It was the start of a universe... and we all got to be God. Or there was no God, depending on how you look at it.
The London Short Story Festival filled Waterstones Piccadilly with hundreds of tiny moments, explosions in the dark... for that is what a short story is, and that is what ideas are too. Each tiny moment shone bright, at times so bright the white light went to the back of my brain. It happened when I read my own work from Best British Short Stories at the launch event on Friday. And it kept on happening, over and over again, as authors far greater than I read from their work too, were interviewed, gave classes...
Constellations formed, solar systems established new orbits, fragments flew about, and in the whirl of running from one floor to another to catch each session, there was a sense of being part of something big. Enormous, in fact. Infinite even, because beyond the walls of Waterstones, ideas are infinite and the exchange of ideas stretches out in a way that is at once mindblowing and comforting. Being a writer at a festival is all about opening yourself up to what is out there, seeing that it is enormous, and being unafraid.
After an act of creation, or a Big Bang, depending on how you look at it, comes a certain settling into order. This can take some time.
I watched as people hurtled around, creating a tremendous energy that ran from the basement to airy boardrooms on the sixth floor. I sat in audiences that absorbed panel discussions, readings, workshops and interviews and my mind turned to what would come later.
The feverish taking of notes, the capturing the ‘matter’ for ourselves, the taking it in, the turning it all over... it can be a while before it settles, before it all makes sense.
I filled two notebooks as I listened to Adam Marek, Dan Powell, Robert Shearman, Claire Keegan, Colin Barrett, Jacob Ross, Roshi Fernando, Mary Costello, Helen Simpson, Stuart Evers, Siân Melangell Dafydd, Chris Power, Alison Moore, AL Kennedy, MJ Hyland, and more, talk about the thing they love most, the thing we all love most. Writing.
And what has started to settle, the day after returning home from quite simply the best weekend ever, is this:
- All writers are beginners. We begin again and again.
- Exercise the muscle of your mind. Use the equipment. As AL Kennedy said: “It’s the only equipment we have.”
- Work hard at your writing. Craft it. Kennedy added: “You can write anything. The rewriting is what fires it.”
- Be careful not to over think. Get stuck in... “I’m not interested in analysing people. I’m interested in being them.” Claire Keegan “Get as close to the skin of your character as you can.” Colin Barrett
- See what emerges in the early stages, and allow it to form, to gather its own momentum before you pull it to pieces: “The first draft is the back brain in action, the unconscious. The editing process involves the front brain, the conscious plotting side. But the front brain can be the ‘idiot brain’ because it over worries, whereas the unconscious brain doesn’t worry about anything.” Adam Marek
- Listen to the voices in your head. Listen hard, then follow them wherever they go:“I have to have character first. If they’ve emerged and I have their voice, that’s what determines the emotion, the trackability of it.” Mary Costello
- Think about voice, point of view, first person, second person, third person... consider them all carefully, and how employing each will achieve different things: “First person is very seductive, it’s a good way to get into a character’s voice, particularly if it’s idiomatic or vernacular.” Colin Barrett
- Write from the heart: “It’s the truth of your emotion that makes your story sing.” Roshi Fernando. “Bypass the logical part of the brain in your reader and go for the senses, for feeling.” Colin Barrett
- Consider the connection with your reader, their experience, their investment in your work: “A good book stokes up a private life inside a reader, it brings it alive.” Claire Keegan
- Be in touch with your obsessions, your desires, and get in touch with the desires of your characters: “To be human means to have every human desire contained in you, and only circumstance brings it to the surface. None of us knows what we are capable of... Learn the desire of the central character and your eye will follow it. The eye falls on desire. You want to touch it.” Claire Keegan
- Be disciplined: “With a short story, you have to keep it in the air. It has to be tightly wound, exacting. It has to arrest.” Mary Costello
- Be challenging: “One of the things I try to do is challenge our moral compass.” Jacob Ross
- Be universal: “The topography of the human heart is the same everywhere, regardless of culture and place.” Jacob Ross
And more than anything, be alive. Live your life. And enjoy the fact that you can communicate what it is to be alive, by writing. As Colin Barrett said, with reference to Joyce (and other big, dead writers): “The one advantage I have is I’m alive, and he’s not.”
We’ll all be dead some day. Make it count. Grab that matter. Form it. Make it into something good. Write that story.