What’s in a Short Story?

This year I’ve written quite a few short stories. I’ve become more casual about it actually. Last year when I set about writing short stories they were mostly already well planned out, plotted out with some key characterisations and plot lines. I made sure these short stories were complex and concocted to suit the mood, exactly how I wanted it. I am perfectionistic when I want to be. But only when I want to be; it can be controlled. Is that still considered perfectionist? Some would argue, no.

But that argument is for a different occasion. My year of short story writing has been different from what it used to be. Upon submitting my sample short story piece for an overseas writing program application in January, I got the email that I was rejected. I felt empty at first, because after all, this was something that I took quite some effort getting underway, and had been excitedly discussing with the people around me. This was still early into the semester, when everything seemed possible. At least that was how I saw it until the rejection came along.

I realised that my writing was too planned out, as if it mattered that someone who read it had to be happy with the ending. I was very careful in the way things turned out, tried extremely hard to be politically correct, and in many ways still am rather politically correct in the way I write. I haven’t had any staunch arguments come my way yet over what I wrote. Perhaps it’s because my style of writing tends to ask more questions than give any answers or assertions. Try arguing against someone asking questions and you’ll find this excessively difficult. It’s like watering a plastic rose. It isn’t productive. I was the guy you read not to get angry or disgusted with or find immense joy and recognition in. Instead, I was the guy you sought neutrality from, a middle ground where certain thoughts could find some rest. (I’m being vague, but it’s part of the plan.)

So going down the line of asking questions and discussing possibilities rather than certainties, I took it upon myself to focus on how to write a better short story. I felt like the short story would be the best way to discuss matters closer to my heart without the burden of being overly explicit. I also had to juggle my disappointment of not making it for the writing program into account, whereas people who were much younger than me made it without a hitch. It’s easy to feel that you’re not good enough at such junctures. But I kept my head up and replied to the selection committee that I would experiment with various styles and be back next year with a stronger application. I thanked them for the rejection and said that it would be a vast impetus to improve. Look at me, so politically correct.

And so a new wave of short stories arrived at my metaphorical shores; and were written once every other week, published in an embarrassingly short time with minimal edits. Not exactly professional, but I had to get things going over such a busy semester. The process went something like this.

I learnt that a short story need not be complex at all. Well, it may end up complex, but it would almost always depend on a simple beginning. A singular beginning. The story needs an entry point. But the funny thing is, your entry point need not be at the start of your story.

I like to say that en entry point may not be a particular scene or action. It could be a certain emotion, a certain character or personality; even the lyrics of a song that just floated around the corner. These elements intertwine with such complexity that it isn’t something you can put solely at the start. It’s some intangible matter that has to find its way into the story. Whether this will be at the front will be up for you to decide. For example, I like to use setting as the inspiration for my short stories. It could easily be my favourite entry point, and one that sticks around for most of the story. I would even argue that setting brings about its own intangibility in the way it carries certain memories and meanings that you cannot separate from its physicality. Your choice of setting will be a burden you have to carry through the rest of your story. It isn’t as simple as finding a party venue. Whether it’s a laundry room or unopened bar, I’d let the context settle in my mind from anywhere between ten minutes to a few days, perhaps take a few pictures of it and just let ideas simmer. It helps that you know where your story occurs, and more importantly, come to terms with its significance.

That being said, it’s important to know some significance, but it is ill-advised to start a story with everything figured out. That was the number one flaw in the way I wrote, the tendency for me to keep things prim and proper because I had it all planned out. Nowadays, I start off my stories without a solid plot to follow. Instead I chase the idea, the intangible psychophysical stuff that hangs over the story. Most of the time it’s me answering the question: why did I choose this setting, of all places? In other instances it may be a question of how to draw out a certain emotion (for example, a man feeling suicidal) at a certain point in the story, or perhaps how to arrive at a specific scene (i.e. a man unceremoniously slitting his wrists). You build your stories to arrive somewhere. Think of the entry way as an airport while the itinerary of your trip being the spontaneous madness of starting without a solid plan. The airport(s) will hold your trip together, the boundless possibilities in between allow you to go crazy.

So the whole point here is, to let your ideas create a story, instead of letting your story create the ideas. Do the latter, and you will end up constructing rather than creating. You want to create rather than construct, because to construct gives off the notion of planned rigidity, and no short story can entrance a reader that way. To create offers infinite possibilities, a ludicrous journey that you decide to take by virtue of your foolhardiness. It keeps the readers wondering how the story would go, and the best part is, it keeps you wondering as well.

Ideas and entry points merely set the backbone for your story. When you think about it, the action/emotion/setting may not even be significant, but the implication of it must be. Why something is significant is difficult to teach. In fact, it has to be discovered as you write, and not many people have the patience to get to a point where things get significant. It sort of fizzles out at the start. This has happened on many occasions, and would explain why my draft section is slowly filling up. From the start to the spark of realisation, it’s really up to you to think up all these strange scenarios and put your creative mind into overdrive, and allow yourself to immerse in  different possibilities. Even the ones you don’t like. That’s not easy as well, to immerse yourself in unwelcome possibilities.

I help myself by staring into space a lot, or by observing people as they go about their lives. Watching empty chairs in indoor spaces has a way of inviting infinite possibilities, the chance of boundless interaction or perhaps just the opportunity to soak in emptiness. And that’s just of a room empty chairs, which could be paralleled to a forest of uncultivated palms which could be as compelling as the dashboard of a car on a lonely Friday night. It can make sense, if you allow it to. Don’t be afraid to be dramatic about these things. Don’t shy away from going too far when people tell you that your thoughts are unproductive or useless. Or that you should “stay with us”. Imagine worlds within words and words within these worlds and be unapologetic about what goes on in your head.

I think that would be my biggest advice, to others and even to myself. To just hold you own in your path to being creative. Be spontaneous and enjoy the pain of failure. And even when things look bleak, you need to have the courage to try again. Writing short stories has been a reminder of all of these things.

Maybe next year will see me with a stronger application and perhaps then I may get into this illusive writing program. Or maybe it won’t. Who knows? I’m certainly not one to accurately judge my progress. I just sit down now and then and write as I feel like, keeping myself busy with wild, erratic thoughts and the silliest of possibilities. I’m not the best person to plot this chart of growth. All I can hope for is that in the short story lies a world I can continue to play around, travel through and discover, and at the darkest hour of a quiet 2 am, find some space to truly be free.

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