On the Craft of the Short Story

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‘It took me more than a decade of trying to write short stories before any of them worked. It was long and gruelling’
(from The Irish Times)


I retype everything. It’s my most consistent, most abiding editorial practice – and it has good literary provenance; I got the idea from Joan Didion, who, in turn, got it from Ernest Hemingway.

I edit as I’m writing, of course, within drafts, and my last few passes over a story take the form of obsessive reading, attuned to the difference removing a comma might make. But the real magic happens with retyping. For each new draft, I’ll print out what I’ve written so far and type it all back into a fresh blank Word document. It’s essential to me because, on screen, in an elegant font, even first draft dross can look deceptively polished.

Retyping forces you to consider, defend, allow, every word, every sentence anew – especially those passages that you sort of know are no good, but sort of have to be there … they stick in your craw. Retyping is a good way of tightening things. It also allows you to experience the story in a useful way – it helps to blend, to harmonise, the various states and moods in which a story might have been drafted; the day you wrote steadily (or wildly) for several hours, the passage you tapped out with one thumb on your phone in the playground, wielding schoolbags and snacks, the sentences that came to you in a bright sharp burst in bed at midnight …

But most of all, retyping allows the story to stay provisional, alive, right up to the final moment. The better you know your characters, their world, the more likely they are to say or do surprising things – things you couldn’t have predicted half a dozen drafts ago. An overworked story gets leaden; ossifies. It’s very hard to lever open fresh space between the bars of text on a screen. As I’m retyping, I’m allowing room for new things to happen, updrafts I can catch, impulses I can follow – and if they don’t yield anything useful, I can just delete them and go back to the sheaf of printed pages on my left. And the corollary of that: sometimes a paragraph, a sentence, is there right until the penultimate draft, when you suddenly realise that it was scaffolding, and has played its part, and the story doesn’t need it any more.

All this is crucial to the way I see the short story at a more metaphysical level – as not the product of thought, but its process. I learned this from Chekhov – the great speeches of his plays, done badly, like carpets unrolled with a flourish to be admired, are dead on stage. But when an actor speaks them as the attempt to articulate something in the moment – they’re bewitching. Alice Munro often says something similar, telling Brick magazine in 1991: “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening, or happening over and over again. I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”

It took me more than a decade of trying to write short stories before any of them worked. It was a long and gruelling and often despairing apprenticeship. I’d have a good idea, a decent plot, and the resultant story would occasionally flicker, but it would be lifeless on the page – as Sylvia Plath says of her failed poems in the chilling poem Stillborn: “They smile and smile and smile at me. / And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.” I think now it’s because I was presenting something as a fait accompli, as an anecdote, something packaged-up, already over. I was writing stories, at the time, about Belfast girlhood, and when I started concentrating not on plot, not on what “happened”, but on atmosphere, when I started to see the stories as spells – words and rhythms in a precise order for the purpose of conjuring something up – they started to live.

I don’t yet know, entirely, what my collection Openings is about. When you’re writing a collection, it doesn’t do to look too closely – you need to keep something of it at bay, or you’ll become too self-conscious, or too schematic. Part of the beauty of a collection is the way you can explore the same thing from different angles, so that the stories can overlap, contradict, amplify each other. I could feel what I was trying to do as I was writing, and that was all that mattered. There were some stories written over the same period – about five years – that just didn’t fit, occasionally in subject matter, or style, but most importantly in tone, in feel.

Now that it’s finished, and about to be public, now that I have distance from it, a new work begins, that of trying to articulate and explain what it’s about. People will soon tell me. Readers will see things that seem so obvious, it will be a shock I wasn’t consciously aware of them – or needed not to be, to write the stories well. There’s always a tension, too, between continuity and variance. Reviewers often like to précis the themes and subject matter a writer returns to, delineate their territory and techniques, confirm the ways in which a writer tells the same stories. From the inside, it’s infinitely more interesting to think of how a book is written in opposition to its predecessors – of the ways you seek to do something different, something new.

But what I do know is this. Openings is part of the same, ongoing psychic project that Multitudes came from, and Intimacies – but where the stories of Multitudes were tightly focused on Belfast girlhood, and Intimacies on motherhood, with those of Openings I found I had more range. There are stories set in Marrakesh, in Berlin, during the London Blitz, in the world of dark matter particle physicists, and, in the title story, a complicated solace of Islam. Years of devotion to this tricksiest, most demanding of forms has given me more technical range, too – the stories are more complex, longer.

Edna O’Brien says of Chekhov that his mysterious genius is that he “makes dramatic something that is desultory”. Some of my favourite stories are those in which nothing and everything happens – stories that seem to operate on this material and human plane, and yet have another, palpable spiritual dimension. Openings takes its epigraph from Chekhov – from one of my favourite speeches by Masha in Three Sisters, where she says (in this translation, by Elizaveta Fen) that “I think a human being has got to have some faith, or at least he’s got to seek faith. Otherwise his life will be empty, empty … How can you live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars shine in the sky! … You must either know why you live, or else … nothing matters … everything’s just wild grass …”

I think the stories in Openings are about the ways that our lives can ossify, can shut down, close in on themselves, under the weight of the roles we play, the expectations we have of others, and they of us – and about the ways they can open up. The ways in which, until the last minute, we can rewrite the script. The ways in which, to be fully in the world, we must stay provisional, alive, uncertain, open to wonder, to possibility, to change. The ways in which no life is “ordinary”, ever, and that even in the midst of the most mundane and repetitive and, yes, desultory of circumstances, the numinous is possible. To remain attentive to that possibility is its own sort of faith, just as attention is a form of prayer.

A poem by Frank O’Hara comes to mind, which would also have made for a beautiful epigraph: “I want my feet to be bare,” he writes in My Heart, “I want my face to be shaven, and my heart – / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” I think of Emily Dickinson, too, and her poem I dwell in possibility, which ends: “The spreading wide of narrow Hands / To gather Paradise –”

All of the ways that we can, even momentarily, slip the bounds of time, and the grooves of our quotidian lives – I want my life, like my stories, to be as open as possible, and right till the last possible moment, open to it all. I hope these stories feel that way, too.