Writing ‘Brave Girl’ / Kathleen MacMahon

It’s a funny thing how different a short story is to a novel.

You’d thing they’d be much the same to write, if not to read. The writer, after all, would set to work with the same basic tools, using the same skills. You’d be facing the same challenges, only on a different scale, or so you might think. In fact, I have found the process of writing a short story to be the exact opposite of writing a novel. Each one is what the other is not.

The idea for a novel arrives with its own energy. Maybe it HAS to generate its own energy, if it’s to power itself to completion. Like a skier who has to build up speed on the downhill to make it to the other side of a valley, the novel has to come in with a whoosh if it’s going to make the distance. But the short story travels cross country and without dramatics, powered entirely by me. There is no external momentum to drive it, only the momentum I create by my own desire to write it.

The novel attaches itself to a big idea, or a confluence of ideas. In my case that could be the election of Obama, and the global economic crisis and sea swimming and Bruce Springsteen. All those things came together in my mind in the form of a novel, before ever the novel was written. The process of putting it into words was an exercise in exposing as accurately as possible the thing that existed at that point only in my mind: a story of melancholy and hope, of Ireland and America and living and dying, all seeped in the colour blue. I remember a friend once telling me that maths and sculpture are essentially the same thing, because they both involve chipping away at the exterior of something to reveal what’s inside. It seems to me that novel writing happens in the same way: the job of the novelist, like that of the sculptor, is to expose as accurately as possible the thing that exists only in their mind.

The process of writing short stories couldn’t be more different. My stories come to me in fragments, with no big idea to float them. A few sentences, sometimes only a few words scribbled down on a scrap of paper and forgotten again for months on end. One story started with a little girl I saw wearing a white trouser suit amid all the other girls wearing white dresses on their First Holy Communion day. “Brave Girl,” I heard someone say, in a voice that cut through the murmurs in the church. That voice stayed with me, waiting for a story to attach itself to. When later I came across a news report about a local girl who had been abused by her father, she became the brave girl in my story. I remembered an incident with plasticine that was recounted to me by my mother-in-law, and it too seemed to belong there, along with a raft of surprisingly visceral memories of my own primary schooldays. These elements came together in a way that was piecemeal and only gradually illuminating. Whereas I generally know the last sentence of a novel before I start it, the short story has to be written before I figure out how and where it finishes.

The novel demands to be completed. Even when it ties itself in knots or gets bogged down in the middle – oh God, that boggy middle – it must be brought to a conclusion. I have found myself, demented, attacking a printed manuscript with a pair of scissors and re-assembling it like a jigsaw on the floor in the hope that it will fall into place. There’s always a bit that won’t fit, but at least with a jigsaw you can take a hammer to it. The short story, on the other hand, has never (so far!) led me into such nightmare editing territory. There’s no loss of perspective, like there is in novel writing. Writing a novel can be like trying to draw crop circles from the ground. The short story is small enough to be observed from above.

But here’s the contradiction: while the novel can often, even at a hundred thousand words, somehow fail to adequately express itself, the short story, at its best, is much more than the sum of its parts. In fiction – as in music and cooking – there’s a beautiful alchemy to things that are more than the sum of their parts. The meals that are conjured out of store cupboard ingredients, like pasta puttanesca and cheese soufflé. Or ‘Yesterday,’ a song that seems so simple it’s almost silly, while also being perhaps the best song ever written. In the same way I love Kevin Barry’s ‘Fjord of Killary,’ and Annie Proulx’s ‘Tits Up in a Ditch,’ and Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Bella Fleace Gave a Party.’ All of them achieve in a couple of thousand words what the novel would fail to do with a hundred thousand. No less than perfection.

As befits the big beast that it is, the novel has quite the ego, and it demands to be published. It seems daft to go to all the trouble of writing a novel andnothave it published. But there’s more to it than that: for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the novel seems to be made of perishable materials. There’s the sense that it will go stale and start to smell if it’s left hanging around. Once I’ve finished writing a novel – especially after it’s been published – it’s dead to me, and I find it hard to remember why on earth I wanted to write it in the first place. Like an old boyfriend, its attractions are long forgotten, its imperfections unbearable to contemplate. The novel, once despatched, is firmly relegated to the past, but the short stories never are. They are like my own children, and there is no end to the pleasure I take in them. I find myself reading them over again with pride, and in many cases revising them even after they’ve been published. I want them to be better, ever better, even if it means working away at them for eternity.

So, when I found myself weeding in the garden the other day the smell of the wild garlic I was rooting out with my fingertips attached itself to one of the first stories I ever wrote. The story is called ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ and it’s about a priest saying a funeral mass for a gay man. The story was printed in a magazine five years ago, but I took it out again this week and added the wild garlic to it, and the story is the better for it. Now I’m thinking it might make the first chapter of a novel. I’m measuring it up in my mind, passing it from one hand to the other to test the weight of it. So much of this work is tactile; it often feels more like manual labour than mental endeavour.

My husband’s family are all woodworkers, and the way they talk about their craft could equally apply to the craft of writing fiction. I find myself listening, fascinated, as they apply their collective wisdom to an intractable drawer mechanism, wondering why it won’t slide in and out smoothly. I have encountered the same problem with an awkward chapter that won’t fit smoothly into a novel, no matter how hard you try to trim it. The short story, in my experience, does not present the same mechanical problems as the novel, but it does present others. Whereas the novelist must craft a thing of smoothly moving parts out of any number of components, the challenge with the short story is to fashion the thing from the one piece of material. There is in this the possibility of achieving perfection, but the potential for failure is all the greater. If it doesn’t work, there’s no fixing it.

There’s no money in short stories, as anyone in the industry will tell you, but the low value the market places on them is, in some ways, the short story’s lonely gain. Because the novel can, on occasion, command big sums, there is always the temptation for it to prostitute itself. (What’s your name? What do you want it to be?) Such is the pathetic price commanded by short stories that nobody is even asking them to prostitute themselves. They bloom alone and in relative obscurity, unloved except by a few discerning souls.

That’s the beauty of them.

Kathleen MacMahon is a novelist, short story writer and journalist. A former reporter with Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, her first novel, This is How it Ends, was published to great critical acclaim in 2011. It was a Number One Bestseller for five weeks in Ireland and a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in the UK. It was also nominated for two Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, and for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. This Is How It Ends was translated into over twenty languages. Her second novel, The Long, Hot Summer, was published in 2014 and also became a bestseller. Her short stories have been published in Image Magazine and The Stinging Fly. She is the grand-daughter of the short story writer Mary Lavin.  

© Kathleen MacMahon, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.