I've got something to give you. Something I remember getting, for the first and second times and every time since. A gift that goes on giving.
The first time was in 2007. It was All Over, the debut short story collection by American writer Roy Kesey, that gave me the first gift. I'd not long been editor of The Short Review, an online journal I founded to make a small dent in the problem of the lack of reviews of short story collections. I thought the journal would just be me and a few friends, I had no plans for world domination (apart from the fact that I always have a secret plan for short story world domination, of course). But TSR has taken me personally to places I never imagined between the pages of books I would never have read, so it is an essential aspect of this story.
I don't know how I heard about All Over, non-profit American indie publisher Dzanc Books. I read it. I loved it. I loved what it made me do as a reader. What was it that Roy Kesey did here that was so new, so eye-opening? He made the reader work. Work hard. His stories are fabulously minimalist, and often surreal. They confused me, deliciously. I had to simultaneously read and try and figure out what was going on. And I loved doing it. It made me feel as if I wasn't simply watching the story unfold, I was actually part of the story, complicit in the act of creation. This was less-is-more at its very best.
The next step, after writing a glowing review, was the following thought: Gosh, could I make a reader do this? Could I take the risk of doing to a reader what Roy Kesey did to me?
The story I wrote immediately after reading All Over was a very short story called Vegetable, Mineral. For the first time, my characters had no names, they were just “you” and “I”. For the first time, the story wasn't set anywhere specific. For the first time, it was mostly dialogue and you didn't always know who was speaking. It was pretty odd, and I loved it. Then it won a flash fiction contest and was a finalist in another. So, was I “allowed” to try this? It seems I was not only allowed but being actively encouraged. Roy Kesey's stories gave me permission, I took that risk, and I've never looked back.
The second permission-giving experience also came through The Short Review, and also from a wonderful debut short story collection, The End of the World, by Australian writer Paddy O'Reilly, published by University of Queensland Press. I was struggling with a short short story. I liked my premise – boy sits under a tree in his garden and refuses to get up, his mother is frantic – but it just wasn't working. I'd been at it for a long time. Then I read one of the stories in Paddy's collection, a story divided into sections, each with its own subheading. Hers has a completely different plot, but suddenly something clicked. It was nothing to do with content. It was about structure. One of my writing teachers once said that when you are having problems, sometimes structure can ride in like a knight on a white horse. It's true. When I rewrote my story in sections, with subheadings, everything fell into place. Everything. It has since been published and is included in my recent collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano.
So, the gift is permission. The permission to take a risk, to do something you might not otherwise have done. Once I became aware of the mechanism, how I can read and get permission from others' work, it now happens again and again. It happens each time I find a new short story that I love, which, given that I read upwards of 1000 a year, is fairly often. Each great story cracks opens a small window, lets fresh air into my own writing.
Taking Risks In Your Own Writing
This ties directly in to Writers & Artists, for whom I recently judged a short story competition, because taking risks is one of the qualities I prize in a writer, even if the risk doesn't quite pay off. As I said in my speech, I prefer to be slightly confused by a brave writer than bored by a perfectly-crafted, neatly finished short story. The story I chose as the winner was written in sections, with subheadings, and also kept the reader guessing, working, giving away just enough, not too much. I loved it from the first odd, beautifully-written sentence.
But taking a risk doesn't mean necessarily embracing minimalism, the experimental or different structure. The two finalists' stories also took risks in that they looked anew at a plot that might have been clichéd, but they made it their own. One story took a risk on humour which, if not done as deftly as here, could have derailed the entire piece. The other story took a risk by not making the main character entirely sympathetic, keeping us guessing.
Why should writers take risks? Well, I would argue that it's not just for the benefit of a reader or a competition judge. What are we doing this for, this writing thing? For me, it's about trying to make sense of the world in some way, and uncertainty is an inherent quality of existence. If quantum physics has taught us anything it's the limits of our knowledge: we can't see everything, measure everything, we can't pinpoint cause and effect. Subatomic particles seem to pop in and out of existence; people behave in strange ways that have no apparent causes. It's complicated. The nice, neat stories where everything is explained and it all ties up at the end might be all very well, but how do they resonate with someone who lives in this world, this uncertain, complicated world?
I would argue that if you really want to touch a reader, to reach into their guts, it's a messy business. You have to get your hands dirty. For me, the first person I want to affect is myself. That's why I write. And grappling with chaos, uncertainty, ambiguity, letting go of that need for complete resolution, touches me, moves me, widens my perspective. It helps me understand that life isn't about fixing things but about catching whatever is flung at you while staying upright. That, for me, is what makes a story truly great.
There are those – writing teachers, books on writing – that are anti-permission. They are full of shoulds, musts, rules. I know this because I have had those teachers, read those books. I disagree. If I had followed this line of thought, my first published story, The White Road, which became the title story of my first collection, would have been consigned to the bin.
So, I would like to be the first to give you a little permission. Go on, try it. Take that risk, embrace messiness, grapple with uncertainty. Jump.