The art of writing short stories: masters of the form at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest

Note: This article was first published a year ago on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Meagan Kus for copy editing.

Granville Island. Photo by Keith Dunn

For many years, I’ve been an eager attendee at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Granville Island.

 

(2016 was no exception, and my review of a recent event will be published soon on West Coast Editor.)

Like most editors, I’m an avid reader and an aspiring writer, and I never fail to be amazed and inspired by the panels of writers at each event. In 2015, one of the events I attended was the True to Form session, which focused on short stories. The writers on this panel were David Constantine, Steven Hayward, Greg Hollingshead, and Irina Kovalyova; the panel was expertly moderated by book critic, editor, and writer John Freeman. All of the authors are seasoned short story writers, with the exception of Kovalyova, who has just published her first book.

Why go to the Writers Fest?
There is nothing like a live performance, whether we’re talking about a rock concert, the theatre, or a Writers Fest event. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 90 minutes. It is wonderful to see these authors on the stage, to get some idea of the personalities behind the writing, to appreciate that most of them are consummate performers as well as writers (especially when reading their own work), and to get some understanding of what motivates them as writers. What are the seeds that germinate in these writers’ minds as they create their stories?

Sitting in a packed audience of people who were all there because they love literature, I felt a vast kinship with everyone in the room. As the writers shared some ideas about where short stories come from, I was reassured that I was grappling with key questions in my own attempts to write. These authors gave many helpful insights into what makes a short story a winner.

The short story as a metaphor for—?
Moderator John Freeman got the ball rolling by asking each panel member to suggest a metaphor for the short story. Irina Kovalyova said a short story is like a very small canvas that, despite its size, contains a whole world.

David Constantine introduced a new idea by saying a short story is like a container you scoop into a rushing river, removing a small part of that river, and then pouring it back in again. He was making the point that a good story has no closure (though convention pushes us to want closure in stories), because in real life there is never closure, and the river never stops moving. Constantine commented that Chekhov was a master at showing that any arbitrary closing is at the same time a new beginning.

I was comforted by Constantine’s analysis, because I’ve always struggled with my inability to contain my stories, to keep to a word count. Now I understand that beginnings and endings to stories are arbitrary. As a writer, I must choose a beginning and an ending, but it is inevitable (and desirable) that the story evoke the larger story of which it is but a part.

Greg Hollingshead followed Constantine by suggesting another water metaphor. He compared the short story to a whirlpool. His key point was that a short story contains centripetal energy—it’s spinning toward a crisis, not closure. In contrast, Hollingshead suggested, a chapter in a novel has centrifugal energy—it spins out into the world, forward and back.

Steven Hayward compared the short story to an unhealthy breakfast. He told a funny anecdote about lying to his mother on the phone about what he had eaten for breakfast—he told her he had had “the melon plate” when in reality he had eaten a breakfast called The Authentic. I’m unclear about how a breakfast is a metaphor for the short story—perhaps he was just making the point that an authentic short story has to be complete and honest?

Form in short stories
Freeman next steered the panelists toward a discussion of how writers can be creative with the form of short stories. When whole worlds have to be implied within such a constrained number of pages, are there special techniques that writers use? In answering this, some of the panelists segued into explaining where their story ideas come from and how their creative process expands the germ of an idea.

Kovalyova began by describing one of her short stories from her debut collection, Specimen. It’s a story about a mother and child trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. She structured her story with two different scripts, one on each side of the page. On the left side of each page runs the narrative of what is actually happening as the mother tries to keep her child calm. On the right side of each page is the mother’s interior dialogue as she struggles with her panic and the knowledge that she must stay calm for her child.

Hayward talked about his use of footnotes in short stories, a format used extensively by the late magnificent David Foster Wallace. Footnotes can be a way of cramming more into a short story and may actually contain all the punchlines or subversive comments about the more conventional words in the main text.

Hollingshead, speaking after Hayward, explained that he uses a very conventional structure in his stories in order to get away with having extremely weird characters. In fact, he said, his weird characters come from real life. He uses 4″ × 6″ cards to write down notes about unusual people or incidents that he might later incorporate into a story. He said that the conventionality of his structure allows him to disguise his real (but weird) characters as fiction.

Just as Hollingshead finds inspiration for his stories in real-life events and people, Constantine also draws upon real life for his ideas. Constantine spoke at length about the critical importance of place to his writing. He talked about his attachment to one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in England. These islands, said Constantine, though made of enduring granite, are “in a state of pure flux,” changing every moment with the tides, winds, light, and seasons. For him they illustrate the impossibility of writing a story with complete closure, when real life is ever-changing.

Finding things to write about, said Constantine, depends on paying attention to what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars.” We write about things that grip us, things that obsess us. We are compelled to write. Creativity doesn’t mean grabbing ideas out of the blue. It’s about working with memory and your own interpretation. I left the event feeling reassured that the “minute particulars” in my own life are worthy of writing about.

Dialogue
A few lines of dialogue can bring characters to life quickly. Hollingshead quoted Mavis Gallant, who used the expression “the dialogue of the deaf” to make the point that people typically don’t listen to each other. One speaker often uses the last few words of the other person’s speech as a springboard for what they want to say, whether there is any real connection or not. So in a story, the only dialogue that sounds real is dialogue that captures this “failure of communication.” For example, when three people are talking, it might sound like they are reading three separate scripts.

 

Performance
Unless you’ve been to the Writers Fest, you might not realize the sheer entertainment value it offers. All of the panelists in True to Form read portions of their latest stories, and they were all dramatic performers. But the star of this show had to be Steven Hayward. Before he went to the podium to read his story, he gave us the real-life backstory. He talked about living in Colorado Springs, where everyone is either an Olympian-in-training or a former Olympian, and about his discovery of Strava, a software program that measures and ranks athletic performance (in this case, in cycling).

When Hayward started reading his story at the podium, he turned into his fictionalized protagonist—a very funny fat guy. Hayward showed great dramatic flair and timing in his reading. His story was a perfect illustration of how to take an incident from your own life, exaggerate it, and give it to your created character to produce a fictionalized story that is even better than the original true story.

It was obvious why Hayward has been a successful stand-up comedian!

Masters of the short story
True to Form concluded with the panelists discussing which writers had particularly influenced them. All of them named Chekhov as the great master of the short story. Kovalyova read Chekhov first in Russian when she was young, and she commented that some nuances are lost in translation, yet good translators can add something too, with their own interpretation of the stories.

Hayward said that Alice Munro is the best at the modern, sophisticated short story. Though she doesn’t have as wide a range as Chekhov, she shows technical mastery. Hayward recommended Jim Shepherd highly. He also likes Charlie Baxter and Richard Ford. Kovalyova cited Edgar Allen Poe as one of her big influences.

I left True to Form with a renewed eagerness to read—I can’t wait to devour all of the panelists’ new books! In addition, I feel inspired and hopeful about writing my own stories.

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How do fiction writers enchant readers?

Enchantment happens when you don’t sacrifice your own voice to the god of marketability.

All writers crave an audience, but it’s by writing from your own passion, and expressing yourself skillfully using your voice that you will produce valuable writing: writing that has the power to enchant in its unique way. Worthy readers will find your writing.

Beginning writers may struggle to find their own voice, or doubt that it is “good” enough. What do I mean by the “writer’s voice”?

cover of Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s latest book

I understood this question much better (and got a great answer) when I read a post by author Meg Wolitzer on the website Everyday ebook (October 5, 2014). Wolitzer recently published a novel for young adults called Belzhar (so titled because Wolitzer was greatly influenced by Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar). Much of her post was about how Plath’s writing affected her, but the part that helped me was her explanation of where a writer’s voice comes from.

Sometimes when people are writing, they look far, far outside themselves. They look for something that might sound like a writer’s voice on the page and they forget that they have so much inside them that is a voice that they’ve been developing. That’s not to say that books are from the perspective of the writer, but they are from the sensibility of the writer, which is different. You can find a wonderful idea outside of yourself to write a book about, but you need to know the connection between you and that idea. And that connection is often in your sensibility and will come out in your voice.

For me, the key words in the paragraph quoted above are sensibility and connection. The writer’s voice is not simply the writer’s perspective or the language used by the writer. A writer’s sensibility encompasses so many things: personal experiences, emotions, analytical thoughts, ideas from books and other sources—and how the writer processes, or makes connections, between all these disparate influences.

Cover of Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Alan Warner’s latest book

Scottish writer Alan Warner, speaking with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company on November 23, 2014 (listen to podcast here), also talked about the writer’s voice. As a young writer, Warner was inspired by literature and longed to express himself creatively, but doubted his ability. Then he read a book that made a huge impression on him. It was The Busconductor Heinz, by James Kelman. The setting of the book is Glasgow, a gritty, working-class city that Warner knew well. From this place Kelman wrote a book that Warner describes as “philosophic, scabrous, ironic, funny, and at times erotic.”

What Warner learned from reading The Busconductor Heinz, he told Wachtel, is that “it’s possible to express profound things from the context of your own culture.” The book made him realize that you didn’t have to be a Waugh or a Hemingway, living in a huge metropolis or a glamorous place, to be able to have significant insights about life and people.

I haven’t read The Busconductor Hines myself, but after listening to Warner on Writers & Company I looked up some reviews of it. There was a wide range of opinion. Some people loved it, others didn’t. Many readers were offended by the many repetitions of the crudest swear words, but others loved the authenticity of the “voice.” Writers can’t please everyone.

Another thought I had about “voice” is that it comes partly from our inner lives—our imagination, our dreams, our subconscious—and those things are boundless. That is why one doesn’t have to have lived in an exotic or sophisticated place in order to write profound things. What Wolitzer calls the “sensibility” that we give to our writing is our inner synthesis of everything we’ve lived, observed, felt, and read—put into a context, a topic, and/or characters that we care about deeply.

The Vancouver Writers Fest

Better Living Through Books? 

One of the events I went to at the Writers Fest this year was a panel discussion called “Better Living Through Books?”  The three panelists (writers Rebecca Mead, Nadia Bozak and Damon Galgut), with moderator (and writer) Angie Abdou, were grappling with questions related to what I’ve written about the writer’s voice. How do writers choose what to write about? What makes their writing good? Do they think about their audiences while they’re writing?

All of these authors reinforced the idea that the best writing comes not when a writer is trying to please a certain audience, or accomplish a specific educational or political goal in a didactic way. The best writing happens when someone writes about what matters to them personally—and is not afraid to bring their own emotions and experiences into the writing. I’ve always called this “writing from the heart,” and recognize it in my own best writing.

The panelists of “Better Living Through Books?” all agreed that they were motivated to write the books they did because of their own passion for the subjects or books that moved them, their need to delve as deeply as possible into their material.

These three panellists had been brought together for this event because all of them had been heavily influenced and inspired by other writers. Rebecca’s Mead’s lifelong “relationship” (some would say obsession) with George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch led her to write My Life in Middlemarch, published in 2014. This book is a gem that combines memoir, literary criticism, and biography. It inspired me not only to reread George Eliot’s classic 19th-century novel, but to write a rave review of Mead’s work on my blog.

I was completely unfamiliar with the work of British writer Nadia Bozak or South African Damon Galgut. Part of the fun and intellectual excitement of the Vancouver Writers Fest comes from being exposed to books and writers that one doesn’t know.

Cover of El Nino by Nadia BozakI wasn’t initially impressed by Bozak as a speaker, but when it came time for her to read from her own book, El Niño, I was captivated. Her voice was spellbinding, and after listening to her narrative for a few minutes, I felt compelled to learn more about her characters and their fates. Bozak has always been haunted by the works of Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, and J.M. Cootzee, and she has found her own stories and her own voice in extrapolating from their themes.

Cover of Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer is a fictional imagining of writer E.M. Forster’s intense personal struggles.

Damon Galgut read from his book Arctic Summer, a novel in which he imagines E.M. Forster’s intimate life and inner thoughts during the long period he was writing A Passage to India. Galgut has been driven by his admiration for Forster. He explained that there have been numerous books written about E.M. Forster; we know a lot about his books and the facts of his life, but Galgut was curious about the psychology of this man who was a repressed homosexual, tormented by an unrequited love, yet able to channel his passion into enduring works of art. Since there were no facts about Forster’s inner life, Galgut chose to create a plausible Forster in the form of a novel. Like Bozak, Galgut possesses the gift of making us care deeply about his characters.

Writers’ voices on Writers & Company

I continue to feel delight and inspiration by listening to writers’ voices, literally, on CBC’s Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel. On Sunday, November 30, Wachtel was remembering the great British mystery novelist P.D. James, who died recently at the age of 94. She replayed a stage interview and reading she had done on stage with James at the 1999 Humber School for Writers Distinguished Speaker Series.

James spoke during that interview about her intense psychological need to be a writer. She said, “I would not have lived a happy and fulfilled life if I had not written.” She expanded her explanation of what drives writers with a quote from a psychiatrist:

Creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.

Cover of Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is one of P.D. James’s best known books. It was published in 2011, when she was 91!

What came through in James’s real voice was her sharp intelligence, her wit, her stoicism in the face of hardship, and the discipline she imposed upon herself to write well within a genre that had traditionally been considered below the level of literary novels. Indeed, she succeeded in changing her chosen genre, and her pride and joy in being able to achieve this came through in her voice during the interview.

I remember another Writers & Company interview (from October) that made a big impression on me. Scottish writer Ali Smith’s voice was enchanting, not only because of her accent but because of the childlike, breathless joy that infused everything she said. She was talking about art, and how it is like a bridge between Earth and Heaven and between people. Much of what she said was mystical, obscure; it was a glimpse into an enchanted world.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand everything she said. What I caught was her excitement and gratefulness for the life she has had. She was very poor when she started as a writer but she said it didn’t matter. She is happy. She is doing what her talent has led her to do.