I was asked to be the guest speaker at the Bristol Short Story Award prize giving event. This was fairly thrilling for me: I love meeting other writers. I love being with my people. My clan. There is something rather wonderful about the shorthands one can use, the friends of friends one meets, the daftness of writers. We’re all, bar none, like the art teacher you admired when you were fourteen. There’s a devil-may-care nonchalance to our demeanour, a glamour the perceiver tends to put on to us, and a strangely wavering sense of humour, which glints with knowledge and disappointment. We’re very much like famous literary figures: Atticus Finches, all of us, or Dorothea Brookeses. We have that hands-in-the-pockets-shrug, that creased-shirt-happy-whistle, that stare-into-the-back-of-you-because-we-can-guess-your-story. It must be the same for other professions when they meet – an instant recognition. But with writers, we’re all immediately equal. There is no one more successful or better at our jobs. People who don’t write perhaps make that distinction. We don’t. We just see each other on different pathways in the same forest.
So, writing a speech for a crowd of my people was easy, but also very difficult. I tend to self-sabotage. I make self deprecating jokes which are almost suicidal. No, I used to do this. Then, I grew some self respect. (How? I taught myself to run, and each step I run, I say – look at you, you’re great! – though I don’t believe myself most of the time, but then I look to my dog’s face and she confirms that my words may be true). So, I couldn’t write a funny-at-my-expense speech. Instead, I wrote the following. I’m putting it here because people liked it. I knew it was OK because the 15 year old came with me, and when I finished, she did the face the dog does at the end of the run.
The short story is uniquely blessed and problematic. It is an artwork: a painting. It is often the final secret: the end of a story or a life and the beginning of another. Flannery O’Connor said – it is the third barn burned, that she writes about. The first and second attempts are the textured surface on which she paints the final, third attempt, when the barn burns down.
The short story condenses a life – it is easier, I think, to write a novel, when you have the time and space to explain everything. For the short piece, we writers need to know everything of that life, but we get to choose only one or two or three, scenes.
When I was published – the question I was asked more frequently than any other was – are your stories autobiographical? I’d say – no, of course not! But of course, all of us write autobiographically. The cute thing a child said or the dying words of a parent: seem to enter the story, and be swallowed into a narrative that becomes something beyond us, greater than us. That space between us and our audience, is where its truth is muddled and sanded down and created again.
This creating of the artwork saves us. It can heal, soothe, calm us.
I wrote a story called ‘Research’ for my first collection . I was unsure what research meant in the context of creative writing. I asked my tutor Stevie Davies what she thought. She gave me possibly the most useful writing tip: the research is in the writing. As we work, as we write, we discover what we are trying to write, and we discover our identities as writers. And our identities as people. Our perspective changes. We research our lives themselves. We unpack them and shake out the moth eaten memories and smooth them down and refold them neatly. As I get older, I understand that the easy assumptions I made about life when I was younger: the classifications and judgments mean nothing – there is nothing that can be taken for granted – there is only the life that takes place in front of us and us witnessing it and trying to make sense of it.
In the story I wrote, a child is taken on holiday to Sri Lanka, by her father. Her parents divorce soon after and she loses contact with her father, so the memories are precious. There is a moment – a drive late at night through island streets encroached upon by the jungle, where the father shouts stop to the driver, and the little girl and her father jump out of the car and chase fireflies on the side of the road.
I was six when my father took me to Sri Lanka for his mother’s funeral. I remember that my father shouted stop, with a fierceness, at the driver. I remember jumping from the car and chasing fireflies, and my father’s face laughing. But it didn’t happen. I wanted it to be true. I wrote the story the year he died – and now, it is true. The picture is there. Even if I tell you it isn’t true and my stories are not autobiographical, they are true.
Writers give ourselves an advantage – by trying to understand the secrets or the madnesses – by trying to articulate the colour or the movement, the beauty or the death – we somehow give ourselves the chance to rise above, look down and see – really see – truth. Or a near guess at it.
The art of it, the art of what we do is – this. We can provide – we can create – pictures or musical notes or tears or fireflies that are truth. They are our way of navigating the seas of our worlds, and I urge you on, I commend your bravery, I bow to your valour in entering competitions, and indeed, winning them.
It is a good way to be alive and to stay alive.