Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Essentials Of The Short Story: A conversation on craft with Nancy Jo Cullen and Tamas Dobozy

I slipped into my seat just as John Metcalf was being introduced as the host for the noon hour discussion.   I missed a minute or two of the introduction but heard Mr. Metcalfe described as accomplished, witty and irascible.  As the session unfolded, it was apparent that what I did hear summed it up very nicely. Metcalfe is well known in Canadian literature as an educator, editor and writer   He told the audience, tongue in cheek, the short story has been described as “admirable and virtuous but not quite grown up -  like the NDP.”   Malcolm Bradbury, English author and academic, defined the short story as a major form of literary expression.  Metcalf took charge of the conversation and treated those gathered to a conversation delving into the thought process of two accomplished short story authors.


Nancy Jo Cullen, author of Canary  and Tamas Dobozy  author of Siege 13  were asked about landscapes they chose for their short stories.  Cullen writes from an urban landscape.  She said she is “interested in bad decisions” that people make and she likes “the problems of recovery.”  Dobozy said he uses “the intellectual to sequence the plot” and he tries to base the story in emotion.


The authors were asked to describe where their stories come from and how they go about beginning their stories.  The first paragraph is the essential part of the story according to Cullen.  There is a dominant emotion she tries to capture from the onset.  For Dobozy the title or first sentence form the basis from which the rest of the story grows.  He said there is something simultaneous that happens in reading a short story; it happens all at once in a readers mind.


The authors discussed the challenges of writing a short story.  Metcalfe believes endings are the most difficult.  Cullen looks for a “shift at the end” where she wants the characters to live on in the readers mind.  Dobozy has thrown out stories as he couldn’t end them.  He has also ended stories and only then does he realize what the story is about.


As the conversation progressed Metcalf observed how easily all three of them had been referencing others.  He believes all successful short story writers have a personal library in their heads, of other authors, stories and excerpts they draw upon as they go about their craft.


The authors were asked how they know, at the onset, that something will be a short story and not a novella or a novel.  Cullen responded this was not an issue as she constrains herself to the length of a short story.  Dobozy voiced a similar response as he said there is a conscience intention when you sit down.


Each of the authors read an excerpt from their latest book.  Cullen read from the story Valerie’s Bush and Dobozy read from The Atlas of B. Görbe. 


It’s a rare treat and a privilege to hear three accomplished authors speak openly about their thought processes, the inspiration for their stories and the discipline they employ as they go about their craft. During the discussion Dobozy made reference to a saying that in writing beginnings are easy, middles are challenging and endings are impossible.  The noon hour conversation was insightful and interesting at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.