Committing to fiction means you sign up for a job which keeps you solitary as you live your double-life in your writing space, inventing people, imagining conversations and conflict, making up stories. It’s all lies, yet you cheat on your spouse, your kids, you have more time for your characters than you have for flesh-and-blood friends. ‘If you want to write fiction,’ says author Lawrence Block, ‘the best thing you can do is take two aspirin, lie down in a dark room and wait for the feeling to pass.’
But if you don’t mind spending a lot of time on your own, sometimes staring at a blank screen, or plucking out rusk crumbs from between the keys of the laptop as you wait for the Muse to find you (more likely you’re waiting for the facebook notification bleep), then maybe you’re up for the challenge. Consider yourself warned though, it’s no easy existence.
Author Will Self writes: ‘Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself on team building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment….’
Ah, the delights of being a fiction writer! At least the embarrassing Xmas party will provide material and detail for a great scene.
Author Anne Enright reassures: ‘The first twelve years are the worst.’ (Then the writer moves on to red wine at the party, where decorations fashioned from rejection slips adorn a tree; the writer might be so bold as to invite a sex toy along as company!)
So if you’re brave or brazen enough – or crazy enough – to go for fiction, one way of finding out what stories are in you is to allow your imagination to play with the short form. The short story is, well, short.
The idea of penning a short story doesn’t seem as daunting as committing to a novel, although it ideally requires impeccable technique. There’s tremendous skill in crafting the short story, which offers a kind of magic, a sleight of hand, as the writer keeps the reader enthralled.
Writing short pieces, even short scenes, means you can figure out, more or less, what it is that you want to write before you make a long-term promise to a novel. A novel can take months, years, as you rewrite and edit from draft to draft. Writing short stories is good practice, and can provide a deeply satisfying respite from the doldrums if your novel is stuck in a rut.
And so with the short story no longer an affair too hot to handle, back in demand in fact, solicited and courted and even committed to print, we celebrate – on 21 June which is the shortest day of the year – Short Story Day Africa. Established by writers Rachel Zadok and Tiah Beautement, with the aim of showcasing African stories, Short Story Day Africa is supported globally and sponsored by many lovers of short fiction – including Charles Bukowski, the renowned, but dead (!), American writer and poet.
On the Short Story Day Africa website, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, addressing a 2011 TED conference, reminds us of ‘the danger of the single story’: a distorted, one-dimensional view of Africa that sees the continent only through a prism of war, disease, poverty, starvation and corruption.
Short Story Day Africa then, is a celebration of the diversity of Africa’s voices which embody ‘the scents on our street corners, the gossip from our neighbours, the strains of the music we dance to’. More than our pain, we can write about joy and exuberance.
So if you’re serious about this fiction lark, check out http://shortstorydayafrica.org/ for details of this year’s Short Story Day Africa competition with the theme Feast, Famine and Potluck. The deadline for submissions is 30 June 2013.
As Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker shares in a slim volume on writing, titled WRITE, ‘A deadline… is all you really need. Forget about luck. Don’t fret about talent. Just pay someone larger than you to kick your knees until they fold the wrong way if you don’t hand in 800 words by five o’clock. You’ll be amazed at what comes out.’ It’s about taking a risk and then following through with focus.
The most valuable advice I’ve read recently on writing, which pertains to the novel or the short story (indeed to the writing of any piece), comes from writer Matt Haig. He brashly admonishes on his blog: ‘Don’t be the next Stephen King, or the next Zadie Smith or the next Neil Gaiman or the next Jonathan Safran fucking Foer. Be the next fucking you!’
Be authentic, find your ‘voice’, your African Voice.
On that note, Happy Writing!