In love with the short ones

I am five feet tall. Well, alright then, four feet and 11 inches. Officially I should sit in a booster seat when I drive my four children around in the big bellied people carrier that I nearly need a ladder to get into.  I saw an eleven year old today who was twice my size. My world is a lilliput universe, where my feet dangle at the dining table and I have to ask shop assistants to reach things down for me. In my teenage years the other kids used to ask me what the weather was like down where I was. My beautiful granny assured me that ‘the best of goods come in small parcels’ and if we apply that dictate to fiction then I absolutely agree.

Now that I’ve called myself a writer and do mad things like wake at 4am and think ‘I may as well go up and do a bit of writing while its quiet’, I’ve been working away on a novel (a crazy, funny thing, with a housewife, a spaceman and a lot of heart) and I’ve been blogging, but most of all in the last couple of years I have been falling in love with short stories and finding them in my head, my bed, at the washing line, on the back of the kids eye appointment letters, in journals and writing themselves in new documents that just couldn’t help opening themselves when I was supposed to be doing something else.

As a mother of four it seemed sensible, particularly to others, that I concentrate my ambition on the short story, a manageable chunk of writing that could more easily keep its focus through the interrupted time span it would take to complete. I must admit I had a rather old fashioned view of what was required, a character (somewhat cliched), who needed a conflict to resolve in order to develop and then there would be the obligatory ‘twist in the tale’. What I wasn’t getting then, and think I am beginning to get to grips with these days, is the combination of a light and layered touch that is required to bear witness to humanity or lack of it. The short story is a breath of wind with a scent or a touch that lingers, melds into consciousness and will rise up and surprise you later. Where a novel as a whole is difficult to keep entirely in your head, a short story can swim in the back of your brain like a song and a scene conjured up can sit in memory as if the recollection is yours and not just the authors.

And what of writing them? They start with a title (so often that it is rare I am without one at the end of writing) or an epiphany of a phrase that encapsulates a way of looking at the world,  holds the body of the story in it. These titles and phrases are like keys to the unconscious. Once the phrase is down the story comes pouring out around it. There is still the construction to be done, the thrilling selection of the right words; words that have the sound and rhythm of the sentiment you want to convey; words that have two meanings that render motivation slightly ambiguous, the way it is in real life; words in the same family as others so that they borrow the characteristics of their (unused) counterparts and create semiotic layers.

And I can be other people, get inside their heads. For me, there are two kinds of story, those close to home and those arising out of your interest and invention. The first are so close to the bone that I find that they can be difficult to write and are often put aside for lengths of time until I can gain distance or equanimity. They can be powerful because they are imbued with strong emotion but may lack clarity because the situation is so personal. The other kind of story can be more successful because, as I say,  you need get into another head,  elucidate the characters more both for the reader and your own sake. You want to make them familiar to you, make yourself care about them and whatever is going on for them. You add relevant detail and feeling, crafting carefully, rather than – in the other case – exorcising your demons. I’m not saying that you can’t be successful writing something extremely personal, but you have to find a distance from it, become a storyweaver (picking out the right threads) rather than a memoirist.

Writing short stories gives me joy; the process thrills and astounds me. Novel writing requires the taming of a large beast before you can tap into a similar satisfaction. This short legged woman will be in love with writing short stories for a long time to come.

To read all the shortlisted stories for the Hennessy X.O. Literary Awards (to be announced this Tuesday) including my story, Bog Body, see here.

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12 comments

  1. I agree with you. While I love novels, reading–and writing–short stories are a particular joy that gives enormous satisfaction.

    Enjoyed this post and will now go off to read your Bog Body, as well as all the others shortlisted for the Hennessy X.O. Literary Awards.

    Congratulations!

  2. I’ve never tried writing short ficiton. The stories that pop into my head just take longer to tell. My time is ultra-limited as well – I probably should give it a shot :)

  3. Writing short stories is a skill in itself, you do it very well by the way!
    Love writing short stories too, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time/discipline to finish a novel, but will definitely give it a go.

  4. That’s so true, I find short stories are much closer to the bone of things and give me much more pleasure to write than longer pieces. The thought of getting back to short story writing is the carrot I use to get my novel finished! I’ve heard poets talk about poems that come to them fully formed and I often think the best short stories almost do too. I find free writing great for those. If I start one with an “idea” in mind it usually ends up being a cold piece of work. I look back on stories that I don’t consider successful and thats usually their common denominator. And you can really sink into language with the shorter form! I have to be honest and say that I never really read them till I started writing them (the shame!) but of course all thats on my mind at the moment is what to wear for the awards, how writerly is that! really looking forward to meeting you, Alison, it should be great crack.
    niamh

    1. That’s gas, Niamh. I don’t know whether you will see this before the awards but the wardrobe issue is foremost on my mind as well. Wardrobe wobblies I’m calling it. Yes the short story as a carrot, definitely! I miss them so, right now while finishing my novel and I like your point about the idea story versus the one that emerges, makes sense. I am the same that I never really read them before writing them either, now I devour them!

  5. Hi Alison
    I totally agree with you on the short story. It can be a thing of great beauty, like a beautiful painting.
    Good luck tonight…. and enjoy the glory!
    Look forward to hearing all about it

  6. Hi Alison
    Sending you every good wish for the Awards tonight – How exciting for you, go dazzle them !!
    Agree about short stories, like yourself, I always learnt that ‘good goods come in small parcels’.
    Just heard Neil Jordan on RTE with Pat Kenny, he will be at your awards ceremony tonight, is getting an award.
    Have fun and if you can , post the results, have good vibes about ‘Bog Body’,
    Enjoy and have lots of cocktails for us mammy-writers !!
    Brigid

  7. Hi Alison,

    What a lovely post. You’ve really sold me on the short story. I’ve only ever written a few myself as I’m engrossed in my novels at the moment but you make them sound so satisfying. You have a lovely way with words and I could read your writing all day. Good luck at the awards tonight. You’re probably preening and plucking as we speak. Do let us know how you get on though I’m sure you’ll do well. Maria x

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