O’Henry :”Secret of Short-Story Writing”

Many writers wonder what the secret of short-story writing was for all those who have successfully written them.
“I’ll give you the sole secret of short-story writing, and here it is: Rule 1. Write stories that please yourself. There is no rule 2. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself, you will never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public.”

This is SO true! Back in 1996, I was joyfully spending hours at a time writing The Great American Novel about the 7 years I spent sailing mostly alone or at times with my teenaged daughter when she was either on break from college or didn’t like the job she had. I was having a blast writing about all the adventures.

And then, I was stopped short one night at 1:32AM when the phone rang and her father was calling from Philadelphia to tell me while she was on Spring break from Penn State, Sandi had been run over and killed by a drunk off-duty policeman. She was stopped in a long line of traffic on Interstate 80 because of an accident ahead. She had just stepped out of her car to light a cigarette when the drunk came racing down the shoulder — he was on vacation and didn’t want to have to wait his turn in the backed up traffic. They didn’t even give him an alcohol test because the state troopers said, “Well, he’s an officer of the law and it’s not necessary.” Thank goodness for the coroner who felt justice wasn’t being done and applied an 1800s law that allowed for a Coroner’s Hearing and lots of the drivers were called to testify, all saying the jerk was drunk. At first, I was horrified, then grief-stricken, then totally lost, then angry…and I couldn’t write. I just sat at the computer and stared at it in disbelief as I read over and over the last words on the screen describing when she and I were heading down the Baja in our hot pink sailboat being gifted by all the fishermen with so much lobster and shrimp that we were eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I was totally and hopelessly blocked…until a song-writer friend gave me a copy of Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It suggested ways for creative people to get unblocked and one idea was to form a cluster and study the book together. I asked five women (including the song-writer who had been wanting to cut a CD for a long time) and we met every Sunday afternoon. Before we even got to Chapter 2, I found myself at the computer again for the first time in months. I couldn’t go back to the book yet but I started writing short stories about different adventures in my life that I had found fun, interesting or inspiring. The words flowed. I was having fun again at the computer. I then collected a lot of my favorite recipes that the guests of my B&B had kept asking for. Each recipe fit into a section that coordinated with the time in my life of the adventure stories. I didn’t edit the stories…they were simple stream-of-consciousness first drafts and that’s how they were published in my first book, “A Cook’sTour of Epicuria…One Woman’s Adventures”(available on Amazon). They are not “great literature” as one reader put it, but they are fun stories to read.

I am grateful to Julia Cameron for writing “Artist’s Way”. Because it was so helpful to me, I taught clusters of it at the inn (without charge, of course) for several years to artists and writers. I also taught clusters for several years when I was director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council and several of those clusters are still ongoing! While teaching clusters at the inn, some artists got so unblocked that I had to set the Great Room up as an art gallery to hang all their work and hold monthly openings, selling (without commission) much of the wonderful works. In Springfield, as one of the Arts Counci projects, because so many artists were coming out of hiding and many after studying “Artist’s Way”, I opened Fresh, an art gallery run by the artists who exhibit and years later, it is still going strong.

And so, now, I have completed the book about why I bought the boat and including many of the sailing adventures. Had to divide it into two books as it came to over 800 words! I learned in the process that I had to enjoy what I was writing about and, as O’Henry said, not worry about pleasing the public. Now I just have to find an agent and if not, then self-publish it!

Sérenta (in foreground) on anchor in the Sea of Cortez
Sérenta (in foreground) on anchor in the Sea of Cortez