We've all been there: a moment when something of such import happens that the space life allows for it seems too small. For me, the time my father told me he had Leukemia was like that. The time I came home to an empty apartment and knew my marriage was over was like that. But so were the few seconds—at the end of ten years, of three attempts at novels, of a whole adulthood of trying—when my agent told me that I had finally sold my first book.
Unfortunately, life doesn't let time expand to hold these things the way they warrant. Luckily, writing does. I call it breathing room. And I think it's one of the most underappreciated (even at times derided) ideas a creative writer can employ.
Much of the writing world seems to almost worship brevity. The contained moment in an Anton Chekhov story. The way Gordon Lish scraped Raymond Carver's work to the bone. "Cut to the quick." "Trim the fat." It's often good advice. One of the rules I find most useful in thinking about scene is David Mamet's exhortation: get in late and out early.
But sometimes brevity is bad. Once, a class I was in read two versions of the same Carver story—one edited down, one fleshed out. Most of us admired the shorter one, but were more moved by the longer. And, in my own writing, it's precisely when a moment demands that I break Mamet's rule that I know I've hit the vital part.
We shouldn't let Mamet or Lish (or our workshop mates) scare us from letting our work breathe. There are plenty of terrific examples of writers who do so: No one gives important moments full rein like Toni Morrison; Cormac McCarthy can spend whole paragraphs describing items in a trapper's cabin; it's part of how they imbue places and moments with weight. W.G. Seabald, circles back to the central elements in his novels, deepening our understanding of them the way William Faulkner does in by returning again and again to moments. The key is this: each of these writers chooses carefully the moments at which they allow their stories a little more room.
So how do we recognize those moments? I find that two blocks usually stand in the way, one external, one internal. There is the expectation that others will want a story to get where it's going as quickly as it can (surely, it would be better to get there a little later if means the result hits us a little harder). But there is also the way a powerful moment can gust up and sweep a writer forward – often a sign that the moment might be worth revisiting and slowing down.
That happened to me with the final novella in my collection. I'll embarrass myself here: I wrote the end of "Sarverville Remains" with tears in my eyes. Because I was affected by the final pages, I was sure they were right. But when I revised, I realized they were too rushed to bring the reader along at the speed with which I had been going. I slowed it down. I added a few paragraphs. I let it breathe.
That room to breathe is the whole reason I turned to novellas. The first one I ever wrote, "Ridge Weather," I intended to write as a short story. But everything about it depends on a sense of lonely isolation as the character moves through a world that makes him feel small: I needed the space to make that world big, and I needed the time to bury the character in it. Could I have told the plot in 5,000 words instead of five times that? Probably. Would it have had the power that I hope the story has? If so, I couldn't see how.
And figuring out how to let a story breathe is as important as knowing when it needs to. Whereas "Ridge Weather" required pulling back on the pace, the last novella I wrote, "Stillman Wing," centered on one specific action that carried more weight than I knew real-time would allow. So I gave it space by pulling it out of time: though it surely could not take anyone every single day of most of a decade to repair an old tractor, that's what happens. Each year, we return to the same scene, and with each return the scene's import grows. I stretched out the space in which that event was allowed to happen, but compressed the space in which everything else did.
Of course, there are dangers to too much room. Before I wrote The New Valley, I wrote a novel. It didn't work. So I gave myself a challenge: write the whole book in a short story, instead. And you know what? The novel turned out to be a whole lot of room with a little breath rattling around inside. Still, when I had finished the story, it didn't resonate quite the way I knew it could. So I added a final section. I stretched the end out a little bit. And it was like I could hear the story expand its lungs at last, breath in long and deep and full.