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Writing Stories

Posted on 08/01/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

I started writing short stories because, like most people starting to write, I thought they were doable. Completing a novel seemed impossible simply because of the time it would take. I was both right and wrong. Novels usually do take longer to write. But writing a short story can be as difficult, and as exciting, as writing a novel. Both require an equally large dose of imaginative energy. A short story needs it in a more concentrated form: espresso-style, while a novel perhaps needs to disperse the dose in a bigger cup.
The short story has had a wide range of illustrious and influential practitioners: Chekhov, Carver, Babel, Borges, Manto, Mansfield, Narayan and many more. Festivals, anthologies, awards and the Internet help to celebrate it, and now the recent Nobel Prize given to Alice Munro may well draw in a greater readership for short stories than ever before. The short story, if done well, is as good as any writing can hope to be.
I’ve been thinking about the form mainly because my new book Noontide Toll is a return to stories for me, yet these are very different from the ones in my first collection, Monkfish Moon. The new ones are all narrated by Vasantha, a van driver who travels around post-war Sri Lanka listening to the stories of a vanishing past and an uncertain future. The book has a beginning, a middle and an end and makes me wonder if it could be read as a novel. Is a short story then simply a story that is short? But Richard Ford, who is always illuminating, compiled a wonderful anthology of very long short stories.
Perhaps the form is not paramount. Good fiction, long or short, goes beyond the frame and becomes the thing that matters most. The writer perhaps has to invent the tradition he or she needs, as Eliot would say, but then try to break the mold and make something new.
Romesh Gunesekera