A Writer’s View

photo by Vivek Chugh

By Jackie Kay

I am writing short stories again and they make me happier to write than anything. There is a great swirling freedom in the short story. You have to hold your breath as you write one. You never know if you are going to pull it off. Writing one story does not help you to write another. Each time, the form demands you find something new, something you have not found before.

It is a risky business, scary and thrilling, like climbing a mountain. It feels dangerous; it feels pioneering. The short story is a glorious form that is evolving and changing before our very eyes; anything seems possible. It is a difficult and challenging form. Short stories are not easy to write; they can’t simply be written as a preparation for writing a novel, or as a break between writing a novel. Some good novelists are poor story writers.

What is a good short story exactly? It shares something with the novel in its use of the camera lens and use of narrative voice. It shares something with poetry in its love of language, its economy, its use of metaphor and voice. It is a lovely hybrid form, a cross between a poem and a novel. It catches people at crucial moments of their lives and snaps them. The short story allows us in a short space of time to understand huge things, huge dilemmas. Short stories pull us into their world and shake us up . They don’t hang about. They don’t waste any time. They swoop down and get you like a sea gull diving down to take the bread from your hand. They stay with you, the ones you love, forever.

I’ve never forgotten the shock of Guy de Maupassant’s ‘The Necklace’ or Jack London’s ‘To Build A Fire’, or Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. The way you just sit and stare at the pages, glaikit and dumbstruck at the end of a good story. The way you want to begin it all over again. The empathy that Joyce can make you feel in his masterpiece, ‘The Dead’. That moment when The Lass of Aughrim is sung, the moment that makes you feel you know the song. The lovely lyrical economy of a Carver story or a Chekhov story. The short story never wastes a single word. A whole life can be transformed by witnessing one kiss.

‘In short stories, it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because I don’t know why!’ Chekhov in 1888 said. ‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.’ Flannery O’Connor said.

A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create. There is space for the reader to think for ages, to mull the impact of a story over, to try and recover from it! The short story is such a perfect form, you should really be able to lift it up and carry it into a huge cornfield, and it should still glow.

A reader can contain an entire story in her head and read a story in a single sitting. The story often makes a reader aware of what she is not being told. What doesn’t happen in a short story is as important as what does. Like pauses in music; it is impossible to think about the short story without also thinking of its mysterious silences.

Perhaps the thing I love about stories most is that they give the appearance of space of length, so that when you return to them you are amazed at how the writer has created that effect. A whole life in a few pages. Grace Paley has her character meet her ex husband on the library steps and the whole life unfolds in just three pages. Annie Proulx takes us through an entire breathtaking and heartbreaking life love in Broke back Mountain. Raymond Carver lets the objects of a failed marriage speak for themselves in ‘Why Don’t You Dance’.

The short story is brilliant at taking the single emblematic moment that captures the whole, the dinner party in ‘Bliss’ by Katharine Mansfield. The voice of the story catches the reader and claims her. A story should stay with you long after you have put it down. A good story should change the way you see things, the way you think. It should help you know yourself better. Every contemporary story writer I admire, pushes the form still further, just when you thought there was nothing else to do: Ali Smith, James Kelman, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle …. It is an exciting time for the short story. It is the perfect form for our times.”

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Jackie Kay‘s story ‘How to Get Away with Suicide’ was shortlisted for the 2007 National Short Story Prize.  She is the author of two short story collections Wish I Was Here and Why Don’t You Stop Talking, as well as several volumes of poetry and memoir, and the novel Trumpet.

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THRESHOLDS would like to extend our thanks to The Short Story Website and to Book Trust for allowing us to reprint this essay in full.

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About the author

Thresholds Admin has written 205 articles for THRESHOLDS

3 Responses to "A Writer’s View"

  • Pauline Masurel 07:02 AM 25/10/2011

    It’s a real pleasure to read Jackie Kay writing about the short story form. I remember seeing her speak once with Ali Smith (http://www.writersjunction.net/articles/wordfest.html) and her enthusiasm was infectious. She said, “They’re wee but they have so much space around them. You could put a short story in a field and it would glow.”What a fabulous image!

  • dora 10:06 PM 29/10/2011

    Thanks for reprinting this article. I am swept away with Jackie’s clear love of the form which makes me wish I was better at it than I am! I know first hand how hard it is to write a perfect short story but I’m still at it. I know that it’s all a question of putting the nuts and bolts together. The construction bewilders me for some reason.

  • MWheelaghan 12:57 PM 02/11/2011

    I’ve only just come across this post but just want to add my thanks for sharing it again. I love Jackie Kay’s writing and this post offers a lovely insight into her view on the short story. It’s also interesting to see some of the writers she’s been influenced by. Her collection Why Don’t You Stop Talking is incredible. She makes you sit up an pay attention to people society usually ignores.

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