Does Short Form Memoir Count?

Lately I’ve been reading shorter memoir pieces in back issues of literary journals, rather than book-length memoirs. I’ve noticed a few things by reading stories in journals:

  1. I don’t know what I’m going to get ahead of time. These pieces are usually listed until the category of “nonfiction.” A story might be a memoir, but it also might be a political essay or a lyrical essay. I’m more likely to find an experimental piece than if I read a book. Whether that matters or not is another issue. But I have long suspected that the reason we have “genres” is that we know how to “take” something when we read it.
  2. The piece is more likely to have some contemporary slant to it than if it were part of a book. These essays tend to be more “timely,” but sometimes that feels like a magazine trying to be trendy.
  3. I don’t become as obsessed with any of these short stories as I do when I read a book. I am less invested. Are the writers less invested, too? Nevertheless, some of the short pieces are thrilling in their brilliance.
  4. I am exposed to a wider range of thoughts and emotions by reading a variety of essays by a variety of writers.
  5. By reading many writing styles, I learn more about writing at the sentence and paragraph level. By reading books, I learn more about structure.
  6. I can read one short piece at each sitting, so I feel as if I’ve accomplished something.
  7. BUT I am not drawn back to the story as I am when I have to take a reading break during a book.
  8. I can learn a lot about where to submit stories by reading the journals.


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How often do you read literary journals?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Literary Journals, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

53 responses to “Does Short Form Memoir Count?

  1. I’ve found short stories disappointing to read because just when I really get into the story, it’s over, and I’m left wanting more.

    • If you want a book to be a friend while you read it you miss out on that feeling when you read a short story I think. I never get that sense with a short story because it’s over before the relationship can develop. But I will say there are brilliant goings on in some short pieces–effects that can’t be achieved with a book.

  2. Short stories are an excellent way to introduce students to literary elements and to authors they might like to read. So I see short stories as trikes and novels as ten speeds. One is more suited more longer rides.

    • I love that analogy! So true! And, yes, short stories not only introduce them to literary elements, but actually are a heightened way of absorbing what literature has to offer. Look at short stories like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Gosh, they are more memorable to me than most novels. And some of the ones I read as a kid I have never forgotten. Indelible. Like “The Open Window” by Saki, for instance.

  3. I rarely read literary journals these days. But you make a good argument for reading short memoir pieces that show off writers’ brilliance. I imagine that reading them would open up possibilities and, thus, improve my own writing.

    • It’s feeling that way to me. I hope it works that way for me ;). The thing is, they inspire me with their varied ways of approaching a story.

  4. Luanne, I love that you added a poll to this question. On the most basic level, how relevant are literary journals when so much is already produced online? I think they offer an avenue to discover ways to improve a writer’s craft and storytelling, but I am unclear on how much they may boost a writer’s platform in publishing a larger work. Interesting piece and I look forward to reading the discussion on this topic.

    • I can’t wait to view the results of the poll. From doing this reading of lit journals I am starting to suspect that many of us writers have been overlooking a big step in educating ourselves. My mind’s been dancing polkas and swing and line and salsas from reading so many styles.

  5. I subscribe to literary and poetry journals because I do enjoy reading all types of writing including the experimental pieces that often leave me scratching my head, wondering ‘what the heck was that all about?’ 😀 Reading journals is enlightening, educating and for me one way of reaching out to authors whose work I admire. I have come across many brilliant writers in these journals. My only gripe is I’ll look forward to reading more from a particular writer and will sometimes search for them online and come up empty…I can’t believe there are still writers/poets/artists out there without websites or blogs.

    • Oh, Yolanda, loving this. You are so smart to realize all this. I used to read journals and then I got lazy and switched over almost exclusively to books. I persuaded myself they were just a means to an end. But I’ve been missing a lot.
      And what an insightful comment about websites and blogs. Sometimes I feel like it’s unimportant, but when you say that, yes, of course, it’s important. How else can we further the connections we make with people when we publish? I have been looking up some of the writers of pieces I’ve been reading, and it’s lovely to be able to see their websites and read something else–a link to another piece or a blog post.

      • Yes isn’t it wonderful when you can see the person behind the marvellous work? I make a point of reaching out to writers whose work I admire (and there are many) and leaving a comment about a piece or novel they wrote. I think it’s important to spread the love; to let someone know when you’ve been moved by their spirit and creativity 🙂

  6. As a writer, I really enjoy reading literary magazines. It exposes me to a variety of different writing voices and styles in each issue. It’s a completely different experience than reading long fiction or memoir though, and I think that’s the great thing about it. There are some spectacular things going on right now in the area of experimental fiction, for instance, that we don’t see in novels (yet). I think the main reason for that gap the high cost of publishing books. It isn’t profitable to gamble on some obscure novel idea unless you’re a well-known writer, but the lit mag community isn’t motivated by profit. In journals, quality is the only thing that matters. It is a playground that showcases emerging talent and emerging ideas. I recommend buying lit mags for the pleasure of reading something original, and because doing so supports American literature.

    • Windy, the experimental nonfiction really surprised me in these journals. In one case I actually thought the piece was a poem and not “nonfiction,” but I appreciate seeing a range of styles even when I don’t embrace (or “get”) them all. Having the ability to showcase works like this in these journals is the only way to try out new things, because–as you say–publishers aren’t going to bank on something untried. You make such a great point that this can happen with journals simply because they are not motivated by profit. And also your point about supporting American literature is so important. While it seems so unselfish a motive, in fact, if we don’t support literature it cannot survive. And then we will all lose out–as both readers and writers.

  7. I’ve been able to commit to reading short stories, in journals or collections. i don’t know why. i guess I want to be more invested in what I read. In fact, I love series novels for that reason!

    • I understand that desire for series. It’s like watching television shows, movies with sequels, and it started for me when I read Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, etc. 🙂

  8. I confess, I’ve never been one to read short stories, but somehow I’ve gotten into writing them and I love it.
    Boy that Yolanda, she’s a smart gal, isn’t she? I might have to subscribe to a few journals myself. 🙂
    Like Yolanda, I make a point of emailing an author when I enjoy their work. I’m always surprised by their reaction and their willingness to answer craft questions I might have. The writing community is a generous bunch!

    • Jill, I think that is so sweet of you and Yolanda to email writers. I love the idea and am going to try to start doing that. Such a kind gesture.
      I found one I really like: Colorado Review. And I really like ones I had stuff in recently, too, River Teeth and Lunch Ticket. The latter is online. But if you want a traditional lit journal with all 3 genres, check out Colorado Review.

  9. I don’t subscribe to any literary journals, but I love picking up a few from my local bookstore. I’m attracted to the variety of writing and am often surprised when a nonfiction piece turns out to a memoir. I do prefer short stories to novels. Part of my preference, like you mention above, is because I feel I’ve accomplished something when I finish a short story. Or perhaps I just want a quick bedtime read, something self-contained so I don’t wind up reading into the wee morning hours simply because I “can’t put the book down.”
    A well-crafted short story will stay with me as long as a novel might, although perhaps for different reasons. Often times, it’s the atmosphere of the story that lingers or the “message” as with Hawthorne’s The Birthmark. I think short stories are more challenging to write, yet I’m intimidated by all that must go into a novel.
    I should take that tip from Jill and Yolanda and try to email authors whose work I enjoy. Reviews are manna but I’m sure any author would love an email from a fan 🙂

    • Marie, I love “The Birthmark”! What a great story. Actually I love a lot of Hawthorne’s stories. There is something about those 19th century short stories that really pack a punch. I also love that you pick up journals at the bookstore. You don’t know what you’re going to get when you spend the money. It’s like those little packages they used to sell at stores where you didn’t know what was in the package, but it was worth $25 total and you paid $3 or 4. Do you remember those?

  10. I subscribe to literary journals to get a feel for the type of work that’s out there – and in the hope of submitting short stories to them. I’m not convinced how useful they are as a platform in that I suspect they have a very niche market. I tend not to read books of short stories – if I read a book, it’s usually a novel, yet I write short stories…I have heard it said that short stories are more popular in the US market than in the UK.

    • Andrea, I hadn’t thought of that in a long time, but I do remember hearing that short stories were not that popular in the UK. In fact, when I was in grad school studying American lit the word was that they were sort of an American genre (I hope that doesn’t offend you).
      Tell me more what you mean by a niche market. Do you mean that the market is smaller than you prefer? Or that the market prefers a very particular type of story?

      • No offence taken at all Luanne. By niche, I mean that I suspect that a very small percentage of the population read them and I also suspect that those who do are generally of a particular demographic – I have absolutely no proof of that, but they are the kind of magazines that aren’t readily available in your average store – if I wasn’t a writer, I probably wouldn’t have come across them. As I say, it’s a suspicion, rather than based on any real information. Of course, it may be very different in the US.

  11. My writing covers many levels…my poetry is confessional thoughts and I believe that having poetry books available to me which I have many; I can read one or ten, I can return again and again. I write short memoir stories which will eventually turn into a book, I hope! I believe short stories are for vacations, airlines and places where one may like to read for twenty minutes. A book will probably be remembered, yet lets not forget how many short stories have been turned into full length movies that have a broad impact. Thank you for this post, a most enjoyable read. ajm

    • Ann, that’s an important point–that short stories have been turned into full length movies. And the thing is that this happens over and over again and I used to wonder WHY. But now I think it’s because the concept of the short story makes such an impact that it’s worth turning into a movie. That said, which is better: the original short that packs that kind of punch or the movie that has added plot elements and characters, etc.? Thanks so much for stopping by and getting me thinking!

      • I enjoy both…Sam Shepard…actor, director, writer has a collection of short stories in “Great Dreams of Heaven”. He begins in the middle works his way to the beginning and ends abruptly, leaving the reader satisfied yet thinking. I appreciate his writing style. He shows how a short story can be picked up by a director, turned into a screenplay and it grabs you from the big screen. Have a great day. ajm

  12. Why short forms are important — memoirs, essays, short stories, poems, one-act plays, etc.: Writing a good, long-form work takes sustained focus over time. Many, many writers never have the money, the time, and the support to pull it off. Especially — even now — women writers. (Think of how many male writers have been sustained over the years and decades by their wives, and how seldom you hear of female writers getting similar support from their male spouses.) Doing good work in the short forms is possible even with continual interruptions by work, family responsibilities, political activism, etc. And those interruptions, reflected on and composted, become grist for the writing.

    As a feminist reviewer and bookseller in the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, I noticed that women’s most accomplished work tended to be poetry, followed by short fiction and nonfiction, trailed by novels. But they sold in the exact reverse order: Novels, then story and essay collections, then poetry. Poems, stories, and essays that were published only in magazines, literary journals, and newspapers had a hard time finding a larger audience. This is why the anthology was so important in feminist publishing: anthologies collected diverse voices and got them onto bookstore shelves, where they were easier to find.

    • Oh, Susanna, this hit me hard. SO important. Yes, I knew this and had “forgotten” (repressed) it. I remember thinking about this and maybe even writing about it around the time I read Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and the other stories in “Tell Me a Riddle.” She was an amazing writer who only wrote short stories for just the reason you say–that women have historically found it very difficult to write book-length projects. You word this so well: “Doing good work in the short forms is possible even with continual interruptions by work, family responsibilities, political activisim, etc.” You have written my life here. I have bemoaned my fragmented attention for decades. When I discovered blogging it was so exciting for me because blog posts are a very short form, and they can be written with frequent interruptions. That is also why I chose poetry over prose for decades. Thank you for speaking up for most women writers with your comment. And thank you for your work as a feminist reviewer and bookseller.

      • Another great thing about blogging is that one’s writing can find an audience without spending months and months sending it out, then (if one is lucky) waiting months and months for the journal to come out — and maybe waiting forever for one, just one, reader to respond to one’s work. I hope that as e-publishing of various kinds continues to develop, it’ll encourage more writers to get their short-form works out there. P.S. It was Olsen’s Silences that made me pay serious attention to why there was so little work out there by women, working-class people, and people of color. Progress has been made since then — the late 1970s — but the silences are still everywhere.

  13. I agree that you don’t get as “invested” in short memoirs such as those published in journals but I think they are still “worthy” members of the genre, just as short stories can be as powerful as a novel. I’ve read short stories that stick to my skin like a tattoo and novels that are entirely forgettable and uninvestable (new word!).

    • Yes yes yes. S, you put this very succinctly. It’s true. It’s not “genre” at all (short story v. novel), but the quality and urgency of the story.

  14. Luanne, I find this quite interesting:”By reading many writing styles, I learn more about writing at the sentence and paragraph level. By reading books, I learn more about structure.”
    I never looked at it that way. I just picked up yesterday “Object Lessons” The Paris Review presents The Art of The Short Story. In it twenty contemporary masters of the genre answer the question: what does it take to write a great short story?
    Which brings me back to what you wrote: “I am exposed to a wider range of thoughts and emotions by reading a variety of essays by a variety of writers.”
    So true.
    Thanks for this thought provoking post. 🙂

    • Carol, going to find that article right now! Thank you so much for mentioning “Object Lessons.” I can’t wait to read what they say! Have you read it yet? OK, chomping at the bit here to go find it . . . .
      About the structure by reading books, I actually think I started the memoir reviews because I wanted to examine structure in these books! But when I began reading short pieces in the journals I could see how much I appreciate some of the more “delicate” literary elements. That said, your book is a good example of a full length memoir that has this more delicate touch. Thanks so much for stopping by, Carol!

      • Object Lessons is more a reference book. It’s a collection of short stories by the best short story writers around. Each writer talks about his/her favorite short story from the viewpoint of technique. It’s a book that needs to be savored and digested and a way to understand fiction a bit better.
        Have a fun filled weekend, Luanne. 🙂

  15. Luanne, I definitely think short form memoir counts! I love it that we seem to be swinging back to the essay as art form; the discipline it imposes, ironically, allows for great creativity. Although I think it’s often more difficult to “write short” than it is to “write long,” the short memoir/creative non-fiction essay may be a testing ground for authors working up to a full-length piece.

    The bog is a great source for this kind of essay too…. I am just discovering what truly outstanding writing is being generated in the blog-world.

    I confess to only reading literary journals when colleagues or former students have work in them…

    • Pam, you bring up a fascinating thought: is it really more difficult to write short than to write long? Hmm, I can see why sometimes that is true. After all, every little word and sentence has to shine in a short story. In a book, there is a little room for sloppiness. Sometimes when I quote from a book I am shocked to find something sloppy that wasn’t caught by an editor. But when I read the book I don’t necessarily notice–it’s only when I shine a spotlight on one paragraph or passage. But, I still think a full length memoir is really hard to get just right. I have struggled for years with my book, and yet I am happy with a short piece from it that I recently published. The book is so daunting in comparison. So yes, I agree, and no, I don’t agree ;).
      So funny how you bring up reading the mags when colleagues or former students have work in them. Yes, I do know that feeling. I’d been doing that for awhile, but am glad I am back in the swing of reading the journals for their own sake. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. Great post, Luanne. Short creative nonfiction pieces are invaluable to me–as a teacher of creative nonfiction and in nudging me to explore new forms myself. I’m a big fan of the shorter pieces!

    • Sharon, I love hearing that you use short pieces in teaching CNF. Years ago I read short stories and poetry in journals, but avoided essays. That was before memoir really took off as a genre. So when I began to write nonfiction I immediately started writing a book without “practicing” first with short pieces. Now I see how valuable it would have been to do so.

  17. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    I remember falling in love with literary journals and their CNF pieces in particular. I was captivated with the freedom writers showed in choosing how to present their work; I found so many exquisite writers who took their craft so seriously. Unfortunately, when I dove into revising my novels, I quit submitting to journals and quit reading them. But thanks for reminding me of “a past love.”

    • Ellen, it’s time you reunited with your past love. The journals are fabulous, and they make the creative juices flow in a way that books cannot. Or maybe it’s that we need a varied diet–some books, some short pieces. Currently loving Colorado Review.

  18. I like to read children’s books, so have been in correspondence with a few really famous authors. All are very generous and kind in their answers and suggestions. (I still hope to get a few of my own children’s books published… someday!) I also remember enjoying those literary journals, since they were great resources of types or genres of writing. I took a few creative writing courses that instructors liked one to ‘cite’ the sources you found your interesting stories in. I feel the computer and internet connect us all, make life an ‘even playing field’ where authors and would-be authors can generate conversations. You are so lovely, Luanne, to get the conversation started here… Smiles, Robin

    • You’re right that the majority of lit magazines are good places to find a variety of genres. You can read a few poems, then a short story, then an essay, all in one sitting. That is really good for the mind, I think, although it’s not like sinking into a comfy novel. I love children’s books and hope you do publish yours!! I still have my children’s book collection that I built while I was teaching :).
      You are so right about the internet connects us all together. It used to be that the idea of connecting with a famous writer was almost unheard of–except in the fictional world of Beverly Cleary’s book Dear Mr. Henshaw!

      • Oh, thanks for the ‘blast from the past,’ Luanne! I enjoyed “Beezus and Ramona” series of that family. Also, wished to say that it was equally fun to read the books as to listen to them, when I was younger! As a teacher and parent, they certainly still had lots of funny parts I enjoyed all over again!

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  20. Most of what I read is short form because I rarely have the time to read book-length work. Short stories, magazine articles, poetry, essays — these allow me to read widely without wreaking havoc in other areas of my life. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good book, but I tend to get lost in longer works and can’t afford that kind of distraction very often.

    I confess I don’t often read hard copy literary journals these days. I used to read them in the library, but budget cuts and space constraints have made them rather scarce. I’ve picked up some real gems at garage sales and used book stores — not much help in exploring the current market, but still full of creative and inspiring work.

    Online journals and blogs are my main source of literary material right now, for better or worse. I think the digital world is the future for short forms and may well be the best thing to happen for them since the newspaper, both in terms of distribution and in terms of engagement. After all, look at this marvelous conversation we’re having here, across space and time!

    • Jennifer, it’s so true about online. I also think that’s one of the reasons a lot of us blog–to stay up on things related to reading and writing (and living!) and to stay in touch with others. I love the ease of reading lit mags online, too. I can actually read something fairly quickly that someone I know either in person or online has read–or something a writer I admire has written. Of course, we’re not investing any money in keeping journals alive this way or for writers by buying books either, if we do it all online, which is a shame. But with the cost of everything today . . . .
      The idea of getting lit journals at garage sales and used book stores is something that hadn’t occurred to me. What a great idea!
      The whole world did seem to open us once we had access to so much online. So much knowledge, so much communication, so many people!

  21. Im one of those folk who enjoy a long tall tale and short stories are good but they don’t stick in my mind like a character from a great novel does Luanne.

    • Being able to really get to know the people and places in a novel (or for me full length memoir, too) is a comfort and intense experience that will be missed if we move to shorter and shorter reading as we sometimes seem to be doing. This is all connected to my constant loyalty dilemma, my love and hate of technology. By embracing the new are we dooming the old?

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