Last week we had our last Short Fiction seminar, and my tutor Jean McNeill gave us this quote from Steven Millhauser:
“smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection.”
This is happymaking. He is talking specifically about fiction, but as a general assertion it is rather lovely.
I am interested in small things, more and more. Actually that’s not quite right: I have always been interested in small things, but nowadays I can see that they are more than worth this interest, I don’t need to be looking for anything grander. In my mind this blog is partly a contemplation of smallness: I wonder whether this comes across ever? It is definitely something I am placing more value on in my work. I like a low word-count and I like a tight focus. I am still struggling to strike a comfortable balance in terms of exposition, and how much information I need to share, but this is a medium I feel very comfortable in at the moment. I’m happy with how my novel is going but a lot of the time writing it feels like groping through a huge dark house: it is nice to confidently enjoy my work every once in a while. The Short Fiction module really spoilt me in terms of its reading list, and also reminded me what different things short stories achieve – I do need to be reminded not to neglect this part of my work.
“The novel is exhaustive by nature; but the world is inexhaustible; therefore the novel, that Faustian striver, can never attain its desire. The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.”
– and this is good too. I remember back when we started the short fiction module I burbled that a good short story was ‘complete in its incompleteness’, and thank goodness Millhauser came along to say it better. I think he is so right. Today I went for a walk with a friend and we talked about something I wrote recently. It’s about 1500 words long and describes one instance of contact between two people: we don’t know how they met or whether they will meet again. My friend said that as it stood, it was just ‘an episode’, and yes it definitely is, but that’s all I wanted it to be. I think there is a lot of scope there for a larger story, but I was surprised at how adamant I was that I was not going to write it. I was absolutely uninterested in the unsaid things: I felt I’d done what I’d wanted to do, and anything extra would just clutter it up. I’m not saying that I have achieved perfection with it, but I believe that it is exactly the size it needs to be, and that – having ‘excluded almost everything’ – the few things within it function exactly as they should.
Also, there seems to be something almost respectful about letting characters be. I think that the heroine of my 1500-word story is a good character, but I don’t know what I’d gain from taking any more than I needed from her. Some characters you know inside-out and you keep them for a long long time, they inhabit you and you inhabit them. You give them lots of space, maybe 100,000 words, to really do them justice. Others – I find, anyway – you pick up like insects in a specimen jar. You hold them up to the light and have a good hard look, and you take note of everything, and in a few minutes you let them go. It’s not that they are worth less, it’s just that some things you don’t need to hang onto.