As I near the end of my reading for Short Fiction this year (about 550 stories), I have to say there’s a lot of good writing out there. If you’re going to take the trouble to submit to a quality journal, chances are you can write a bit. But every once in a while, say one piece in fifty or sixty, the words sing from the page, they become a delight. I forget I’m reading, so immersed am I in the writer’s world, compelled almost breathlessly to continue, happy to relinquish my time, my self, to the words in front of me.
This, as writers are aware, is incredibly hard to do. To stand out from the ordinary, to rouse an editor/publisher/agent with prose that refuses to be ignored. For me, the first sign a piece of writing is exceptional is when I start to wish I’d written it. Not in an embittered sense, just that a small admiration has occurred. It happened last night, reading Denis Johnson’s short story, ‘Work’. I read:
The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guess Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here.
I stopped and read that second sentence again and again, in awe of its simple brilliance. Why is it so strong for me? Well, that's not always easy to pin down, but I love how it exudes control, how it's not overwritten, that it's the antithesis of cliche. The words, the voice, work hard without seeming to. Now without knowing details of the story’s composition, we can’t know how these words were born. Perhaps they emerged in seconds, without need of revision. Maybe they were painstakingly sculpted over days. Doesn't matter; their strength endures regardless.
My point is not a new one. Writing like this doesn’t just happen. And if it does, it’s because you are already very good. I’ve looked before at whether you can teach creative writing; course attendances suggest people seem to think you can. But I’m not so sure you can teach that elusive quality that turns good, formulaic writing into the sort of remarkable work we should all aspire to produce. I think that can only come from reading the best fiction out there, considering how it achieves what it does, then giving yourself about ten thousand hours to be in a position to do the same.