ON WRITING SHORT STORIES
It is probably not fruitful or even possible to theorise before the event, to define a short story without taking examples for analysis. For one thing, writers who set out to write short stories need to read lots of examples of the form. New writers sometimes fall into the error of trying to imagine the ‘form’ of the short story, and then trying to fashion their own work according to this abstract notion. Does a short story have, as is often stated, a ‘beginning, middle and end’? Those terms in themselves are the first stop in the discussion. What is meant by ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ ‘end’? They are abstractions, and are probably not in fact particularly useful terms in this context. For a short story is generally not a straight-forward and simple narrative that re-tells an anecdote – it may contain anecdotes, but it must first create its own world, its own tone, its own narrative position, and its own moral position, and therein lies the intense pleasure as well as the first difficulty of writing short stories. How does the writer take up and then convey in language alone the narrative voice and tone that will create for the readers the world into which the writer wishes to take them? You can read all sorts of rules and regulations about how to write short stories, but in the end they are often like instructions on how to swim or drive a car – until you get into the water or behind the wheel, you don’t really know what it is going to be like. This analogy quickly loses ground because there are in fact rules to swimming and driving. But swimming and driving are not activities that set out to create in the way that writing sets out to create. When you write you aim to fashion and deliver some kind of picture or idea or feeling or message from your memory and imagination to the imagination of your reader. No matter what you write about, your work will be an entry of some kind into your own ways of looking at the world, via the world you succeed in creating in the story. The writer must have the courage to experiment with language and material in order to bring forward the features of life that have inspired them to write in the first place.
I wish it were possible to dispel the idea, the myth, firmly ingrained in the minds of many people, that short stories are constructed by following a formula whereby the would-be writer collects some characters and a situation, some themes and a plot, and somehow mixes these together and voilà! a short story is born. The first thing, the very first thing, and, I am sometimes tempted to say, the only thing is the exercise of the curiosity and the imagination. Writing fiction is mostly about letting the human imagination flow and express itself in words and images. When this is done the characters and themes and plots arrive with a kind of joyful effortlessness – requiring also of course time and reflection and a certain amount of re-reading and editing. I guess what I am really saying is that if young writers let their imaginations take over for a while they will find that writing stories is something that can come naturally to them. It is this naturalness that is quite often discouraged by anxious guides and teachers who can sometimes mistakenly put up barriers that don’t need to be there. My suggestion is that young writers be encouraged to write first and that they reflect on their work in the context of the short story in its many shapes and forms after they have written. In other words content and all the rest can come before abstract form, and form can follow. But the first things have to be joy and enthusiasm, a curiosity about life, and a confidence in the use of words.