sewing was my sister’s thing from that point forward. Not mine.

Now, as an adult, I want to learn how to sew. And my first lesson with my grandmother was eye-opening; I hadn’t felt insecurities like that since high school. All because two-plus decades saying, “I don’t/can’t do it,” and, “It’s not my thing.”

See, words have power — as writers, we should know that better than anyone — and words like that create boxes. Boxes that limit potential. I don’t mean cardboard boxes. More like concrete. Breaking out of one is stupidly, ridiculously hard.

For years, I did the same thing with short stories. “They’re not my thing. I write novels.” I said this because my ideas were for longer stories and all anyone seemed to ask me about or be interested in were short ones. Because the ones I had written received lukewarm responses, at best.

I was a teenager, fumbling blindly as I tried to learn the craft of writing. Of course they were crap!

After college, I wrote a few short stories, but I didn’t submit them anywhere. What was the point? They weren’t my thing, anyway.

Then last year, I was approached to contribute to an anthology. I said yes because I knew I might be able to polish one of those post-college stories into something halfway decent, not because I had any confidence to write another one. But that’s what I ended up doing, anyway. The concept wouldn’t leave me alone, so I ended up writing something else. And I think it’s pretty awesome.

(Shameless plug: if you haven’t read it yet, you can find it in the Fight Like a Girl fantasy anthology.)

After that anthology, I still had hang-ups. Sure, I’d now written short stories — halfway decent ones — but those were flukes.

Then I met R. B. Wood of the Word Count Podcast, and he managed to talk me into submitting. (I have stories in episodes 32, 33, and 38, if you’re interested.)

I don’t know when, exactly, the change happened. I didn’t notice it until a conversation in which I was told of another beginning writer who didn’t write short stories.

And I cringed.

So that’s how it sounds: like nails hammering the box in place. At least, that was my impression, coming from my own experience.

The more something is said, the more it is realized in actuality. Magical thinking, I’ve heard it called. It can open up possibilities, or it can limit you. And it’s always harder to break out of a box then to build one.

If your writer-brain just can’t work with short form — or the reverse, if longer forms aren’t your comfort zone — there’s nothing wrong with that. But that can also change with time, experience, and life in general. The best opportunities often fall outside comfort zones.

Just please try not to do what I used to. It’s not easy to pursue any form of art. Why impose limits on yourself that might make it even more difficult?

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  1. I had a very similar journey as you with short stories. Same bias: “It’s not my thing.” Same anthology, even. Same time of writing a short story and realizing that some ideas don’t emerge as long as others and you don’t have to stretch them into an overarching story. You can make that piece something remarkable, something to prove yourself wrong.

    Even after, I thought, “Oh, well, it looks like this isn’t the case. I was probably right the first time that short stories aren’t for me.” And then an idea raises its hand and says, “Perhaps you should shut up with all the self-doubt and pick me.”

    Yeah, so two short stories are happening this month. On top of the novel and the non-fiction work. Dun dun dun

    1. Awesome!

      Now if only I can come up for air with the novel re-write long enough to polish this short story . . .

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