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Small Gems: writing short stories, what is left out?

Kate De Goldi reading from ACB with Honora Lee. Photo: Cath Piltz

Kate De Goldi reading from ACB with Honora Lee.
Photo: Cath Piltz

The short story can be a challenging form, as the writers in the Small Gems session, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Kate De Goldi, Qaisra Shahraz and Abbas El-Zein, agreed. More is omitted and inferred than is included.

But what participating chair Abbas El-Zein wants to know is: do omissions heighten or limit the form?

Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian spoken-word poet of Afro-Caribbean descent, believes that “what is left out, is the beauty of short stories”.

“It stirs-up curiosity, possibilities, raises issues, and introduces a character,” she added.

Abbas El-Zein responded by reciting two of the shortest stories ever written:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The author of this six-word story is unknown.

And Knock by Fredric Brown: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Kate De Goldi, a writer for all ages, referred to these examples as “flash” or “micro” fiction, rather than “short stories”. According to De Goldi, flash fiction is powerful because “everything takes place in two lines.” With careful use of heightened language all possibilities are contained within these two lines.

El-Zein expands on this idea, adding that micro fiction implodes within text, whereas novels explode from text. In this sense, he says, flash fiction is more like poetry.

Beneba Clarke regards the flash fiction as a very difficult form, a real “slash-and-burn process”. For this reason, she can’t understand why flash fiction, in Australia, is regarded as a lesser art form.

Quisra Shahraz, one of Pakistan’s most influential women, said that the flashfiction is a highly regarded form in England. She said there’s a great respect for the form as it aims to get the “maximum out of minimum.”

Benebe Clarke expects her background in poetry has made her shift into the longer form quite complicated, as she has the habit of using extremely intense pithy language and has to add the padding in later.

De Goldi recommends “discontinuous narrative” to avoid having to “pad your work out”, which is – in her experience – the easiest way to write a novel. She holds Alice Munro in high esteem, claiming that Munro’s short stories encompass the entire world and whole lives, keeping them contained within such a constrained form.

A definite highlight of the seminar was when Beneba Clarke recalled handing Tony Abbott a petition signed by Australian writers who objected to his government’s funding cuts to the arts industry. Wrapped in a brown paper bag was the letter folded inside a copy of her book. Beneba Clarke remembers imagining Abbott thinking, “I’ve just been handed an opaque package by a random black lady.”

Following a request for advice on how to finish a piece of work, the panel provided the audience with four very different responses.

De Goldi claims to be a master in the “discipline of displacement”, which involves all housework being done before sitting down to write. She finds having deadlines the best approach to getting work done. She encourages writers to seek out competitions, and “write to word limits, themes, and closing dates.”

Shahraz also entered competition after competition for the first ten years of her writing career, but her chief piece of advice was to “capture the inspiration when it occurs.”

On the other hand, Beneba Clarke has a phobia of the open blank Microsoft Word document, and dwells on ideas for a long time before attempting to write them down at all.

And finally, El-Zine combines dwelling-on and fleshing-out ideas all at once.

Stevi-Lee Alver is a creative writing student at Southern Cross University. 

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