On writing ‘Easter’ / Livi Michael
Livi Michael discusses ‘Easter’, her short story from Issue Thirteen.
At the time when I was asked to write this essay, I was also writing a review of two books about the short story; an academic text, The Short Story in German in the Twenty-First Century, (Camden, 2020) and the selected stories of Anna Seghers, (New York Review Books, 2021). To my shame, I had never heard of Anna Seghers, although, in 1967 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and to my further shame, I had not heard of any of the short story writers featured in the academic text either.
So one thing I can say about the short story is that its writers tend to be less well-known than novelists (although Seghers wrote novels as well). In some countries, (Canada, US) they seem to be taken more seriously, but in the UK at least, there are still relatively few outlets for critical studies or reviews of the short story, so I was pleased to be offered the chance to write about my own practice in The Lonely Crowd.
Or, more accurately, I was delighted when my short story was accepted for publication in The Lonely Crowd, taken aback, (but pleased overall), by the request for an essay about it.
I hope to be able to say something meaningful and illuminating. Or just coherent.
The writers in The Short Story in German in the Twenty-First Century offer many descriptions and definitions of the short story. It is the ‘site of narrative experimentation,’ of ‘ironic questioning of narrative structures’, the ‘liminal genre par excellence’ an ‘effective medium for exploring gaps, ruptures and discontinuities’, which, because of its openness and ‘tendency to the elliptical’ displays more complexity than other forms, etc. Judith Herrmann is quoted as saying about her own short fiction that her intention is to focus on ‘very short moments, in which the complexity of everyday life comes together in a short, precise and poetic picture, lighting up briefly and extinguishing.’
I like that one.
Meanwhile, Heide Kunzelmann claims that short stories explore the ‘tension between the layers of the self’ and ‘the unravelling of subjective certainty’.
I think that in my short story, ‘Easter’, the main character is unravelled to a certain extent. Or rather, she is brought face to face with her own weakness and limitations, in a way that means she can no longer uphold her old sense of self.
I have noticed this trend in a few of my short stories recently, a tendency to point to a different layer of self, operating below the surface. The short story is a better vehicle for this unpicking or unravelling process than the novel because of its compression, which allows for the kind of intensity that generates these moments of awareness, or recognition.
Somebody (possibly Alice Munro) once said that short stories do not necessarily take less time to write than novels. And Sean O’Faolain said ‘Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.’
What was unusual about this short story was that it took me a long time to find the ending. I have written novels that took less time. The first few times I wrote it, the ending did not have quite the same sense of revelation. Perhaps because the theme of it, the underlying truth, was only partially clear to me; the idea that unexpressed love can exist like a trapped nerve, uniquely painful, and that life has its indirect means of making us confront the things we suppress.
In other words, initially, I did not know what I was writing about! Yet something made me want to keep on writing.
Here is another quote, definitely from Alice Munro:
This is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think, soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all. The thing that was your bright treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you can barely remember. This is what happens.
This is what happened. I was disappointed in my story to begin with, because I knew I hadn’t quite got to the heart of what I was trying to say. And unlike this one, short stories sometimes come to me, complete, in a single flash.
Also, according to Edgar Allen Poe,
It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
Poe would not think very highly of my process in this particular case. Although he might give me points for waiting, and going back to it.
Both Joan Didion and Flannery O’Connor said they wrote to discover what they were thinking. Ultimately, I knew ‘Easter’ was finished when I found out what I was thinking, what I had meant to say from the beginning. Which suggests interesting things about the writing mind; that somewhere it already knows what it has to say, and the writer’s job is to allow it to speak.
I’m happy that I found the right ending for this story, and even happier that Jane Fraser has accepted it for The Lonely Crowd. ‘Easter’, begun 2015, completed (and accepted!) 2021.
Livi Michael has published 19 novels for adults, young adults and children, and some of these have won, or been nominated for, awards. Her short stories have been published in: Anglofiles, Confingo, Granta, The Hard Times-Deutsch-Englische Zeitshrift: Metropolitan, The Manchester Review, Writing Women, and The City Life Book of Manchester Short Stories (Penguin). Michael teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, where she is also Programme Leader of the MA in Publishing.
Image: ‘The Worn Path’ by Jo Mazelis.