Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski
by Vanessa Gebbie
To accept a short story commission, or not, that is the question. It may seem a no-brainer, when there is a fee attached, as there usually is – but I suspect there may be more to the decision-process than what might at first appear. Writers of short stories are likely to receive many more commission requests than writers of other forms – so perhaps it is worth considering.
This request lands on your desk: “We’d like to invite you to contribute a short story of up to 5000 words. The story can be on any subject, and any theme.” You can write exactly what you like, working to your favourite subjects, exploring those themes that inspire you most. Who knows, you might even already have something waiting for a home, or something half-finished, ready for you to to draw it to a close and then polish.
But there is also the other sort of commission, where the desired end-result is perhaps an anthology exploring a particular subject, a particular theme. “We invite you to contribute a story that illustrates the following…” and that is not quite so simple. You are being pushed outside your comfort zone, to write about something you might not naturally choose. But is it just a question of comfort-zones, or is there something else at play here? I am writing such a story at the moment, and am finding it much harder than the first example – so thought this might make an interesting topic for discussion.
Under normal circumstances, both as a writer and as a teacher, pushing the boundaries is something I love doing, and something I would recommend strongly as good practice. It is good to ‘play’, to stretch, to try new things, to challenge yourself as a writer.
But I wonder if we produce as good a story to a commission with a tight brief as we would when writing freely, or for the joy of it, exploring that to which we are drawn naturally as creative beings?
In the end, isn’t the best fiction produced when we follow our hearts, not our heads?