By Tamara Hunter
Erica Jong once described the novel as being like a marriage, with the writer and reader in it for the long haul. Short stories, on the other hand, were like brief, passionate flings. And the poem? A one night stand.
Although they have a habit of falling in and out of favour with publishers, short stories continue to seduce writers, who describe them as exciting affairs full of possibility and without the strings of a novel.
Not all authors like or can master them – some prefer the roominess of a novel and find it difficult to compress what they have to say into a few thousand words or less. But others, like expat Australian author Janette Turner Hospital, Perth writer, editor and lecturer Amanda Curtin, and New Zealand author Craig Cliff, adore the short form.
At the recent Perth Writers Festival, the trio spoke of their own love affairs with the short story, describing the flexibility of the form as a key attraction.
“It’s such an elastic genre,” Curtin told the session, ‘Short, Not so Sweet’. “You can take a very wide sweep…and yet you can also narrow things down to such a small domestic scale as well. I really enjoy that. I would think of the short story as the sprint and the novel a marathon.”
She said it was the same for the reader, who practically climbed into a novel to be taken from point A to point B. “With a short story you don’t so much climb in as hang on…like a ride on a unicorn.”
Curtin also loved the tension between compression and expansion.
“(Short stories) require you to compress things so much but in doing that you open up the spaces where the reader can feel. The worth of the short story can expand way beyond the short reading experience you might have. It’s that requirement to distil emotion down to its essential oils. To me those essential oils are usually loss and grief – those very deep human emotions I like to explore in short fiction.”
Turner Hospital told the same session short stories were exciting because they allowed writers to try things out they either couldn’t or didn’t want to sustain for a novel. However, they required more intense craftsmanship than a novel.
“There is no room for any slack in a short story, whereas a novel can accommodate bits of slack.”
Turner Hospital said she always knew whether an idea was going to be limited to a short story or turn into a novel.
“For me personally there is never any doubt from the initial idea, which always hits me like a cricket bat on the side of the head, whether it’s going to be a short story or a novel. It sort of arrives fully formed, or as the seed of what is going to be fully formed, because for me with anything I write, I am searching for an answer to what feels at the time like a burning question.
“If I know it’s going to take a long exploration route then answering that question or probing that question is going to be a novel. And if it’s just going to be a moment of insight, then it’s a short story.”
Cliff told the session he’d come at short stories backwards, initially trying to write a novel at the age of 21 (and failing miserably) before doing a masters degree in creative writing and penning another unsuccessful novel. He saw others writing short stories at workshops and became attracted to the idea of completing something within a fortnight.
“There’s that element of being able to finish that first draft at least on that first burst of inspiration, whereas with a novel you are always trying to rediscover that first burst of inspiration months after it’s waning,” he said.
Another big draw was the fact that elements crucial to a good novel – dialogue, description of the setting and characterisation – were not so essential in a short story.
Cliff, whose stories usually run from three to 50 pages, has also tried micro-fiction (stories with an incredibly low word count). At one point he set himself the task of writing one 100-word story every day for a month. After coming up with 30 unrelated stories he repeated the exercise, this time writing thirty 100-word stories about a series of characters living in the same town. The pieces developed into a 3000-word story which was subsequently published.
Turner Hospital expressed amazement at Cliff’s ability to turn out a short story draft in anything from an afternoon to a couple of weeks.
“I’m astonished and madly envious of Craig,” she said. “I can’t do a story in under a month. That would be a fast short story for me. I am in the Flaubert camp – I can spend the first half of a day putting in a comma. Getting the melody of a sentence – the sound of it, the music of it – is highly important to me and it takes me ages to get each sentence right. I can spend an afternoon redoing that sentence.”
Similarly drawn-out for Turner Hospital is the percolation process. A story about two young women who deliberately cut themselves – one of the most powerful stories in her most recent release, Forecast Turbulence – was inspired by a disturbing real-life encounter which bubbled away in her mind for 30 years before she found a way to write about it.
“A novel about that would be unbearable to write or to read but you can stick with it for seven to eight pages in a short story,” she said.
“I couldn’t have written it at the time because I was so overwhelmed by the horror of that life. It’s written in a very deadpan tone which took me 30 years to find…otherwise I think the story would still not, even though short, be bearable to write or to read.”
It was the same for Curtin, who said some seeds took a long time to take root. She found triggers could come from anywhere, like overheard conversations or newspaper articles.
“I jot them down and I keep them usually for a long time before I work on them. I think about them a lot before I come to the writing.”
Cliff said one of the challenges in writing short stories was getting leery publishers to take collections on. In order to get published, authors were often required to find a theme to link their stories – tough when each piece had its own character.
“You have to talk about short story collections in a united way,” he said. “There’s a lot of cynical stuff that happens with short stories once you put them together in a collection. When (my collection) got accepted they told me to make it better so it looked more like a novel. I was appalled but it did give me a chance to write another 50 pages with a guarantee they would be published.”
Of themes, Cliff said: “You make them seem more important when talking to publishers and arts funding bodies but to me it always boils down to short stories as individual units.
“Publishers like them to be themed – more marketable. You can feel the resistance there that each story is fantastic and different from the previous one and it’s an important task to make it seem like a novel. So if my next one has this wonderful theme linking them together on the back cover, you’re welcome to be sceptical.”
On experimentation, the authors said it paid to have a good understanding of the conventional form of the short story before going on to play with it.
Turner Hospital said she always told her graduate students that a short story was anything they could make work.
“I think that’s the pleasure of it. You can start out with some way out idea and way out experimentation with the form. Just keep obsessing – there is always a way to do it. There is always a way to tell it. You just obsess until you tell it. It’s anything you can make work.”
And, added Amanda Curtin – anything you can sell.
Janette Turner Hospital is an acclaimed novelist, short story writer and Professor Emerita of literature and creative writing. She grew up in Brisbane but has spent most of her adult life in the US and Canada. Her latest work is Forecast Turbulence.
Other reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >