Small Things Like These

In 2013, I had the happy privilege of a week at The Banff Centre in a short story course with Alexander MacLeod, whose collection Light Lifting had been shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize. I applied for the class specifically because he was the instructor and was thrilled to be accepted.

Besides our sessions as a group of eight, we met with MacLeod individually. I recall asking him in my turn about how to carry what I might call the “burden” of religion in my stories, since they are often set in the Mennonite history and environment I know best. This felt complicated, and I worried, in addition, that they would be too alien to publishers perhaps, the Church being so pervasive, demanding to be critiqued or defended but most of all explained. The gist of the answer, in terms of what he may have said and what I’ve figured out myself, was that you simply let the story swim in its own ocean. Let it unfold, that is, with whatever the story requires, which probably isn’t a history lesson on Menno Simons or doctrines or the schism that accounts for the group to which the protagonist belongs or may be fleeing.

contentHe also gave me a good piece of advice, and that was to read Irish writers, for if there’s a place that’s religion-soaked, it’s theirs. So I’ve watched for them since, and read quite a few. Which brings me to Claire Keegan, whom he praised and whose work I’ve followed, and her newest book, Small Things Like These. It’s a short book, only 114 pages, but perfectly realized in my opinion, just oh so good! I felt I’d held my breath to the end, and then, exhaling, I began again from the beginning. I think that the main character, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, a tender man, both brave and probably foolish, will stay with me a long time. The story is about who he is and about something he discovers when delivering coal to the local convent, which runs one of those Magdalen laundries for so-called “fallen women,” such as featured in the movie Philomena. This isn’t much of a review, I know, but it’s a definite recommendation. I also recommend Eleanor Wachtel’s conversation with Keegan at Writers and Company, where they talk about the writing of short stories (their difference from novels), and about this book and some of Keegan’s earlier work.

Incidentally, I’ve begun Alexander MacLeod’s newest collection, Animal People. Like his father Alistair, he’s not a prolific writer, but he’s worth waiting for.

Also incidentally, a story of mine, Her Own Self, has just been posted at the online Journal of Mennonite Writing. It’s longish, though not as longish as Keegan’s, and I would be honoured if you put your feet up with a cuppa something at your side and give it a read!

Short stories, take a bow

May is short story month. I have no idea who decides matters like this, but why not? Short stories, please take a bow, and let me say a few things in your favor. — One often hears that people prefer reading novels, that short story collections don’t sell, that publishers therefore hesitate to take the risk. All this may be true. In a novel, we enter for the long, deep involvement and we feel the reward of hours invested. Each story in a collection, on the other hand, takes new effort to discover what’s going on and who’s in it. Perhaps it feels like a fragment rather than a whole, perhaps it feels unresolved. Still, a good short story can carry weight out of proportion to its size. Continue reading

Short stories: to read, and to write

The latest issue of the Center for Mennonite Writing’s online journal is up: this one devoted to “new fiction.” Editor Ervin Beck says the issue is intended “to encourage the writing of fiction in the Mennonite community.” Periodicals favour poetry, he notes. “Fiction requires more space from the publisher and more patience and commitment from the readers.”

For your patience and commitment then, seven new stories or novel excerpts, including the story “Chopsticks” by yours truly, in which the first person narrator weaves a tale of piano lessons, a train ride, her brother, and her father.

One of the goals I set myself several years ago was to put together a collection of short stories, containing some previously published stories as well as new work. I have eight published pieces from which I might draw, and about half that many others more or less completed or in progress. The publication of such a collection is by no means a given, of course; it may take as many years to find a publisher, especially in these uncertain times, as to write the stories themselves!

But in the meanwhile, I need to get back on track with the project itself. I lost momentum when I returned to the MB Herald last year as interim editor, and have had trouble getting it back, though my desire to continue remains strong. There’s just something about this kind of writing — perhaps because it’s a relatively new genre for me — that provokes all manner of self-doubt, fear, and procrastination. Each time I sit down to it, it’s like jumping into water over my head and knowing I still can’t swim. What’s the right technique again, for legs and arms, for breathing? Help!

Well, enough confession. Flannery O’Connor said, “The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.” So I’ve gone and declared myself here, and I’ve got the prod of my writers’ group’s monthly meeting on Monday, for which I must have something ready to read. The file of the story-in-progress is open. I’m jumping in. Again.