Monday 4 July 2022

How I didn’t become a short story writer

First I was a novel writer (aged five).
Then I was a poet.
Then I was a short story writer.
Then I was a poet again.
Then I was a short story writer.
Now I am a poet.

I think I was probably a bad short story writer. 

The first time I was a short story writer I wrote in an experimental style. At that time U.K. publishers did not publish many books of short stories, and certainly not ones by unknown writers. They were definitely not interested in publishing experimental short stories by a young unknown writer who hadn't even been to university. At that time I read a lot of American short story collections which were a huge influence on my work - Jayne Ann Philips, Ellen Gilchrist, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff., Louise Erdrich. I think now that what I wrote back then sits somewhere between flash fiction and prose poetry. It rarely had a narrative arc. It was often just sniffing around the edges of something.

I was a kid from a council estate who left school at sixteen and went to live in a hippy commune. But as a kid I virtually lived in the local library, and while I lived in the commune I continued hitchhiking into town to use the library. 

You could say the library saved me. 
You could say the library made me. 

I wasn't educated back then. I didn't know about literary journals. I didn't know much at all really. I loved to read and I loved to write. I wrote in those small reporter's notebooks with the metal spiral at the top and I typed my work up on an electronic typewriter. When I look at those old short stories now, I think that maybe I was ahead of my time. They might have been ahead of their time but they're still not very good. But there's something about them that stops me throwing them out. Repeated words and phrases, poetic rhythms, the kind of surrealism that still appeals to me in writing.

When I have tried to write short stories in recent years they have felt stilted and unimaginative in comparison to those early works. I have become a slave to plot but somehow the plots are never good ones. Either the stories are boring and unoriginal or they don't make sense. It seems I have given over my original thinking to the poet in me and I don't know how to become a short story writer again.

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