As an eight year old on holiday in Yorkshire I remember being wrenched from play to go on trips to York or Fountains Abbey, when all I wanted to do was to stay in that world of ‘let’s pretend’, where everything was open-ended and grew organically until it filled the whole day. Writing a novel is like playing. At least the first draft is. And reading one is too, as long as it’s a world where you want to be, where, as Deborah Levy said in a recent Word Factory salon, the ‘attention is somewhere interesting’. How many times have you made the effort to start a novel and, although you persevere for the first few pages, you find you’re forced to look at/listen to something that doesn’t interest you? Like a nightmare dinner party or blind date. Your attention is being directed at the commonplace, the tedious the stale. At least you can escape from a book…
If the novel has to grab you from the start, or at least pique your interest. How much more so in a short story. Reading Mark Haddon’s piece in the Guardian (23rd April) I recognised the same fear – I write poetry and am redrafting my second novel – but the short story is another matter. It has a mystique all of its own. In a poem every word has to have its own weight, there is form or rhyme, you can generate emphasis and subtlety by using line breaks. And there is concision. In a novel you have character, plot, dialogue – all sorts of tools; and you have space to move around in, to come back to. It’s all there – a whole world. But what about the short story? I used to see it some kind of hybrid of the two, but I now suspect it’s another breed altogether, with its own rules and possibilities, its own way of looking at the world. If a novel is a bar of chocolate it would be at least 33% cocoa butter. A short story would be 90% – the kind that needs to be dissolved on the tongue and savoured. A strong hit of caffeine, right from the start. One of the reasons why it is so difficult (I find) to write a good short story.
Deborarh Levy described how, in a short story you only see a part of the whole, but there is a huge, complex world that is hinted at, waiting in the wings. To create that whole but invisible world means that, as in the poem, every word is weighted and freighted with meaning; there is a heightened awareness. But unlike a poem, the reader has to come away from the short story having engaged with some kind of narrative.
Claire -Louise Bennett’s Pond, (originally published by Stinging Fly Press and now by Fitzcarraldo) is a collection of linked short stories about a woman living on her own in an isolated cottage in the countryside (Ireland). It takes this intense focus to its limits. Bennett pins down what it means to live in the physical world through minute observation of the things that we interact with in our daily lives. But unlike a physicist, who does this through mathematics, she examines through language the way we tell ourselves stories to make sense of this life.
The few short stories (unpublished) I’ve written have come to me in different ways – an idea for a character, a situation or sometimes just a phrase. Usually I have some plan of where I’m going, but the The Hand simply started as:
I knew it was a place where people occasionally lived, where they came and went, so I wasn’t in the least surprised when I saw the hand in the window.
Almost as if I’d been given an essay title: Discuss. Like baking without a recipe. The first attempt (as of anything) was rough but through constant redrafting and questioning the logic of the story’s world I finally came up with a short story that was, if not good, at least something that I’d boiled down to its essence and that was reasonably entertaining. What more can you do?